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Why Pausing Training Was The Best Thing For My Reactive Dog

When Rudy first came to me (my very reactive Romanian foster dog), my mindset was all about how I was going to ‘fix’ him and rehabilitate him before he could go back out into the world and find a new adopter (I was just emergency fostering him to work on some of his reactivity that he’d shown in his previous home – read more about how Rudy came to me here).

For months, we worked hard on reactivity training him to try and address the barking and lunging behaviours – he was a street dog from Romania and didn’t really see the point of humans so he had no focus on me, if anything, humans just represented danger and scary stuff.

As with all training, for a long, long time, it felt like we were making no progress, then all of a sudden, we’d jump 3 steps and it felt like we were on our way.

I’d go from days feeling like there was no hope, to feeling on top of the world at the progress we made.

But I always wanted more. And I always expected more.

When it was going badly, my expectations about the future were reigned in. When things were going well, I started thinking, “Well, why not try and shoot higher and aim for this type of behaviour?”

In hindsight, I should have just relaxed a little. Or a lot.

When it became clear that despite Rudy’s amazing progress, he wouldn’t be able to go to a ‘normal’ home (he bonded with me, and was more more tolerant of my husband, but the slightest change in his environment could set him off, and you certainly couldn’t take him for a walk down the road).

When he came to me for foster, the end goal was to find him a home, so our training plan, timescales and schedule was all based around that. It was like knowing you needed to be in Manchester for 6pm so you had to organise the day around catching the train at a specific time.

Once it was decided that Rudy was definitely staying with me forever, we reassessed what his training plan was going to be. Back to the train analogy, we no longer had to be in Manchester for 6pm, we could take our time. We didn’t even have to go to Manchester at all (if that makes sense!)

So what did Rudy’s reactivity training plan turn into?

Well, it disappeared.

Once it was final he was staying, both me and Rudy breathed a huge sigh of relief. We didn’t have to reach any goal anymore. I felt the pressure lift off of both of us, and Rudy became less stressed practically overnight.

With the best intentions, I had been putting Rudy into stressful training situations each day. Not horrendous over threshold situations, but we had gradually been working on his reactivity, which would have caused him stress each day. I felt I had to as if he hadn’t have moderated his severe reactivity, he would have gone back to Romania to a pen forever, or worse. We were both desperately clinging on, trying to change, for his sake.

But now, everything could pause.

Something I’ve learnt in Rudy’s journey is that sometimes, time can go more good than any behaviour modification programme. Not always, but for a fearful dog like Rudy, I would say half the change we’ve seen in him is time and him getting gradually used to life here and working out on his own that things aren’t so scary by continual, repeated exposure to us, the farm and so on. And the other half is down to the training and careful exposure activities over the past 18 months. It would be wrong to think that all the change he’s gone through is just down to training success.

Once we stopped training, we just spent time doing stuff he liked, like walks on the field, sniffing – with no purpose at all. We just hung out in the yard while we ran around and sniffed and chased any pigeons that dared to land nearby. He didn’t have to train or do anything, and that made him come to me and ask to train, by getting into heel position or ‘middle’ between my legs. We did what he wanted and trained a bit, but when he wasn’t feeling it anymore, we just left it. We had nowhere to get to.

I also felt incredibly freer. It was a constant stress knowing I wasn’t making the progress needed for Rudy to find a new home (after all, being a reactive dog owner is already a stressful job). I’d take backward steps in his progress really hard, and there were quite a few tears shed around this time. I can’t imagine the toll that people working in rescue go through dealing with that same stress but over many dogs and for decades. I couldn’t do it.

Fast forward to today, and we still do some work on his reactivity – for example, we’ve recently been working with my male neighbour as Rudy has a specific issue with men, but we do it at a pace that suits us. If it doesn’t work out, it’s no big deal.

Must have = Nice to have

His training progress in terms of his reactivity is now a ‘nice to have’ now, instead of a ‘must have’.

I’ve also learnt alot. I’ve learnt that in training a dog, you have to accept them as they are, and work on certain things so that you can all get along ok. You won’t get perfection (ok, some people seem to, but for those of us with reactive dogs, it’s likely we won’t ever end up with a dog who is excited and happy to see another dog. They might pass them in the street without barking, but will they ever be a completely different dog?).

I think of my own mental health struggles over my life. For years, I had a job where I had to get on a train to London – and I started having panic attacks on the train. I hated being confined, and my head would rush. I’d worry for days before traveling, and I would be consumed thinking about not panicking whenever I was on the train. It took up so much energy to cope that the job was secondary – I could do that part with my eyes shut. The coping with the crippling panic and anxiety was the hard bit.

I tried everything to change how I reacted to my anxiety and panic. Counselling, CBT, meditation, antidepressants for a period of time – and whilst some things helped – I was still an anxious person after it all.

What I realised is that I am a human, and we can reason and plan and understand things at an intellectual level – yet I was unable to change my own feelings, emotions and behaviour with regards to panic attacks. Yet, we somehow expect that our dogs, (who don’t understand why they’re having to change or the reasoning behind why their lunging and barking is an overreaction) should be able to change their behaviours with a few training sessions and treats.

So I’m much more understanding of my dogs and their reactivity now. We accept a degree of what they do and how they are, because otherwise life would be a constant training exercise. Some things we work on (like the extreme reactivity Rudy had to my son and husband), because otherwise life here would have been impossible and dangerous.

But the rest… Well we take it much easier now and try and enjoy our lives together.

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