"Walking with a Reactive Dog: Will it ever get easier?!"
It's no great secret that living with a reactive dog can be a lot of work. You might be constantly managing their environment, making sure that your dog isn't facing his triggers and reacting daily. You probably change your walking route, or only walk at certain times of the day. You always make sure to bring treats on walks with you, but not just treats, the good stuff, the salmon, the tripe, the stuff your dog goes batty for. You spend more time smelling like dehydrated whitefish than you'd like to admit. And you do this all for the dog you share your life with and love.
I love working with reactive dogs, but it is an emotionally challenging and patience trying endeavor. I often get asked by owners of reactive dogs if it ever gets easier. The answer is (drumroll please!)...
Yes. It absolutely gets easier BUT part of that is going to depend on how consistent you can be, and to be completely honest you will just get used to the various ways that you work to manage your dog. In the beginning everything really feels like a huge effort. Overhauling your schedule, your routine, and the equipment you walk with can be intimidating, But in time, it becomes just another habit to keep your treat pouch with your leash. Just like most people wouldn't think to leave the house without poop bags, grabbing your bait bag will simply become another part of your routine.
At the same time, it gets easier because you are training your dog to trust you, learning how to read them, and anticipating what might trigger your dog's reactive behavior. You'll learn what your dog will and won't be able to cope with, and making the decision to stand your ground, increase distance or find a physical barrier will become second nature. Your dog will understand that you're not going to put him in situations he can't cope in, and the more that you build that sense of trust the less your dog will feel the need to react.
Earlier this week Regis and I were rushed at a fence line by a dog in their yard. At the beginning of our training journey Regis would have lost his ever loving mind. It was like a switch would go off in his brain, he'd go from 0 to 60 in the blink of an eye, and then the rest of the walk he would stay in a heightened state of arousal, often staying "high" on adrenaline and cortisol for a day or more after the stressful event.
But this time. This time he took one look at the dog, all of his hackles went up in surprise, and he immediately turned to look at me and practically stared holes through my head while I reinforced him until we were away from the dog. Once the other dog was out of sight, he shook off, I scratched him under his chin for a minute, and we went on our way. We saw two more dogs on that walk, and Regis continued to keep his cool even after the initial stressful experience with the first dog.
Will Regis ever become a super social dog that I can take to the dog park? No. But having realistic expectations and appreciating your dog for who they are is a whole different topic that deserves a blog post all it's own. Has he gotten to the point where he's manageable in public, even pet stores? Has he gotten to the point where I can take a tricks class with him without him once reacting to one of the other dogs? Yes and yes. Using fear-free, force-free methods and managing his environment has all led to a dog that is much easier to live with.
The point of this post is to say: we'll never take your dog and turn him into another dog. That's not the purpose of training. But you WILL see improvement, and this training will get easier. Give it time, build your dog's confidence, and trust the process. Happy training!