The other day, I was thinking about all the things I tried over the years to improve Risa’s reactivity around other dogs. Some of the things I tried were ‘ugly’ and I wish I hadn’t done them at all. Others were ‘bad’ in that they just didn’t work for us. Finally, I discovered several ‘good’ ones that shaped our journey and helped Risa be the dog she is today. One who has learned to cope with situations that used to cause her incredible distress.
This entry is going to detail the ‘ugly’ things I did. I’m actually quite ashamed about much of what I did. But, at the time, I honestly did not know any better. I was completely clueless on how to train my dog to behave appropriately. I must remember that Risa was my first dog; I had little experience training basic behaviors like sit and shake let alone rehabilitating a dog with behavioral issues. I am simply fortunate that 1) I didn’t do the ‘ugly’ things for long and 2) I realized the ‘ugly’ things did not work and was desperate to find a better way.
When I first brought Risa home, I knew she was a fearful dog. Her desperate pulls to avoid going anywhere near the poop disposal can were proof of that. The shelter, however, had told me that she was good around other dogs. I had no reason to believe otherwise.
The problem started off small. Several off leash dogs rushed over to check Risa out while we were on walks. I had no idea what to do if an off leash dog approached mine (and I honestly still struggle with this problem). So I simply let the dog greet Risa. Nothing bad happened as far as I could see. Unfortunately, I had little knowledge of the finer points of dog body language. I had the equivalent of my first year of Spanish in middle school. A basic understanding but lacking the finer points and intricacies. I didn’t realize that Risa’s stiff body posture was indicative of her discomfort. The fact that she didn’t greet the other dog at all never even crossed my mind as a red flag. So other dogs continued to greet Risa. Risa continued to be uncomfortable. Even though she was being quite clear about how stressful these situations were, I was oblivious. She soon realized that Mom would not keep the scary dogs away and began to take things into her own paws.
Pretty soon, Risa started lunging and snapping at other dogs. I actually made things even worse at the start. I had heard many people put their dogs into sit/stays when dogs walked past. So I used to do just that with Risa. I would see a dog coming, cue her to sit, and wait for the dogs to pass. Unfortunately, many of the dogs did not simply continue on past us. Most of them came right over to Risa who, eventually, snapped at them. I unintentionally created more conflict for Risa who just wanted to be left alone. I asked her to maintain position in a situation where her instincts told her to run. Things got worse.
I honestly had no idea why my dog behaved this way. I had very little experience with dogs who had issues. Almost every dog I had known growing up was a perfectly fine canine citizen. Though I knew Risa was fearful, I never connected her lashing out at other dogs with fear. I simply knew that the behavior was unacceptable. People were starting to give me dirty looks about my ‘bad’ dog. I was embarrassed to be seen in public with her. Walks became less and less fun. They became a source of great frustration and stress for both of us. I started correcting her for reactive lunges. This turned out to be a huge mistake. Firstly, the corrections did not stop the behavior. Secondly, coupling corrections with owner frustration is never a good idea. Our relationship hit a very dark spot. I was not having fun with my dog. I used to come home from walks in tears because I was completely at a loss. I needed to know what to do but no one seemed to have any answers. . .