If you haven’t read Part 1 of this blog, you can do so here.
Owning a reactive dog will suck the life out of you – quickly! With 34 years of experience in veterinary medicine, I thought I was prepared to take on a dog like Polo, but I was wrong.
There are as many types of reactivity as there are dogs in the world. A dog might be triggered by people who come to your door, but not those he meets outside. He might be triggered by big dogs, small dogs, or cats wearing roller-skates. Every dog is unique, and if your dog is reactive, I bet you’re familiar with his or her triggers. I would also bet that if you have lived with your dog for very long, you’re also triggered by those things by now!
Let me explain. When we first got Polo, he was triggered by doorbells. We don’t have a working doorbell, but if he heard one on TV, he would get very agitated and start barking and running from room to room. Since I came to associate doorbells with my dog getting upset, if I heard a doorbell – even at a friend’s house or in a movie theater – my heart would start pounding, and I would brace for the barking dog. A moment later I would realize Polo wasn’t there and I needn’t get upset!
Reactivity in dogs can be the result of a previous traumatic experience. Trauma causes hypervigilance, which means the dog is always nervous that something bad is going to happen. If you yourself have a history of trauma, then your dog’s trauma can cause a similar hypervigilant response in your body.
Here are some things that helped me alleviate that response:
- Take breaks from your dog. We got Polo during COVID, and I was working from home, so I never got away from him. Once we realized the strain this was placing on me, my husband started taking Polo to a Sniffspot (more on Sniffspots in the next blog!) at least every other weekend so I got dog-free time in my home.
- Take breaks from training. As I said in part 1 of this blog, I heaped the pressure of “fixing” Polo’s reactivity all on myself. That led to exhaustion and burnout on training, and a damaged bond between me and Polo. Realize that you have other responsibilities, including self-care, and your dog’s reactivity isn’t going to be solved overnight.
- Ask for help. Share the training burden with family members, or you might start to resent that you’re doing all the work. Even young children can perform simple training exercises or fill a puzzle toy for your dog. You do not have to do it all yourself!
- Wear noise-cancelling headphones to ameliorate the stress. If your dog is reacting by barking, that takes a toll on your brain and body. When I put my headphones on, I can feel my body relax because I’m no longer anticipating Polo’s bark.
- Talk to a professional. Even if you have a background in dog training, reactivity can be challenging to treat. My background of over thirty years in veterinary medicine didn’t prepare me for Polo! If you can afford the services of a board-certified animal behaviorist, even one session can be very helpful. If that’s out of the question, talk to your veterinarian. It may be difficult to modify your dog’s behavior via training without medications to relieve anxiety, so don’t be afraid to inquire about those. Lastly, a certified professional dog trainer can also be very helpful. For Polo, it was essential that I select a trainer who only used positive reinforcement, as anything negative (bark collars, flooding, sharp vocal tones) made his reactivity and fearfulness worse.
Hopefully, you feel a little more supported after reading this blog. In Part III, I’ll share the tips and tricks that have worked for Polo and I to help reduce his reactivity!