Updated: Dec 15, 2021
When I rescued my first dog in 2013, it all came as a bit of a shock. He was a 6 year old lurcher (greyhound/saluki/wolfhound/whoknows) named Pedro with a missing limb and vague backstory. I found it tough, especially as I had expected it to be delightful, easy and like a modern-day millennial Lassie story (fewer wells, more hanging out in craft breweries together).
He was terribly handsome and had the most soulful eyes I’d ever seen. He was also sad and scared and thought every other dog was out to get him. Except other sighthounds, who would prompt him into a full charm offensive, which in some ways was even more frustrating (‘you know how to interact nicely with some dogs - why can’t you generalise?!’). Anything without a markedly pointy face (French bulldogs offended him to his core) or with too much enthusiasm (we avoided labradors like they were tipsy extroverts at a party trying to start a game of Twister) resulted in a big old mess of emotions - his and mine.
This type of behaviour is often referred to as reactivity. In this case it was specifically dog reactivity (he was sweet and beguiling with people). The word aggression isn’t always favoured by dog trainers as it tends to produce an emotive response in humans that is unfair to the dog. Aggression is often associated with something sinister, deliberate, uncontrollable and scary. Which is all really unhelpful when you’re trying to help an animal who is terrified and feels out of options. Reactive is a more measured way of describing what’s happening - that the dog is reacting in a way that is at odds with healthy canine behaviour. Or as I often see it with the dogs I work with - the dog is stressed out, on alert and struggling to think clearly.
In Pedro’s case, this ‘reactivity’ took the form of lunging, guttural growling and hysterical braying that sounded like cats fighting on a moving tractor. His reactions weren’t subtle. His reactivity to other dogs turned me into a dog walking ninja, crossing roads at the sight of a distant wagging tail, hiding behind hedges, taking slightly mad risks with traffic as I veered around parked cars to avoid walking past dogs on the pavement. I also became really good at spotting ‘off lead dog nearby’ clues on approaching humans. If I saw a draped lead across someone’s shoulder or a poo bag sticking out of a pocket, I’d start planning a rapid escape. Anyone who has owned a reactive dog knows the sheer terror of hearing ‘don’t worry, he’s friendly!’ as an off lead dog comes careening around the corner, miles from their owner and oblivious to their calls.
From reactive to freakin’ awesome
The story of how Pedro the spectacular but eruptive sighthound went from dog reactive to utterly amazing (like 'mentoring other reactive dogs, living with foster dogs, playing with rather than biting puppies' kind of amazing) is a full tale in itself, and one for another day/blog. But the headlines of that story go something like this:
We worked with an amazing behaviourist (Winkie Spiers - seriously, that woman is a genius with dogs and also incredibly humble about it) and there’s no way we could have done it without that support
Winkie introduced me to the work of Turid Rugaas, who is a Norwegian dog behaviour expert and legend and transformed much of my thinking about not only dogs, but animals in general (read her stuff, go to her courses, become a mega fan - trust me, you won't regret it)
The process turned me into a total dog freak and I ended up following a career path I never imagined
It took longer than I expected and wanted. Turns out, just like with humans, you can’t hurry a dog’s emotions.
‘Social walks’ were key to Pedro’s success (more on how these work coming up in another blog)
Supporting Pedro to gain confidence around other dogs and shift his reactions (from snarling to a big, loopy and wagging tail) was a profound, moving and enlightening experience
Meeting, loving and learning from Pedro made me a much better person
When the cause is overlooked, dogs become defined by their symptoms
The dog training world can be contentious and political and at times just plain unfriendly. There, I said it! Being a bit of a pleaser, I often tiptoe more than I should around the things I really believe. I also avoid taking firm standpoints without weighing up a lot of options, obsessively researching and scrutinising things from numerous angles. It makes choosing breakfast cereal really challenging at times.
But one thing I can say with a lot of certainty is this:
It was never about the reactivity.
Pedro wasn’t a dog with a problem to be fixed. He was a dog with unmet needs and a well-meaning but fairly clueless owner (me). He had been neglected and abused by previous owners, passed from one home to the next and had spent months in a noisy rescue kennel. He’d been at the mercy of a series of human decisions, unable at any point to say ‘You know what? I need you to stop. I’m not ok with this’. Because, you know, he’s a dog. He’d said it in a million dog ways, but no one was really listening. Pedro didn’t need to be taught that other dogs were fine by having treats shoved at him when they were nearby, or being scolded for negative reactions.
What he needed was pretty simple:
A whole heap of sleep. He was exhausted.
