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5 Things my Reactive Dog Taught Me

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I’m sure you’ve heard me say it before, and I will never stop saying it. I truly believe the reactive dogs and the difficult dogs of the world teach us the most.

If you ask any animal care field professional – a dog trainer, a vet, a vet tech, a shelter worker, anyone – I guarantee you that while yes, we all want to help animals, most of us are inspired and motivated by one particular animal we’ve had the pleasure of owning. For most of us, that animal is a very difficult animal that we’ve had a long journey with.

I don’t want to downplay the very serious, challenging, and emotionally draining times that we go through with our reactive dogs, but I do want to encourage you to shift your mindset and think about it from a different perspective. What has your dog taught you that no other dog could?

Here are the 5 things my reactive dog, Buster, has taught me.

#1 – PATIENCE

This one is kind of a given, right?

Training a reactive dog is a very slow and steady process. Sometimes you take three steps forward only to take one step backward. And, since I’m human, there are definitely days that my patience wears thin. On those days, I get creative and make sure I set Buster up for success so that there is no need for patience to run out.

#2 – COMPASSION

Owning a reactive dog is a very unique struggle, and I don’t believe you can fully understand and appreciate that unless you’ve lived with a reactive dog 24/7 for years. It can be a roller coaster with a lot of highs and lows, and then add in the self-doubt, judgement from other people, and well, you’ve got a whole slew of things stacking against the mental health of the owner.

Owning a reactive dog has really taught me that you absolutely do not know what someone is going through just by looking at them. Someone could be laughing so hard that they’re crying, but it’s possible that in five more minutes they’ll return to a really broken state.

#3 – TO FIND JOY

Most owners don’t intentionally seek out a reactive dog. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Most of us get a dog to be a companion, or travel buddy, or even sport prospect, only to realize he’s reactive and that those dreams may never be achieved (and yep, this is yet another thing that adds to the mental unwellness of the owner.)

If you’ve listened to Episode 4 of my podcast, Buster’s Story, you’ll know that I had those exact dreams. When I got Buster, I intended to for him to be the perfect brewery patio dog and sport companion on the weekend. This was a realistic goal for me at the time, because he was not reactive as a puppy. He only became reactive after a single learning event when he was a little over a year old.

This is a difficult truth for a lot of owners to come to terms with – that their dog isn’t a match for the goals they had in life. Some people will inevitably rehome their dog or try again with a new puppy.

Buster taught me to be adept at making adjustments and trying new things.

Despite Buster’s reactivity, we have been able to hike so many miles together and travel together, all the while having little to no reactions thanks to training and being strategic. In the beginning, I picked our outings very specifically. I would spend hours on AllTrails finding possible secluded hiking trails, and I’d go out with a Plan B and C i case the first trail head parking lot was busy.

When we camp, we place the car strategically to be a visual barrier for the busiest direction. When we hike, we use things like super high value treats, emergency U-turns, and scatter feedings if we’re in a pinch.

Going out with a reactive dog is more challenging than with most dogs, but I promise that if you just spend a little extra time planning and being smart, that the world is still available to you to have fun and explore new places.

#4 – PRECISION

I can basically promise you that any trainer that has owned a reactive dog will say that reactive dog made them a better trainer. It’s true.

There are so many techniques and skills that you have to work through to find what works best for you and your dog. And, of course, reactive dogs teach us that timing is by far, the most important thing in training. You have to be observant and quick and really hone in on your marking and rewarding timing, because if you don’t, with a reactive dog, you risk a reaction.

#5 – celebrate the small wins

Like I mentioned earlier, owning a reactive dog can be emotionally difficult, because there’s a lot of forwards but then backwards movement.

Owning a reactive dog will absolutely teach you to celebrate the small wins, and honestly, this is something we can all apply to our regular daily lives as well. We often spend entirely too much time focusing on the big wins or the noticeable, social media worthy highlight moments, but the truth is, those big moments don’t happen out of nowhere. They’re an accumulated effect from the little daily moments that you’re working on every single day of life.

Celebrate those small moments, because without them, there would be no big moments.

I know owning a reactive dog is a challenge, and I’m definitely not minimizing that because hey, I’ve been through those dark days too. My challenge for you is to spend the next day intentionally having a positive mindset about your dog and trying to find the good silver lining, because I promise, it exists.

What has your dog taught you?

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