Reading through Debbie’s words, it struck home all over again. It made me realize that I have been horribly lax on writing these words, but that they still needed to be written. She posted this in the Fearful Dogs FB group and resonated with not only myself, but with many other readers and commenters.
“Slow. Helping a dog who struggles with fear and anxiety is slow work. Often the hurry we’re in is for the dog’s sake, come on little buddy there’s a world of fun out there! But this doesn’t change that it’s likely to proceed slower than you can imagine. Welcome to the slow training club.
Until you live with a dog who is not just facing an adjustment period that they will most likely get through and resume being able to live an engaged life, you may struggle accepting how slow it can be. Many of us didn’t sign up for the degree of rehab some of our dogs need. Or if we did we may have assumed this dog would be like the others who came around with what at the time seemed like work on our part, but it was a cake walk compared with what we’re dealing with now.
But this is it friends. There is no magic, no simply tips, tricks or protocols to fix them. Any trainer you work with should be coaching you to see a vet, keep the dog feeling safe, explaining how to implement desensitization and counter conditioning, and how to train the dog to do exactly what you want or need them to do using positive reinforcement.
What we need to do is the simple part, there is no need to reinvent the wheel for that, the challenge is doing it.”
I remember the moment that we really realized what we were dealing with and how we just stared helplessly at one another and tried to not cry. We tried, but in the end, the tears still came. They came that day, just as they did countless days after, and even today as I remember it. It was heartbreaking to see Xeva so far over threshold- a concept we didn’t even understand at the time and we had no idea what to do to help her.
It was a somewhat overcast day at our local dog show and we had her there with us. We had gone to shows previously and there had been no issues other than her being a little overwhelmed by all the noise and movement- but nothing like we saw that day. It was still early and the rings weren’t even up and running, barely any handlers or dogs were out and about yet- it was peaceful. Except for our little huddle- three women watching Xeva struggle and feeling helpless.
Simply put, she was a mess. Barking, growling, snapping at us, unable to process our voices trying to talk to her, soothe her- anything. She simply could not handle the little bit of motion from the few handlers in the distance with their dogs. She couldn’t handle us trying in our own way to calm her, to let her know she was safe.
We took her home when we finally managed to calm her a little. We had no idea what to do to help her.
We had people ask us if we had considered putting her to sleep and we would always answer “No.”
Not because we hadn’t, deep inside in the part of your heart that wonders if it would be for the best. We said no because we knew that she deserved a chance. With us, she was, and still is, the most loving, happy, face punchy with enthusiasm, Aussie I have ever met. But if she met you, she would be terrified. Even now, after 4 years, she would be wary and we wouldn’t put her in that situation of having to meet you- not without a good 4 feet of space between us.
She is a reactive dog- both towards people and other dogs.
No, she is not doing it to be mean or scary.
She IS scared.
She doesn’t know how to politely ask you to leave her alone, to not pet her, to not come running up in her face. She asks in the only way that she thinks will work, the only clear way that any living thing knows will immediately create space. She barks. She growls. And if you still refuse to listen to her, begging for you to leave her alone- to give her the space she is pleading for, she snaps.
In her mind, those were her only options. To her, the world outside is a terrifying place.
She relies on us to give her a sounding board about the world around her. To help her make a decision when she isn’t sure of herself- which is often, even now. We have worked so hard to make her feel safe, but the simple truth is- there is no easy fix. It takes so much love and patience to work with a reactive/fearful dog. It is physically and emotionally draining and filled with nearly daily heartbreak in the beginning.
Some dogs may get better over time and become less reactive. Some require daily management of their worlds to make them feel safe, but never improve outside of their bubble. Some get worse, in spite of our best efforts and regardless of how much love we have for them and we may have to ultimately make that hard choice, remembering that we are freeing them from the torment of their own mind, no matter how much they might adore us.
Did we worry about what people thought of our girl when we first started training with her? Absolutely. For all outward appearances, she looked about as unfriendly as possible once you tried to come close. But over time, you start to grow thick skin. You start to ignore the looks, the comments, the “oh, that dog has a muzzle on- she must be mean!”. In the end, you realize that their thoughts are not important. And when they comment about how they wish they could get their dogs to focus on them as strongly as yours does, you just smile and say thank you, because they have no idea how many hours upon hours over the years you’ve had to work to get your dog to lock in on you instead of fixating on the ever changing world around you. To check in with you. To look to you for guidance when something scary or different appears instead of reacting instantly. When they admire the bond between you two, you know it is because you have gone through hell and back together and she knows she can trust you implicitly to be her rock.
It is not an easy task. You have to build up your support base- your vet, your trainer, your family and friends. You find wonderful people (like Debbie), who are fountains of knowledge and aren’t afraid to tell you what you need to hear. It IS possible to love and live with a fearful/reactive dog. But it is full of challenges.
You learn to constantly monitor your surroundings in public. To watch for the bicyclist that might scare them. The little rock that is sticking up just slightly more than the others out of the ground. To enthusiastically reward any bravery on their part when they creep towards that scary object to investigate.
They can be wonderful, loving dogs. It might only be towards a small circle of people, but they will love you, unconditionally, with their whole heart and everything that they are. They may never be the open and friendly dog, show dog, therapy animal, or any of the dreams you might have had, but odds are, they may be your heart dog. That once in a lifetime friend who teaches you, challenges you, and loves you more than any other dog you’ve had before.
One last shout out before I go- thank you to Debbie and her wonderful group for all that she she does and all of the handlers and dogs that she has helped. You are an amazing woman and we are all lucky to have you as a sounding board!
It is hard work- but it’s work that’s worth it.
Photo credit to Tyler and Hannah Photography