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  • Writer's pictureRebekah Piedad

Experiencing Trauma with Your Reactive Dog

One of the things I’ve been thinking a great deal about lately is how desensitization and counterconditioning is not just for our dogs.  It’s for us, too.

Chilly's mom practices Chilly's new skills with a fake dog present. Chilly doesn't know the dog is fake, but his mom gets to practice when the stakes are lower before we work with real dogs.

You see, if you have a dog with reactivity or an aggression history, there is a high probability that you have undergone some level of trauma.  Perhaps you were bitten, someone else was bitten, or you were afraid that your dog was going to bite.  Maybe you had to pay for another dog’s veterinary bill because of what your dog did.  Perhaps your dog was loud and caused an embarrassing scene even if no physical harm was done, or your dog terrified someone, and you feel guilty.  It’s possible that your dog is stronger than you, so you either dropped the leash or got hurt trying desperately to hang on.  Maybe you’ve experienced several of these and probably multiple times.  Now, whenever you see things that you think might trigger your dog to react, you associate those things with your dog’s scary behavior, and you begin to react.  You can no longer think.  You just start doing things.  You crank up on the leash.  You scold your dog.  You start running away, yanking the lead as you go.  Maybe you lose a good portion of your fine motor control, and you completely forget the stuff you’ve practiced with your trainer or you can’t seem to make your body do the things you know it’s supposed to do.  Heck, you probably have no idea what you are doing in the moment. Possibly you just stand there frozen, unable to make a decision, unable to respond.  What you do know is that you feel the rush of adrenaline, your heart pounding, and your stomach sinking. Your face flushes with hot, stabbing pins and needles. In half a second, you experience fear, anger, guilt, and shame. And then, your dog reacts to your response, affirming everything you were afraid of.

I see you.  I understand the fear and anxiety you are experiencing.  It is not. your. fault.  I’m going to say that again.  It is NOT. YOUR. FAULT.  You cannot control the way your nervous system responds to past experiences. And we trainers need to do a better job of taking care of you.  You developed your fear, anxiety, and reactivity the exact same way your dog did.  You developed a negative conditioned emotional response, and treating your dog’s behavior means that we need to treat not only their negative conditioned emotional response but yours as well.

Most of the time, by the end of a board and train, I can place a dog in an environment where they have never been successful before, and they can calmly demonstrate all their new behavior skills. Sure, I’m using some strategic management to help them be successful, but the reality is that they are in closer proximity to many of their triggers than they could have ever been while in their owner’s hands.  However, when I bring in the owner to train the human end of the leash, the owner has so much trauma around having their dog near these triggers that they lose their ability to follow instructions.  They panic.  And I haven’t included the owner’s panicked behavior in the various contexts in which I’ve performed DS/CC with the dog.  So reactivity chaos ensues.

This is a failure on my end as the trainer, not on the part of the owner.  This is because I failed to keep the owner under threshold while they learned new skills, and I did not slowly desensitize and countercondition their emotional response to these triggering scenarios.

So, let me do things better.

To owners of dogs with reactivity, I want to encourage you to take it slowly.  If you do not think well under pressure, as far as it is within your control to do, do not allow yourself so much pressure when you train your dog.  Even if your trainer can walk your dog through the middle of Home Depot, if that makes you nervous, start YOUR training where you need to in order to be successful.  Build on YOUR successes.  Sure, with great handling, your dog may be able to do much more.  But you need to build the skills and the confidence and to desensitize and countercondition your own emotional response in order to be successful.  So maybe you start at the back of a giant parking lot when most people are at work.  Maybe you start at a large field that few people visit.  Push your comfort zone just a tiny bit as you practice the skills with your dog that your trainer taught you, but don't allow yourself (or your trainer) to stomp all over that comfort zone.  And as you add win after win to your experiences and your own emotional response begins to change, you can push your limits a tiny bit more.  Bring a friend who will help you remember to have fun training.  Someone who cracks jokes and won’t be horrified if your dog does react.  Give yourself lots of breaks while you are training.  Go hide in the car, snuggle with your dog, or play tug behind a barrier.  And when you are done, get yourself a treat at your local coffee shop while you get your dog a pup cup so you can enjoy each other while you laugh at your dog’s whipped cream nose.  Making sure YOU have a good time is just as important as making sure your dog does. Then, go home, rest, take some time off, and come back and do it again.  Take video of your sessions and review those videos when you are in a good state of mind so that you can make sure you are doing what you think you are.  When you are happy with your videos and your dog’s behavior, push your limits just a little bit again.

Rommel the German Shepherd takes a break from training to play in the water. Is the break for him or for me? BOTH! It's important for us both to love training!

The single most important thing I can tell my clients is that they need to take care of themselves if they want to have success training their dog with reactivity.  Show yourself grace.  Know you are in good company.  If you invested in a quality board and train that uses positive reinforcement and works to change your dog’s emotional response rather than punishing them when they are scared, you can have faith in the training; but recognize that you will likely need to do a whole lot of work yourself in order to have both the confidence and skill to give your dog the correct information so that both of you can remain calm in what used to be stressful environments. And if it falls apart, it’s okay.  We trainers got you.  We understand.  Your fellow clients understand, relate, and support you.  There are thousands of you. We’ll get through this together, and we will help you focus on meeting your needs just as much as (and hopefully even more than) your dog’s.

Car snuggles with Rommel. Another break from training.

On behalf of all of us trainers who become so focused on what the dog needs that we sometimes forget the human they are depending upon, I am sorry.  We will do better to help you.

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