How can you truly help your reactive dog?
I feel really passionate about this topic. Why? Because I hear so many stories of dog moms and dog families struggling with reactive dog training that just doesn’t work for them.
We have these outdated beliefs in the dog training world that are harming our dogs emotional balance … and ours too! And most certainly, the quality of our life with our dogs is diminished as a result of this limited thinking.
Often, this approach results in dog moms feeling demoralized, guilty, or even feeling like failures…in spite of all of the tremendous amount of time and effort they have put into helping their dog. But I want you to know that it doesn’t have to be this way!
In this article, I’m sharing a different approach to helping reactive dogs, and blending in the story of Ros and her two reactive Vizslas, Phoebe and Myrtle. Ros thought she was doing her best to help them with traditional training, but it was only when she took a more contemporary approach that they could truly live a safe, calm and happy life together.
“Creating a circle of safety and trust is what helps our dogs to accept all the things…not exposure training”
How to help your reactive dog
So, what is this problematic belief? I’m talking about the idea that socializing dogs properly requires repeated exposure to things until the dog accepts them. This is an old, outdated idea, and I believe that exposing your reactive dog to their triggers is the worst way to help them.
But there is another approach. One which is more contemporary and aligned with what we enlightened dog moms know to be true, and one that is based on more contemporary science and understanding about social learning and connection for mammals and other social species.
The core idea is to create a circle of safety and trust, which helps our dogs accept ordinary life experiences as normal — BECAUSE they feel safe and they trust us. This is one of the partnership principles that my body of work wholly encompasses.
To bring some context to this subject, I’m going to share a story with you. This is the story of one of our Brilliant Partners Academy members whose journey with her reactive dogs shows what you can achieve when you create a partnership lifestyle.
Embarking on a new chapter as a dog mom
Ros is an enlightened, devoted, and passionate dog mom who shares her life with Phoebe and Myrtle, two beautiful Vizslas. She’s shared her journey with the Brilliant Partners Academy and hasn’t held back from including the learning moments and her wins along the way. This is her story.
Ros had admired Vizslas from afar for many years and always dreamed of having one of her own. So, when she finally brought home her first Vizsla, Phoebe, she devoted herself completely to her. Ros said:
“I prioritized everything about my life around her. I felt that everything I was doing was what I should be doing to be the most fantastic dog mom.”
Things were going well until Phoebe turned around 14 months old, and she started to become reactive to other dogs. She pulled frantically, lunged, barked – the usual reactive behavior.
Ros’ first approach: the old method
Ros turned to the classic, reward-based trigger conditioning training in an attempt to calm Phoebe and change her response to other dogs. Every time a dog came into view but was still a safe distance away (below trigger threshold), Ros rewarded Phoebe with a treat. However, when a dog appeared unexpectedly, both Ros and Phoebe reacted negatively. [This is a common problem with this method and a complaint that I hear daily from dog moms is “I can’t control what other people and their dogs do, so how can I make this work?”]
Both Ros and Phoebe became stressed, constantly hyper-vigilant, looking out for triggers every moment, and worried about unexpected trigger encounters everywhere they went. They could no longer enjoy their early puppyhood walks together like they used to…
These negative feelings completely disconnect us from our dog, and they also telegraph to our dogs that there is indeed something to be worried about.
This is a story I hear all too often: Your dog behaves unexpectedly, your training fails, and you become stressed, demoralized, and feel helpless!
But this isn’t the end of Ros’ story. She then went on to double her trouble by bringing in a new dog, Myrtle.
Introducing a new partner
Ros then decided to get a well-bred gun dog – a second Vizsla called Myrtle. She expected Myrtle to be a confident dog that would work with her like the awesome partner that she’d always dreamed of. But Myrtle was a nervous and fearful dog who was also reactive. Ros said:
“She was very fearful from the moment she came home. She was afraid of basically everything, so it took her a long time to get used to the family. Anytime I tried to introduce her to any dogs or puppies, she was afraid.”
Life with one reactive dog is not easy – now imagine it with two! Ros continued her training by taking the dogs for walks every day and exposing them to other dogs with the hope that they’d get used to it and calm down. But it didn’t work.
Ros became hyper-aware, adding to her stress and passing that emotion on to her dogs. Things only got worse when Phoebe chased after and bit a jogger, making Ros nervous about having the dogs around other people entirely. She said:
“I would literally hide behind bushes and wait for people to pass. And I’d have to be a long way away in case they might smell us. You know, everything was just very difficult.”
How your emotions affect your dog
There’s some interesting research, where one of the studies found that dogs paid twice as much attention to a toy that the owner displayed happy expressions toward, compared to an object that the owner showed disgust. Of course, the researchers can’t conclude exactly what the dogs were thinking! But isn’t it interesting how the dogs seemed to pick up on the owner’s preference and how it affected their behavior?
This study explains how showing your honest feelings can teach your dog how to behave. For example, if you don’t want your dog to roll in animal poo, you only need to show your genuine feelings to discourage your dog from doing so. “Ick! That is disgusting!” Try it – it works every time for me!
This more contemporary research also explains why dogs follow our lead when we stay calm, present, and model that desired behavior for them to mirror. That’s what social learning does!
However, the caveat is that this modeling only works when your dog actually pays attention to you and trusts you to be their loving leader and a role model that they look up to…and they do that when they know that we will keep them safe … that they can trust us.
The thing is, when we intentionally take our dogs out in to the world with the intention of setting up environments and situations that involve ‘exposing’ them to the very things that make them feel UNSAFE … what does that do for the Circle of Safety and Trust that they rely on us to provide for them?
Ok, back to the story…
Ros’ second approach: embracing trust
Things finally began to change for Ros when she started using my safe, calm and happy protocol. She stopped exposing Phoebe and Myrtle to their triggers and started building a connection to help the dogs trust her leadership.
Ros only walked her dogs when they were already calm, in places where they wouldn’t encounter their triggers, and stopped trying to create ‘safe distance opportunities’ for training them. And crucially because of this new approach, Ros also stopped feeling stressed. Instead, she put her energy into helping her dogs feel safe by concentrating on her love for them.
The partnership foundation that Ros built with her dogs grew over time. Now, she can finally enjoy a walk with her dogs! Ros said:
“The progress we have made is beyond anything I had ever imagined possible, really! We’re all so much more relaxed. We know how to really connect with each other and enjoy each other’s company.
We have clear boundaries, we celebrate when good choices are made, and we no longer chase wildlife joggers or cyclists. And we can walk where other dogs are and remain relaxed and connected with each other on leash and off.”
I’m so pleased with the progress that Ros has made – she’s a partnership rockstar! She’s a pillar of support with the new Brilliant Partners Academy students because she knows how it feels to face life with reactive dogs. But she’s also an excellent example of what can happen when you embrace a partnership lifestyle.
So, if you’re struggling with a reactive dog, I hope this story has given you some hope and inspires you to think about what options you have for creating more trust with your sensitive dog. xo
If you’d like to work with me and learn how to create a partnership lifestyle for you and your dog, you can request an invitation to join us in the Brilliant Partners Academy when the doors open for the next enrollment!
You can listen to everything I talked about in this blog post over on my podcast – Enlightened By Dogs. It’s episode 146, which you can listen to here.