A consistent routine for long enough that he could trust it.
No more crazy-making, prey-simulating games (like fetch).
Loads of soul-soothing and natural dog activities (sniffing, searching for treats, rolling in mud, ripping up egg cartons, falling asleep in the sun).
A familiar group of dogs with great communication skills to spend time with.
The opportunity, space and time to make decisions about what he was comfortable with. ‘Dog over there freaking you out? No worries mate - we’ll go another way and try again another day.’ ‘You’re curious but a little scared? Let’s just hang at the back of the group and sniff some stuff until you’re ready to get closer.’
The method matters
There are many ways to address reactivity and fear in dogs. There are many ways to work with dogs full stop, with various theoretical and scientific underpinnings, equipment and copyrighted acronyms. I feel fortunate that I landed on and felt my way towards a gentler method that is gaining momentum.
We’ve gone from wanting to control dogs and not caring whether it hurts or is scary, to wanting to control dogs but doing it nicely and with snacks. But, more people are now recognising that wanting to control another sentient being all the time is actually a little problematic. So a new question and conversation is emerging: how can we give up our ingrained desire for control while maintaining a harmonious life with our dogs?
Opening this conversation requires some self-reflection. How do you want to live alongside this fascinating animal you’ve brought into your home? What kind of relationship do you truly want? There are some key dog training approaches and relationship dynamics to consider:
‘I’m the boss’
Dominance based training methods. The dog is beneath the human and must be made aware of this at all times, otherwise they will try to take over. There’s usually a clear set of rules for this, like going through doorways first, not allowing dogs on furniture and eating before them.
‘I will (nicely) shape you to fit my needs’
Obedient behaviour is positively reinforced. Training is often busy and high energy. There are lots of commands and discussions about good manners. Trainers may have a sense of pride that they can shape a dog to do complex tasks, and have good knowledge of behavioural science and its mechanics.
‘I want you to (safely) express what is most natural for you’
Training with an emphasis on giving dogs choices and controlling the ego and impulses of the humans. The aim is to use as few commands as possible to live successfully together. Before a behaviour is taught, the trainer should consider why it’s needed and whether it interferes with what the dog would do of its own accord. Free roaming dogs are often used as a blueprint for natural behaviour.
It's time to progress the conversation
There are literally thousands of articles and studies debunking the painfully outdated ‘boss’ methods of dog training (here’s one with links to even more if you’re curious), so I’m not going to delve into why the answer to ‘how can I show my dog I’m the alpha?’ is always ‘maybe just don’t?’.
I’m more interested in the subtle but crucial difference between ‘positive training’ and training that is emancipating for dogs. Pedro’s story is not one of how my reactive and fearful dog received some miraculous training and became a social butterfly; it’s a story of the approach we embarked on together and the alternatives I’m glad I never took.
Every school of dog training has a way to deal with reactivity, and all have produced results. Which I think leads to the question - if the outcome is the same (ie. my dog doesn’t turn into the Hulk every time it sees a chihuahua), does the path you took to get there really matter? I mean, they’re just dogs, right?
I think it matters.
As trainers, I believe the way we work with dogs and the humans they live with is an opportunity to tap into things that feel increasingly undervalued. Things like empathy, patience, compassion, humour and being connected to nature. Dog training methods focused on control and manipulation are a reflection of broader societal issues, where demonstrating dominance through the exertion of coercive power is encouraged and rewarded.
If as dog trainers we engage with and use methods that inch people towards a deeper understanding and gentler approach, well...why on earth wouldn’t we?
It’s not the quick approach and it’s not always an easy sell. It demands more of people who are already busy and stressed and just want their dog to stop peeing on the carpet. But I reckon if Pedro could talk, he’d be in full support. And considering all the work I put in to understand his canine opinions and needs, I should probably listen.
This is the work I’m excited to be exploring with All Dogs Are Good. By creating new educational materials and opportunities to connect and learn from each other, I hope we can continue to deepen and grow our skills (and the conversation) as we commit to a world that is better for dogs and the humans they live with.
Final note: Pedro passed away last November. He was around 13 years old. Heartbreakingly, I wasn’t with him but his other devoted pet parent said he went peacefully. It wrenched my heart wide open and I sobbed until my eyes were swollen and my throat was dusty and parched. He was a pure delight in my life - quirky, cheeky, stubborn as hell, gentle and trusting. He charmed everyone he met. I’m not ready to have another dog yet, but I know my connection to Pedro will keep this dog obsessed ship steering until I am.