Lessons Learned

I am currently living with my second reactive Saint Bernard.  My first, Monte, was the dog that inspired me to become a dog trainer.  My second, Cuba, was supposed to be my wonder-pup:  well-bred, well-socialized, well-trained, and still we noticed disturbing reactivity patterns coinciding with the onset of adolescence.  While it’s often a bumpy road, both of these boys have taught me so many things that have made me a better person and a better and more empathetic coach to my clients struggling through similar issues.

My boy Monte, now my guardian angel

It’s hard living with a reactive dog.  It often means saying “no” to some of the things you originally thought might be fun activities to share with your dog, be it participating in agility, therapy work, sitting outside of Starbucks while you work on a paper and an iced Caramel Macchiato, or setting up doggy play dates with friends. Reactive dogs can be hard to find pet-sitters, dog-walkers, veterinarians, and other animal caretakers for (including trainers!).

For me, this weekend, it means the dogs won’t get to join us on a family camping trip where there will likely be many kids, dogs, and much chaos.  Lucky for me, I have a friend that both I and my dogs love and trust, a friend that has done a lot of training with both of them so I can enjoy visiting with the family sans panic attack.  But still, there is a big part of me that is sad that I can’t bring my dogs – I wish they would enjoy the trip but know they’ll enjoy their slumber party, replete with Kongs and fun with their best doggy and human friends, much better.

However, there are some things that I took for granted before living with a reactive dog, and once you adjust to the “lifestyle,” you learn to appreciate beauty in so many small things you overlooked previously.  Thanks to living with reactive dogs, I have learned…

  • To appreciate a midnight walk.  Just me, the dogs, a full moon, and the sounds of peepers.  I’m a late-nighter by nature anyway, so this is a really special, almost magical time for me and the dogs to share together.
  • To find the best, most secluded hiking trails, ponds, and forests to hike through.  Inevitably, these places are so much more beautiful and relaxing for my dogs and myself to walk than our cute but often hectic East side neighborhood, and provide us with environments rich with new smells, sights, and sounds.
  • To revel in the peaceful solitude of a quiet winter walk – many dogs, either because their owners are averse to cold (I get it), because the dogs are averse to cold (Mokie and Cuba do not “get it”), or because their dogs have poor leash walking skills which make maneuvering on icy streets or sidewalks a challenge, don’t get walks all winter.  Me and my dogs are also much less likely to encounter unsupervised children or off-leash dogs in the winter season.  While I’m not much of one for the cold, I’ve come to enjoy the soft quiet of a hike through the snow, then coming home for a hot shower and a good snuggle in front of the fireplace with happy, sleepy dogs.  We do a lot more neighborhood walks in the winter, especially since travel to some of our favorite trails can be a bit treacherous during winter.
  • The fun of a walk in the rain – I never understood why, when a cool rain hits on a 90 degree day, people bolt for cover as quickly as possible.  The feeling of rain on my skin, the freshness in the air outside (though not, necessarily, inside when we get home!).  I love going out for a walk in the rain – again, just a time for the dogs to go out and enjoy the world together, relatively free of interruption or distraction.
  • Don’t forget to check out the sunrise!  Many reactive dog owners watch the sunrise every morning as they get out for their pre-dawn walks, trodding through newly settled dew before heading home to a hot cup of coffee and a new day.
  • Take your time!  One thing my reactive dogs have taught me is the importance of keeping a flexible agenda.  While I may think we will take a certain path, the environment may dictate another path.  I always schedule more time than I think I’ll need for a walk so I never feel rushed in getting home.  Because reactive dogs can have smaller worlds than their non-reactive counterparts, it’s important that we allow them to fully immerse themselves in the new environments they are able to enjoy – allowing lots of opportunity for sniffing, rolling in the grass, or treeing squirrels.
Love the big puppy

Cuddling with Cuba before Karen Pryor Academy, after a sunrise walk

With the progress that Cuba’s been making in his training, I think it’s very possible we may be able to enjoy a camping trip together as a family one day.  Right now, such a trip would be pushing my luck and may in fact undo so much of the progress we’ve made together.  Cuba’s world is already expanding in direct proportion with his training skills and our relationship as a training team.  Working him through these behavioral issues has required creativity, patience, and a lot of support from my wonderful husband, colleagues, and training friends.  I find that many of the techniques that worked well with Monte may not be the best or may require tweaking and modification to work optimally for Cuba.  It’s all part of the learning experience, and the path I am traveling on my never-ending path to know dogs better.

What lessons have you learned from your reactive dog?  What activities have you sacrificed to the Gods of Reactivity, and what new activities have you found to replace them with to keep both you and your dog happy, active, and enjoying life together?


2 comments on “Lessons Learned
  1. Thanks for this post Casey! Just today I headed to the park with Magnus and the neighbor kids said, “Why can’t Maizey go? We feel bad for her! She never gets to go.” (Not true, but I can see why they would think that since most of the times she does go it’s at random times.) It hurts my heart every time to leave her home, but she doesn’t enjoy it right now. As you say, perhaps in time with training, until then I’ll keep getting my Maizey time at home.

    As for what she’s taught me to enjoy- She’s taught me to enjoy the simple things. Enjoy the happy times and don’t worry about the stress that may be lurking. She has taught me acceptance of what I can’t change and to to let go of expectations, but still be content. Like you say, there are so many things we can’t do and it’s not all big things like sports dreams, for us it’s just the small things like going to the park.

    As for what we do to keep us happy: training, training, training. We train things like Rally, Obedience and tricks. We do tons of shaping. It doesn’t matter if we ever compete or anyone else sees what she accomplishes, training makes her happy and that makes me happy.

  2. Fantastic website. A lot of useful info here. I’m sending it to some friends ans additionally sharing in delicious. And naturally, thank you to your effort!

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