Owning a Reactive Dog: My Story
In the beginning of my training career, I was adamant on sticking to a positive only approach.
“Why do anything else when it is the best thing for the dog? The science proves it!”
This is what I learned and preached to those around me. I was constantly reading articles and watching videos of professional trainers rant on about how it was the best solution - the ONLY solution - and if you thought or did differently, you were an animal abuser - and I believed them.
“Shock collars and prong collars are unnecessary and abusive, you should never need them!” I would tell literally everyone.
The science said so; I was obsessed with this idea.
As a 16 year old girl with her first dog, I became addicted to dog training. I would watch trainers on YouTube teach their dogs some of the most amazing behaviors. I wanted a dog like that, and to be a trainer!
Through the use of these amazing tutorials and from the help of many generous trainers on forums, I was able to train my German Shepherd a multitude of fascinating dog tricks and behaviors from simply sitting, to painting pictures and putting laundry in the washer.
It was amazing. I was well on the way to having a well trained dog whom I socialized with people, dogs, and other animals.
But then came the reactivity.
What do I mean by reactivity? I mean the awful lunging, barking, and SCREAMING behavior that my beloved, and formally well trained German Shepherd had started showing around 7 months old.
I was so embarrassed. My walks would end with me crying, feeling like I failed my dog. Feeling like I failed as a trainer! I would be pulled down, bruised up which is no fun for a tiny girl with a big dog.
I blamed myself. I told myself that I did not do good enough with her and was close to giving up on my dream and passion, as well as my career. If I could not train my own dog to stop this behavior, then how could I train other people’s dogs?
Once this behavior started to appear I frantically searched the internet for any tutorials that existed that would help guide my dog and I on the right path. I turned to those trainers I oh so admired for answers.
“Don’t punish her for it. It could make the reactivity worse as she will associate the punishment with the dog or person NOT the behavior.”
“Use a front hook harness to control her front end and turn around before she reacts”
“Use classical counter conditioning, pair the stimulus with the reward.”
“Stay away from the threat and work closer to the stimulus over time!”
“Punishment will just suppress the behavior!”
These were just a few of the many pieces of advice I was given.
I followed this advice rigorously. I would set out on my walks, my dog equipped with a front hook harness and a bag full of her favorite treats (real meat), and of course her favorite toy - a frisbee.
I set out to find any people or dogs I could and I worked at a distance. Over time I would work closer and closer.
I was very dedicated.
My dog knew the expectation of the walk as I did a good job imprinting obedience on her. She would stay at heel for the duration of the walk, we would see a dog and work as far away as we could to keep her under threshold.
However, the problem with this was the surprises. We would be doing great, having success then BAM! A person comes around a corner with their dog.
“Can he say hi? He’s friendly!”
“Can I pet your dog? She is really pretty! I am great with dogs and can help socialize her by you letting me pet her!”
They would say as my dog lunged and barked at them clearly out of control, causing me to feel frustrated like I was the bad guy. I could not get any control on the front hook harness as my dog was able to pull through it.
I would attempt to redirect her with obedience or a treat, but she was so over threshold it did not matter.
We did this every single day for months.
The random run-ins with people and dogs was a huge challenge to us. I could not control the variables in the world as they were unpredictable. Frustrated, I turned yet again to the trainers that I have loved and even looked to other trainers to get more insight.
“Use a head halter to help keep her focus on you. Reward as you approach the stimulus. If she reacts, the halter will give better control as you control her head. Be sure to direct her attention to your face.”
Yes! A different technique! It sounded like I would have more control. I immediately went to the nearest petsmart and bought myself a head halter.
I felt hope, I was so excited!
As soon as I got home I started introducing Celia to the halter.
She hated it.
I used training techniques to teach her to put it on herself and move into the pressure. However, I found that I would be fighting her over trying to rub her nose on the concrete, causing an ugly sore.
I understood it would take some time to adjust to it as putting a halter on a dog is pretty unnatural if they were never raised and desensitized to it from a young age. After she got used to it, I attempted my training exercises that were suggested by the trainers.
Again, we had an unexpected run in with a person/dog during our session. Huge explosion, shaking of the head, increased frustration on both ends of the leash.
I tried to stay calm, as I understood that how I feel will transfer to her. However, even with calmness I noticed the reactivity continue to escalate - more so with the halti.
This was it. I did not know what else to do. It was the same results no matter what I tried. I began to struggle with thoughts like:
“You're doing it wrong."
“Your relationship with your dog is not good enough for her to want to focus on you.”
“Why did you get a German Shepherd if you can’t handle one? What is wrong with you!”
I was so tired of it.
It was at this moment that I turned to other trainers. Those who said they used a balanced approach.
They said they understood what I am dealing with, and were willing to give me advice which included *gasp*
Using a PRONG COLLAR!
I thought "How could I use such a thing on my beloved girl? Who would ever use such an abusive tool!"
I didn’t want her to hate me or be afraid! Or even worse - make her more reactive like the halti did!
These trainers pointed me to some resources that educated me on the proper use of a prong collar.
After reading and watching the resources, I decided to go against everything I believed in and purchase my first prong collar.
I reluctantly fit it on Celia, and played the leash pressure games that I was shown to condition her to the collar and help her understand it.
Her attitude was great and she clearly understood the sensation and what to do with it. This made me feel good and gave me some encouragement. When I felt like we both were confident with our new tool, we set out on our first walk with the prong collar.
We saw a dog in the distance, we did our counter condition techniques just like before, and moved on with our walk - no surprises or reactions.
Our next walk- a dog begins to approach us. I could not create as much space as we have needed in the past. I attempt to get her attention right when the dog appears and give space, Celia disengages and locks up.
The reaction begins - but ended very quickly when she attempted to charge the end on the leash and to her surprise received her very first correction.
She looked at me.
I told her sit and she followed through. We both watched as the dog walked on by.
BIG REWARD PARTY
She did not make a bad association to the dog (or me). She knew exactly why she got the correction as I had made training criteria very clear.
She didn’t hate or fear me. In fact, our relationship bloomed and her confidence increased!
She was less stressed out, it turns out reactions are way more stressful than a few quick leash corrections!
To be clear, it was not 100% cured as she would have a reaction here or there. However, they were greatly reduced and then with time and dedication disappeared.
I was able to walk my dog confidently again!
Both of the quality of our lives dramatically improved. We were both confidently able to go on walks together and see the world without crazy barking and being pulled down.
Just a couple moments of stress from a collar stopped us from enduring ongoing stress for the rest of our lives together. We have been able to go places that I could not imagine she became an amazing dog that I have grown to trust in almost any situation.
There was no horrible sore or side effects from using the collar, simply a few quick corrections then complete bliss when on a walk.
I often wonder where we would be today if I did not make the decision of following a balanced trainers advice by trying a prong collar. Would I have been able to give her as good of a quality of life?
From going through this experience, I have realized how confused and frustrated many pet owners must be with their own reactive dogs, as this is a very common behavior - especially in German Shepherds.
9 years later, my dog has no side effects from corrections.
My clients that have come to me for help with their reactive dogs have been successful, and are also living higher quality lives with their dogs.
I know reactivity can be tough! I have clearly been there. It is important that we keep an open mind and don’t let people scare us away from using tools that may work very well for our dogs specific needs.
I understand a prong collar is not for every dog as I have worked with many that have not benefitted from the action it gives. But it should not be ruled out simply due to fear of misuse - proper education of a tool can lead to a lot of benefits.
Owners mean well and shaming people for wanting to correct and do best for their dog will simply lead to more dogs losing their homes and ending up in shelters, living lower quality lives, or worse.
Owner/lead trainer of Spirited K9 in Blue Ridge, GA
P.S - I love you Celia you have taught me so much.