Having a Reactive Dog Has Made Me a Better Dog Trainer
I’m not big on God or religion, but I do believe that something out there in the universe brings us the dogs that we need, at just the time when we’re ready to find each other. Charlotte and Mercury are eight years apart. They are very different dogs, I was a very different person when I met each of them, and yet they both are exactly the dog that I needed.
This autumn it will be two years since my partner and I first saw Charlotte’s sad little face peering out of a rescue van on a crowded Brooklyn sidewalk, turned to each other caught in her spell and wondered aloud why our dog was inside that van and not with us. Within an hour she was ours, and we were hers, and on our way home together. We knew that she had dog reactivity issues, but I had background working with dogs and would be able to handle those issues. Charlotte was just the dog for us, and we were just the family for her.
It makes me sad when I see people talking about how hard it is to have a reactive dog. When all that is said is what a burden and disappointment “a dog like that” is. It’s not that I don’t understand their frustration; I’m certainly not immune from occasional moments of aggravation or sadness when I watch other people enjoying a (seemingly) effortless walk through a crowded park with their dogs.
Yet, even though sometimes those feelings can overtake me, I consistently return to the place of knowing that I wouldn’t trade our youngest dog (and her dog reactivity) for the least reactive dog in the world, not only because of how deeply I deeply love her, and how the emotional scars from a rough start in life are part of her, but also because being Charlotte’s guardian has helped me to grow into being a much better, more thoughtful and creative trainer. I’ve been training dogs since I was a teenager and have learned something from every dog I’ve been in contact with, but Charlotte has pushed me to continue to strive to be the best trainer that I can become.
Here are the important training lessons that I’ve learned from Charlotte:
Life can be busy; it’s easy to get distracted in our fast-paced world. Having a reactive dog means that in order to do the best for her I have to minimize my own distractions when we are working together and put the emphasis on supporting her. It’s my responsibility to ensure that she has 100 percent of my attention, which enables her to work. It’s not fair for me to expect her to work hard if I’m not putting in the same effort and my attention is divided between her and my phone or to-do lists in my head.
Having a reactive dog means thinking outside the box. We should always train our dogs as individuals and focus on meeting their individual needs as apposed to a cookie cutter approach to dog training. That said, sometimes it’s easy to get lazy. Charlotte always keeps me on to of my game and focused on coming up with new and innovative ways to engage her in learning.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from having a reactive dog is staying flexible, because sometimes even the best laid plans will fail. It’s my responsibility to be able to think on my feet to change things up and create a training plan when what I had initially planned didn’t work.
Every dog needs consistency in her life, but I’ve found it to be especially true when you are working through any kind of behavioral issue, like reactivity. Because it’s so obvious what she needs, I’ve become a more consistent trainer. This is true not only of the frequency of which I train, but also the ways I structure that training time.
I live in NYC and I've been known to be a little bit type A, also known as extremely driven, hectic, etc. Having a dog who needs special attention has resulted in my reshaping my own expectations of my dogs and of myself. One of the best lessons I’ve learned from Charlotte has been to relax, to reevaluate, and to remain centered, secure and present in an individual moment together.
One of the things that is most consistent about Charlotte is the intense joy she experiences with her home and family. When we got Charlotte she’d never seen a toy before, and I’ll never forget the happiness that spread across her face when she learned how to play. I want to always live with that degree of joy in my own life. Charlotte is an excellent role model for me. She lives fully and completely, not only every day, but in each moment. She has inspired me not only to be the best trainer I can be, but also to live my own life more fully present.
What about your dogs has helped you to be a better trainer? What life lessons have you learned from your dogs?
About the author: Sassafras Lowrey is a dog-obsessed author based in Brooklyn. She is the winner of the 2013 Berzon Emerging Writer Award from the Lambda Literary Foundation, and the editor of two anthologies and one novel. Sassafras is a Certified Trick Dog Instructor, and she assists with dog agility classes. She lives with her partner, two dogs of dramatically different sizes, and two bossy cats. She is always on the lookout for adventures with her canine pack. Learn more at her website.
Read more by Sassafras Lowrey: