If I had to sum up my mission in one sentence, it would be this: my mission lies in raising awareness about how positive reinforcement can help your reactive dog. This is the number one message I’m always trying spread and stay true to.
But sometimes, life with a reactive dog can get really hard. They’re barking all the time. Everything is scary to them. Your family doesn’t understand you. Positive reinforcement is taking too much time. You find yourself wondering: is it ever going to get better?
The short answer to this question is: YES and NO.
Some things will get better, I promise. My Bailey was so messed up when I adopted her, I sometimes can’t believe how far we’ve come, especially given all of the mistakes I made in the first year of our journey together. It’s almost unbelievable that she’s the most well-trained dog in our household, despite her issues with reactivity.
There are definitely many ways to tackle reactivity with positive reinforcement. You can start by signing up for my free email course (Reactive Dogs: Where to Start) or hiring a really good force-free dog trainer (How to Choose a Good Dog Trainer). You’re going to need a lot of patience and support, but the hard work is so worth it! DO NOT fall prey to people who say that traumatized dogs need prong or e-collars! These collars will only solve YOUR problems, not your dog’s! Click here to read why positive reinforcement is THE ONLY way to truly help your fearful dog!
Now let’s talk about the other part of the answer: NO, some things might never get better.
Your dog might never be excited to meet a new dog, human, child. He might always be afraid of thunderstorms and fireworks. Visitors at the house might always be a problem. There are several reasons for that. First, if your dog is afraid of loud noises, he can be triggered at any time because noises are impossible to predict. Second, if your dog is afraid of other dogs, you can run into off-leash dogs at any time. Most of them are unpredictable and have poor training - they run up to you and invade your dog’s personal space. Third, if the problem lies in people and children, it's usually hard to explain our dog's needs to them. They often don’t respect the boundaries we set and instead of listening to us, they start preaching. Not to mention, children are very loud, fast and unpredictable.
Do you see my point? You cannot control your dog’s environment all the time, so some fears will always stay present.
My advice is to change your mindset.
When I started working with Bailey, I set a goal: I want her to stop barking at other dogs. But looking back, this goal wasn’t particularly realistic. I wasn’t aware of how deep her problems were and that they go way beyond dogs. The core of her issues is the lack of her general feeling of safety. Once I changed my mindset, things improved drastically. I set new goals:
I want to create more safe spaces for Bailey.
I want her to be able to observe a dog from a safe distance.
If she flips out because of a loud noise, I want to be able to manage that.
Nobody can just fix their dog overnight. If you are setting your expectations too high, you are going to be disappointed - and your dog is going to become even more frustrated. Once Bailey and I started reaching our smaller goals, we kept setting new ones. Today, we can pass most dogs at a close proximity and she doesn’t bark. Sure, she still gets triggered if a dog is off-leash or if he barks at her, but this is just something that we have to manage.
Remember: it’s not about completely getting rid of your dog’s reactivity. This can take YEARS and some of it may always be present. It’s about learning how to manage it.
None of us signed up to have a reactive dog - or if you did, you are my personal hero. I’m not ashamed to say that I never would have chosen this for myself; I was 19 years old, fresh out of High School, zero dog training knowledge. But I believe Bailey was given to me for a reason and not a day goes by that I don't thank the universe for blessing me with her.
Some days I do (still) get scared. Loud noises are still a big challenge for us. I wonder: is it always going to be this way? Am I going to have to worry about her for the next 10 years? How are we going to cope with all the life changes yet to come?
I know it’s not easy, making a home out of a realization that your dog might never be normal.
I can’t travel with Bailey by any means other than by car. She’ll never be around children. If I ever foster, I’ll have to take so many precautions. Just this year, with two new dogs coming into the house, it’s been really hard for her. This is our reality. But it’s manageable.
But you know what? It’s more than just manageable - it’s a learning experience every single day. It’s the unique feeling of joy when she overcomes a fear. It’s extra cuddling when she’s having a hard day - or when I’m having a hard day. It’s educating other people, it’s running this blog, it’s being a better mom to Chilly, it’s growing into a better human.
It’s crying because of fear and frustration but then getting back up the next day and understanding that the most important job I have is teaching Bailey that the world is a beautiful, safe space - even on the days when I don’t believe in that myself.
It’s our reality. It’s not perfect, but it’s worth it.
If you ever struggle really hard with having a reactive dog and feel like you have absolutely no support system, please join my FREE email course that will help you get started and guide you through the beginning stages, or just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a specific question.
Rehabilitating a reactive dog might be a lifelong process, but you don’t have to do it alone!
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