Confessions of a dog trainer: I have a reactive dog.
When it comes to bully breeds we always hear the well intentioned saying, “It’s all about how you raise them!”, as long as you love them to pieces and socialize and train them that you will always end up with a “perfect” dog. If there’s one thing you can take away from what I’m saying today it’s that this statement is total BS.
Admittedly, before I choose a career path in animal behavior I didn’t know much about it. I was the person I am writing about today: I believed you can own any dog, no matter what the temperament and as long as you “raised them well” they’d turn out fine. So I did just that; I socialized, exercised, and taught Boris obedience as soon as I got him at eight weeks and from what I experienced as Boris was a puppy I thought this idea was correct. I did have a bomb proof puppy who loved everyone and everything. I could trust him in any situation and I was pleased with myself that I reared such a polite little man. This theory was thrown out the window when adolescents hit, bye bye bomb proof puppy, hello hormonal and moody teenage dog. To say I was devastated would have been an understatement as I took 100% of the blame for my dog’s behavior yet I had no idea what I did wrong.
Even with the best intentions at heart I put my dog through some pretty questionable training methods in hopes of bringing back that silly, care free puppy. That’s the funny thing about owning a dog, as soon as you have a problem arise everyone becomes a dog trainer. I’ve had every suggestion thrown my way from more exercise and time outs to the extreme and dangerous- alpha rolls and other psychical corrections, prongs, choking my dog out, and shock collars. The first trainer I went to about Boris’ reactivity to everything (people, dogs, movement, sounds, simply being outside) suggested some of the extreme “solutions” and I tried my best to put forth effort to do what they asked of me: prong collar pops, being the alpha”, and restricting every aspect of my dog’s world. Even then I still had hope this was going to help fix my dog. It took only a couple of months of that training for me to realize Boris was now even more unsafe than he was when I first came to that trainer. Feeling defeated and now even more insecure about my relationship with my dog, I discontinued that method of training and kind of just did nothing for a few months.
I started to tell myself that maybe my dog was just a bad dog and nothing was ever doing to help. Honestly, I felt like an awful owner and thought I had ruined my dog. I spent many hours raking my brain for some pinpoint moment in Boris and I’s time together that caused my dog to change. Maybe I didn’t love him enough or allow him to play with enough dogs. Maybe he should have been around more people or I should have trained him more. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself it wasn’t my fault because there’s always a bigger picture and reactivity is merely a speck in the complex masterpiece that makes up Boris. I never took into account genetics or breeding contributing to why Boris is who he is. Boris is a Dutch Shepherd mixed with some sort of bully breed. He has a lot of energy and his prey drive is insane, which that alone was going to make for an interesting temperament- yet my frist trainer never took that into consideration.
As I got involved in pit bull rescue and begun opening up about my own training issues with Boris to the volunteers I was referred to a force free trainer who helped me understand that Boris’ reactivity wasn’t my fault, it just is. I can’t be blamed for a problem that was bound to happen based just off the breeds of dog he is and more importantly that Boris isn’t a bad dog because of it and I most certainly am not a bad owner because of Boris’ temperament. Once we were able to see past the ugliness of his reactivity and have me loose that insecurity of the both of us being bad we focused on helping him cope with things that stress him out; that’s when we begun to see progress. We work everyday, even if it’s something a simple as asking him to sit before he goes to play outside or gets his meal. We work at his pace and in baby steps to ensure he is always successful. Little by little we are making progress because when it comes down to it these issues didn’t develop overnight and I shouldn’t place such illogical expectations that they’ll be fixed instantaneously. With continued force free training Boris is now comfortable around people and we’re making progress with other dogs and stimulus. Somedays he does have a harder time staying calm, especially around dogs but that doesn’t make me feel like a failure anymore.
His progress never would have came if I didn’t drop the misinformation of “it’s all in how you raise them”. If you’re reading this today and find yourself thinking our stories mirror I want you to tell yourself, “They’re not a bad dog and I’m not a bad owner”. Remember that with even finding a effective force free solution to reduce your dog’s reactivity you could still always have a dog you may need to manage in certain situations (like with other animals)- but that in no way makes you or your dog bad!
Remember that no dog that makes your heart swell and your face hurt from smiling could possibly be anything “bad”.