|Ruby soon after adoption, looking concerned...|
My first inspiration for starting this blog starring my reactive dog came from discovering blogs such as Rescued Insanity, Rollin' With Rubi and My Imperfect Dog. The stories of Shiva, Rubi and Silas made me feel like I was not alone in this world where seemingly every other dog I saw could walk down the street with a happy grin and a wagging tail oblivious to everything that would send Ruby into a volatile blur of red and white.
Now several months in and I still haven't gone into a whole lot of detail about Ruby's various issues. I don't even have a tag for it yet! I find that I'd much rather talk about her brilliant mastery of a new trick than her embarrassing freak-out at the cyclist/man walking briskly toward her/dog across the street on our most recent walk. So, I'm here to say: I have a reactive dog. Ruby spins, barks and lunges at dogs, pedestrians, cyclists, skateboards and sometimes cars if she's run out of spoons on-leash, from inside the car and from inside the house.
Ruby's reactive behavior did not become apparent until about a month after I adopted her, and early on I spent a lot of time blaming myself, thinking that I "ruined my dog" by overdoing it at the start with the dog park, doggie day care and group classes. Ruby was the youngest dog I've ever had and while I know we missed the critical socialization period by a long shot, I thought it would still do her good to be exposed to lots of different things. Now that I know her better, I realize that she was probably extremely shut-down and stressed out during that first month, and did not begin to exhibit her true personality until later. Her background is unknown, and coming from a high-kill shelter in Arkansas, it's not a stretch to guess that it probably wasn't good. With herding breed and terrier in her make-up, both groups which can be prone to reactivity, and transitioning from puppy to adult, it is probably a complicated miasma of genetics and circumstance that make Ruby the dog she is. Luckily, or unluckily, she is not my first reactive dog, although she is less discriminating in her triggers than my late Norwegian Elkhound, Freya. After my initial panic, I buckled down to the work of management. I had several sessions with a professional trainer whose philosophies were in line with my own, I gathered all of the information I could about positive reinforcement training and assembled an arsenal of tools: calming music, Thundershirt products, various harnesses and head-collars, and the magical peanut butter bottle. It can all be overwhelming, but it's imperative to take things one day at a time. It will most likely be work that is never done.
We haven't had any drastic improvements, and there have been inevitable ups and downs. No matter how careful you are to control the environment, the environment is not entirely within your control. What I do notice are little changes in Ruby: how she wags her tail more, how she can watch people walk by outside from the living room window (but still not dogs), how her body language is loose and relaxed when we get close to home after a walk. Ultimately, what has changed the most over the past five months are my own attitude and expectations. I love this dog. This dog is forever. What I want most for her is for her to feel calm and confident and happy and I'm going to do my best to protect her from the things that make her feel otherwise, and nurture the behavior that will help her cope. While I do wish we could have normal walks where I am not scanning the horizon for other dogs, suddenly changing direction to avoid a jogger or ducking behind cars in hopes that she won't notice the approaching cyclist, I've become more accepting of where we're at right now, and where our comfort zone is. Most importantly, I have patience with Ruby and with myself. If I'm not feeling up to high-caliber distraction tactics, we opt for a shorter walk in an area we are less likely to run into anyone. If we have a bad day, I try to reevaluate everything that happened, and what can be improved upon.
Many reactive-dog-blogs I follow are, for all intents and purposes, on the other side, or at least several years in to the journey. They've successfully attended group classes or competed in agility. Ruby and I are a long way from such things, but I like to think they are possible.
I wanted to tell the story of starting out, of looking our anxious, fearful, hyper-vigilant, sensitive dogs in the eyes and saying "we're in this together." I want this to be a place for hope, encouragement and commiseration. A place to share ideas and victories large and small, be it gaining a Canine Good Citizen Title or passing a stranger without barking. This is the beginning...the only logical place to start. Reactivity is not a dirty word, it's more common than you probably think, and our complicated dogs have so much to teach us.