I think it’s important to apply the same empathy and ethical consideration to ourselves, our clients and people in general as we do other animals, so let’s acknowledge something; living with a reactive/adolescent animal can be incredibly wearing.
Previously, Quillan was a well known west end “pub dug” and settled happily in restaurants whilst I socialised. His reactivity obviously changed that. Initially I withdrew – I’m not ashamed to say I was embarrassed and frustrated, even though I understood what was happening. Introverting did nothing to help. (shocker)
I would ask you to be gentle with yourself. You cannot train through this if you don’t take breaks. Don’t feel awful either if your own feelings about your dog temporarily change – you’re a human being, you’ve probably already changed a lot about your life to accommodate him – and this part of it sucks.
There’s a lot you can do. In this installment we will look at management protocols, which implemented considerately will immediately help, and put you both on the road to “recovery”.
Number one. Realise this is normal and natural behaviour. The last year has taught me in fact, that it is extremely common – the posturing, staring, growling, humping, barking, fighting, particularly in intact, adolescent males. The key skills you will need to hone are ones of management; observation, prediction, and response.
Will every walk and most days you have be about this? Yes, absolutely. Management; training, connection (or reconnection!) and reinforcing the behaviour you want.
Try hard not to let the bad stuff happen, set up from the start for success. If your dog is ever off lead, it’s time to get the line back on; accept that this will be the case for the next six months to a year of the 12-18 years you will have with him. One really simple thing I changed was the locations of walks we took. Kelvingrove is a Victorian park – beautifully designed but with narrow pathways and no way out should I need to get some space. I became more vigilant in general, changing direction, crossing the street and varying the times I walked, working at distances which were effective for Quillan.
Go back to basics; give (and limit) choice to get the outcomes you want. Repetitions will build myelin, and strengthen neural pathways; animals are efficient; the more he makes that “good choice” the more likely he will again, and again. Studies show that during this period dogs “forget” behaviours you previously thought were established – he’s not being stubborn or obnoxious, we just need to work a little harder for now.
What does your exercise routine look like? If you are reading this, you’ve probably heard the adage “a tired dog is a well behaved/happy/quiet dog” Remember his growth plates haven’t closed, so assess this before you run him ragged. An arthritic dog isn’t happy one either.
Your dog still needs stimulation and enrichment; this is particularly important if you’ve had to remove some of his choices and access to play/dogs/people because of his reactivity and your new training plan. Low arousal games, scent work and cardio in a controlled environment work well. Regular training sessions where you can practice something fun will give you both a break, build confidence and release dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin,
changing his biochemistry. (and yours) Choose activities that avoid hyper arousal and give you opportunity to reinforce calm behaviours throughout.
Meanwhile please, take the time to celebrate your little successes. Mark and measure them. They are so important; keep them in the bank for rainy days and look forward to the summer you will enjoy again with your dog.