When it comes to dogs, the end doesn’t justify the means

Updated: May 5, 2019

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).

My hipster vision of life with Pedro.

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.

Pedro on high alert. I'm most likely scanning the horizon for exit points like a nervous squirrel.

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

Yay dog friends! Pedro learning that other dogs are a-ok.

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.