Owners of reactive dogs are like “Mad-Eye” Moody from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. Moody is a fairly paranoid ex-auror (magical law enforcement officer) who is known to belt out his catchphrase “CONSTANT VIGILANCE!” I remember reading those words again shortly after beginning work with Risa’s reactivity and found them extremely poignant. That’s exactly how I felt; like I was always watching. Always on guard and anticipating what was going to happen.
I think you have to be. You’ve seen what can happen when your dog is over threshold. You know how other people must be interpreting what your dog is doing. You need to keep an eye out to prepare yourself.
Initially, being constantly on guard is super stressful. “Is that a dog 200 yards ahead?” “Where are we going to intersect?” “Is there enough space for us to pull off and get out of the way?” “Should I turn around?” “What do I do when my dog goes off at this other dog?” As soon you see one of those things that sets off your dog, your breathing changes. You pull up on the leash. You’re so concerned about what could happen that you’re anticipating the worst. It’s hard to get over that.
But as you start working with your dog, that apprehension and fear is replaced. You know what you’re going to do. You have created a game plan and have more experience implementing it. You’ve seen your dog improving and you KNOW they have the ability to handle it, even if this time they can’t. Your fear decreases. You and your dog’s ability to cope increases.
You still find yourself constantly scanning the horizon. But the reasons why you scan have changed. You’re no longer preparing for the worst or trying to avoid the potentially ugly situation. You see a dog several yards away and start getting the treats ready. You watch your dog for appropriate behaviors. You notice your dog sees the other dog and start shoveling treats their way. The upcoming ‘problem’ becomes a positive experience for both parties. It’s no longer a harbinger of doom but a chance to work and prove to yourselves that there isn’t anything to worry about.
There may come a day when you don’t have to be so on guard all the time. I know I have to watch Risa less closely these days than I had to in the past. It’s really nice not needing to micromanage every single interaction. However, it’s been a long road getting there and she’s not 100% reliable. While the sight/scent of one dog might cause her to get all excited and wiggly, another dog can still cause her to feel apprehensive and react. We’ll still continue to work. I’ll still maintain Moody’s mantra of “Constant Vigilance!” for as long as is necessary. At least it’s not a phrase of paranoia to us anymore. 😉