I’m a trainer, why does my dog still react? And how acceptance can help.
I often see negative comments towards trainers because ‘they can’t even fix their own dogs’. And it’s a valid argument. I’m pretty open about my reactive dog and he’s 11 this year. So why after 11 years have I not changed my dog’s reactive behaviour?
For me, behaviour is not always something to look at as fixing. We are genetically built differently, we have different personalities. I worry, I get anxious, I stress over little things and am prone to have ups and downs on a daily basis. This is who I am, this is my journey, I’m not looking to make ‘me’ go away. I’m learning to love me and make friends with my quirks, my weirdness and the stuff that makes me, me.
My husband is confident, care free. Stress washes off him quickly and he never really worries. That’s what makes us two different people and it’s lovely.
There’s different kinds of behaviour problems and there’s different emotions behind it. I might be looking at a period of reactivity that comes from adolescence, pain related, a change in circumstances. This might not be the dog’s personality but comes as a result of something and quickly becomes practiced. I might want to get my dog back to where they were in this instance, I might support them through.
I might have a dog that’s hugely stressed and I need to give them and the owner the tools to get on top of that. Then we are working to remove the stress, which might ultimately be changing a behaviour, it might not. It might be using management to make life better because that works best and is most achievable in this person’s circumstances.
Or I might have a dog who is communicating and then I might want to find a way to help them communicate differently. Or in a way that’s okay for everyone. I’ve got my dog pretty much to where I want him, although as he gets older and stiffer, he does feel more vulnerable. The truth is he will always feel vulnerable, because he is. He’s small, he’s gets approached, bullied and chased. My main mission is to protect him, not to silence him. We have always lived in people and dog saturated areas and if he needs to shout, I don’t mind. I just want him to be happy.
Badger is happy in crowded places, walking past dogs, people being on public transport. But sometimes a dog or a person makes him really uncomfortable. And that’s okay, I feel the same too. The best thing about that, is he can tell me. I love it when he growls and that’s a behaviour I’ve reinforced. He likes using his voice, and it works best for me. It makes me listen quickly. His alarm bark can be a bit much so we compromised on a growl. To me it says ‘hey, I don’t like this guy’. And I can take action to get him distance. After all we are attached via the lead, and we need to communicate for this to work.
I say the same to him sometimes as a woman, I sometimes feel uncomfortable. ‘This guy makes me uncomfortable, let’s walk quickly and not sniff here’. It works both ways because it’s a relationship.
When we go in with the idea that we are going to ‘fix’ a dog. We are looking to silence their voice and who they are. I like the idea better that we are going to work with them. With the owner, the gain the tools to understand one another. I think being able to communicate with your animal, see the world from their point of view is a much more compassionate and essential skill. It brings about a relationship, not an ownership.
I often see that people find watching the quick fixes the most impressive. Because the dog is changed simply at the switch of the handler. But we aren’t seeing the owner gain skills, we aren’t seeing the dog gain skills. We are seeing a suppressed version. The dog is behaving the same way they would when we meet our partners parents for the first time. We are on our best behaviour, not really ourselves.
It looks impressive, but it’s not really real. And if the trainer is marching round with the dog, that’s not helpful, they aren’t the ones living with the dog every day.
It’s a really nice thing to get a dog to befriend you. It feels so good that it’s tempting for me to do with every stranger case I go into. But that’s not really helpful. It just teaches the dog to like me, not how to cope around strangers. I tend to keep myself ‘strange’ for longer in fact. So that the owner can practice their behaviour when we might be short on stooges. I don’t want to leave being best friends with the dog, I want to leave with the dog and owner better equipped to communicate around things, I want to leave having changed the way to dog feels. Even if they just feel heard. I want to leave behind the skills to continue the conversation so that things can be practiced over time, because learning to love, change and live with our emotions doesn’t happen overnight.
And don’t get me wrong there may be some circumstances where I need to work with the dog and befriend them. Maybe to get them
somewhere faster so the owner can then take over. But really, a couple of hours with a trainer will do nothing compared to what you as an owner can do in a lifetime. And what you and your dog can learn and get from one another.
Our dogs are the only animals we are desperate to silence. We don’t want to shut down a meowing cat, we love the squeak from our guinea pigs, we celebrate the sounds of farm animals in songs. But for some reason, our barking dogs aren’t supposed to. And really, if we get better at listening to their body language in the first place, they might not have to shout at all. So that’s why we need to think of our training sessions as therapy sessions, we aren’t going in to change, we’re going into listen. And why my version of the perfect dog
might not look like everyone else’s.
When we get out dogs, we aren’t getting the latest Mac book that should meet certain standards. We are getting a living, thinking being. Just like having a child. It’s okay for me to feel a little disappointed if my daughter loves ballet and not dog training. But I should also expect that, because it’s the ideals of what we put in our heads, what we think things should look like, that makes us dissatisfied.
If my dog barks, it’s not because I haven’t ‘fixed’ him, it’s because I’ve told him he can if he needs to, but I promise to try really hard not to make him feel he needs to. Because really we are both always fixing each other, picking each other up and supporting one another. Because we are a team.
When we start listen and not to try to change a behaviour, the behaviour tends to change anyway.