5 Healthy Habits for Reactive Dogs and Their Owners
Sometimes owning a reactive dog is just plain hard. The idea of getting up and taking a walk in the mornings, when I know I might end up with a whirling dervish instead of a dog at the end of my leash, makes me want to stay home under the covers, safe in bed. However, it’s important that I not give in to such desires, for Topher’s sake. When the going gets tough or your dog’s behavior is driving you crazy, it feels a hell of a lot easier to just give up.
That being said, the end result is so worth the work. In teaching your dog proper behavior, you begin striving to adopt healthy habits alongside them. Here are just a few that, when practiced regularly, will help you reach the light at the end of the tunnel, even on those days when you’d rather sit down in the street and have a good cry. (Don’t judge me, it happens.)
Establish an Exercise and Training Routine, and Stick To It
A thirty-minute walk can help you and your dog meet your daily exercise requirements while improving your dog’s behavior. For reactive dogs, being corralled at home day in and day out—away from all stimulation—is not only pretty boring, it exacerbates reactive behavior when they’re out in the world. A key to working on these reactions is active, positive training and slow, steady socialization. Many dogs that aren’t exercised or trained daily aren’t going to learn not to bark at neighbors or pull their leads just by staying home on their own.
Incorporate exercise and training in your daily routine. Just like you wouldn’t skip brushing your teeth, don’t skip these activities—even when it’s hard. Having trouble finding the time? Wake up earlier. Get it out of the way before the responsibilities of the day interfere. It will also leave your dog in a more restful state when you head out for work.
If your Training Style isn’t Working, Change It!
I know, I know, I just said it was important to stick to a routine.
Sometimes, when repetition or conditioning isn’t working, it’s because your dog has developed a routine of their own, or has reacted to the same situation in the same way so many times that it’s nearly impossible to break them out of their own reactive habits.
We developed this problem with Topher during larger group classes, and our trainers suggested changing things up. We traded a large group setting for a smaller class, where Topher learned to go through agility obstacles—concentrating on those obstacles, rather than the smaller group of dogs that were around and focused on their own training sessions.
Topher also started going to day camps, where he’s learning to interact with the same group of dogs owner by our trainer, every other week, in a more relaxed and quiet setting. The result of this has been our biggest success: Topher is able to roam freely in the yard with his three “dog friends” and has even started working with dogs he does not know as well.
So, if repetition isn’t working for you in training, or you feel like you’re stuck in a rut trying to get your reactive dog to overcome a certain obstacle, it may to time to change things up! Whether that’s seeking out a professional, changing your location, or working on something else entirely.
Make Training Fun
Developing good habits doesn’t mean you can’t add some fun! If you’re avoiding exercise or training with your dog, often it’s out of boredom. Walking the same neighborhood loop day in and day out—it gets old!
Change up your walk route or visit a nearby park. Or skip the walk entirely and play a game of fetch instead. For training sessions, why not change from treats to toys as a reward? There are endless ways that you can make your relationship with your dog a more rewarding part of your life and family, and your dog will benefit from the increased mental challenge. Here are a few more ways you can make training into play.
Training or rehabilitating a reactive dog is hard, often frustrating work. You may end up wanting to yell at your dog, or cry, or lay on the floor and give up. We’ve all done it (or wanted to do it). Practicing patience with your dog means moving beyond frustrating feelings to keep training.
Yelling, hitting, or punishing your dog out of frustration won’t help them learn. Save those feelings for another time. Rant to your friends, your family, or whoever. But don’t take it out on your pup. They’re trying their best to make you happy in spite of their own uncertainty or fear, just remember that.
Believe in Your Pet
The best thing you can do for your reactive dog is believe in them! It sounds corny but if you don’t believe that you can rehabilitate your dog, quitting during those tough times will feel even more tempting.
Believe in them, whether they make progress today or they act a little monstrous. Accept your dog for who they are and set realistic goals, and believe you can achieve them in the long run.
Will Topher ever be a canine good citizen? We don’t know, and that’s okay. But is he already beginning to make better choices when he sees dogs on the street, rather than lunging or barking? Yes. And that, my friends, is progress!
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