Last week I listened to this podcast, an episode about leash reactivity on The Great Dog Adventure. It became an instant favorite, because along with some great tips for training and management, trainer Fernando Camacho said something so inspiring, so freeing. He said "it might never get better." You might think I'm crazy for finding that encouraging, but accepting Ruby for who she is and what that means for our life together has been the single most helpful thing in dealing with her reactivity. In the early days I was so focused on "fixing it" that every walk was an exercise in frustration and disappointment. Every time she got to practice the behavior I was working so hard to reverse was another drop in the failure bucket, along with many tears. If I was expecting linear progress, I was stuck in a discouraging two-step.
When you live in the suburbs with an extremely hyper-vigilant terrier who is triggered by pretty much every thing that moves, it isn't an exaggeration to say that effective counter-conditioning/desensitization setups are impossible. There is the pack of skateboarders that clatter past just as you open the back gate. There is the off-leash apricot toy poodle that chases you barking while a small child tries to herd it back inside with a tennis racket (this actually happened to us on Sunday.) There is that evening when you narrowly avoid the woman walking two Yorkies only to round the corner to see a family with a stroller and two labs headed your way. Ruby barks and lunges and spins, and we make our escape as quickly as possible. If things get really hairy, I can thankfully pick her up. I've (mostly) stopped caring what other people think. Do you know what I've noticed in my life with my reactive dog? There are just as many people out there dodging behind hedges and making emergency U-turns with their dogs as not. I sometimes wish there were some secret hand signal of solidarity we could flash one another, if we had a free hand.
In one and a half years together, I've learned what works for us...and what doesn't. I've acknowledged our limitations. I celebrate small victories, such as Ruby's ability to sit and watch while a car goes by, or politely greet a neighbor. I know the best times and routes to walk, and I've even found some places we can go hiking with a relatively low chance of mishap. I'm not saying to give up, to stop training or stop goal-setting, but I am inviting you to give yourself and your dog a break. To appreciate your challenging dog's good qualities, to realize there might be a reason you were brought together. To re-evaluate the changes you can explore to make your lives easier, to find your dog's hidden talents, to accept the things you might never do and say "so what."