Today I’m jumping on the WOOF Support blog hop for reactive dogs. Owning a reactive competition dog – reactivity is a hot topic for me. This month’s theme is Success, Frustration, and Everything In Between so I thought I would take a brief look back at how far Jeni (Miss Reactive) has come and how I am trying to prevent dealing with another reactive dog by being proactive with puppy Kelinn.
Jeni came to us after spending four years essentially in a crate in a basement. She had basically only ever interacted with her siblings and she was VERY dog reactive. She would absolutely explode barking and lunging just upon hearing another dog or seeing another dog from a very far distance. She went over threshold very easily. We happened to have very barky dog neighbors at the time so she was often stressed just from hearing them bark (you could hear them inside the house).
Before actively “training” away the reactivity we worked on her general anxiety about noises, other dogs and going new places. Turns out that though she was “reactive” she was not in any way aggressive with other dogs and actually played well with other dogs. One important step for her was going to daycare and playing in small, carefully monitored groups with other dogs.
We also used supplements for anxiety – we went through quite a few things but ended up having her on a daily dose of HTP5. She was on that for a few months before we started to wean off of it. She is much less anxious these days but I learned throughout the process that training really helped to increase her confidence. Reactivity and anxiety often go hand in hand. Once I started really being strict about obedience and making rules around the house, she started to feel a bit more stable and really started to make progress. We followed, to some extent, the methods outline in Patricia McConnell’s Fiesty Fido, which involved teaching an automatic response of looking at me when she saw another dog.
Now – only about a year and a half later, she is still sensitive and I do have to watch her stress level and threshold but she is very much capable of being around other dogs in many situations without losing her mind. In fact, she has improved enough that she participates in dog classes, dog shows, agility and obedience trials. All of these have many dogs around. Having her at an event like this takes a LOT of work on my part to properly manage her stress level and keep her attention on me around other dogs. Because of that we are not the agility team that’s out trialing every weekend. But the fact that we are able to trial at all is a HUGE success.
This video is a good example of how far she has come – though please don’t use this as a judgement of good handling skills on my part because… they’re not very good. We have done a few “altered” conformation classes for fun and as a good way to get her out in a trial like environment with other dogs, but I am able to use food in the ring and it’s a little less pressure for performance than an agility or rally trial. But you can see she looks quite confident and happy and is looking to me for guidance automatically – and she is quite close to the other dogs and not fussing at all.
So as I start to celebrate the success I have had with Jeni, I have a new guy in the house, Kelinn. He is also an Icelandic Sheepdog, which is relevant, because their breed does predispose them to reactivity. It is not an EXCUSE but it is something to be aware of. This breed is very much still in touch with their natural instincts as they have not been overly bred as “pet” dogs like some breeds. They are still working dogs, and in their natural working environment, they are supposed to keep an eye on the sheep/farm, and bark whenever they see something out of place. Makes a lot of sense out in a remote farm in Iceland, right? Not as much in a city environment.
Kelinn has the advantage of starting as a puppy, so instead of lacking early socialization like Jeni, he is getting plenty of positive early experiences. He has not at this point shown any inclination to bark at other dogs, but I am still teaching him with the same methods as a dog that is already reactive – teaching him that a) other dogs are good things (so he does not develop fear or anxiety upon seeing them) and b) look at me when you see another dog. He has shown some inclination of being offended by pushy dogs in puppy class so we are keeping playgroups small and quiet for him right now instead of sending him to a busy daycare like environment. He has also met some calm, polite adult dogs at shows and fun matches/training for agility with Jeni.
He has tagged along to shows and trials to do nothing else but get treats, take a nap in his crate and have fun – I want him to grow up thinking trials are fun and not stressful at all. He has once or twice alert barked at a strange noise – this is pretty normal but I simply redirect him by calling his name in a happy voice and walking away/redirecting his attention with treats. I learned so much about treating reactivity from training Jeni that I feel very equipped to prevent reactivity in Kelinn. I think it is very important for people to understand that you need to create positive associations with dogs, people, noises etc. for ALL dogs, not just reactive ones.
As I look back at my journey with Jeni and all the frustrations (confession time: once I was so mad at her/myself/our lack of progress I felt like opening the door and just letting her leave – luckily I know not to act when frustrated!), I realize how important it is to be proactive. It is really nice starting with a clean slate instead of trying to change ingrained behaviors. Of course, my journey with Jeni, has given us a very special relationship that I do not think would be quite the same without the trials we have gone through. I do hope that Jeni can be a spot of hope for some people with reactive dogs, and a reminder of how important early socialization is for all dogs, reactive tendencies or not.