My reactive Dog is Different
Welcome to the second blog in my Soul Dog Journey. Haven't read the first post? Hop on over here to read all about how my soul dog wasn't who I thought he was...
For this post, I decided to go a little off the original prompts from the last few weeks of the Soul Dog Journey Project. Because of his anxiety and reactivity, Omega isn't like most dogs. But his uniqueness has taught me a lot about dogs, and about life, some of which I wanted to share with you all.
not all dogs are created equal
This seems like a no-brainer, but it's not. In fact, it seems to be such a little-known fact that it can be difficult navigating pet services and the pet community when you have a dog that doesn't fit what a "normal" dog is. Most people seem to believe that all dogs are happy, outgoing creatures that just want to please people. They should love people, get along well with other dogs, and never show signs of aggression (unless, of course, they're a military or police dog on the job). So what happens when your dog doesn't fit these standards? Does it make you a bad dog owner because your dog is uncomfortable with strangers sticking their hand in his face? Or because your pup is dog-selective, and doesn't want to play with dogs outside of his pack?
I'm here to tell you it doesn't make you a bad dog owner, and it doesn't make your dog a bad dog, either. It does, however, mean that sometimes you have to look at interacting with your dog differently than you're used to. Even for a single dog you may need to approach each new situation differently (especially in the case of reactive dogs like Omega).
finding the right training tool isn't always easy (but it is important)
When we first started dealing with Omega's anxiety and reactivity, we tried just about everything out there - e-collars, prong collars, gentle leaders, martingales, and probably six different types of harnesses. It took a long time (and the help of a trainer) to find what worked for him. If we had stopped on the first training tool, I guarantee we wouldn't have had the same results as we've had with him.
And while I'm on the subject of training, it's also incredibly important to find the right trainer. One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give to anyone dealing with a reactive dog is this - get help. You're not in this alone, and there are lots of people out there who want to help you and your pup learn the skills necessary to live an enjoyable life. However, the dog training industry is unregulated. So do your homework before hiring a trainer. And listen to your gut - if something feels off, speak up. You are your dog's advocate.
crate training can save your dog's life
We have three dogs in our house, and two of them are crate trained. We got a lot of push-back from people we knew when we crate trained Arawn, but we knew we were doing it for his safety (he's destructive when left alone, and we didn't want to risk coming home to a dog that was dead or seriously injured because of something he got into). With Omega, crate training was even more important. For him, his crate became a respite - a place he could go when the stimulus of life became too much. His crate isn't a form of punishment (though we do tell him to go to his crate when he starts harassing the cat too much). But he goes willingly because we've trained him that it's a good place to be.
When we started having issues with Omega resource guarding me and our bed in the middle of the night (he would literally get up at 3AM to bark at Arawn), we started having him sleep in his crate in the other room. Not only do we get better sleep, but he sleeps through the night without the anxiety that one of the other dogs is going to steal his spot in the middle of the night. Every morning when I come out to let him out of his crate, I find him flopped over on his side, passed out.
a busy mind is less anxious
Okay, I don't really have a way to measure if keeping Omega occupied actually makes him less anxious, but it helps him to not fixate on things that increase his anxiety. Our household has become connoisseurs of brain games for dogs. We have everything from lickimats to snuffle mats to puzzle toys. Any time I sense Omega is starting to get overwhelmed, I redirect him with a lickimat or other toy in his crate. He'll happily lick peanut butter out of a Kong or try to open his puzzle toy for as much time as his brain and body need to settle back down.
Here are some of our favorites:
we're incredibly lucky
While Omega's anxiety and aggressive behaviors may seem overwhelming and untreatable to someone looking in from the outside, he's actually a fairly moderate case. I'm not trying to downplay the bites (yes, he has a few under his belt) or the barking (I'm sure our neighbors love us), but I do recognize that there are lots of dogs out there whose situations are much more serious. At the end of the day (after a good walk, some serious mental stimulation, and a nice helping of Prozac), we have a dog that actually wants to play and snuggle with us. Sure, it's taken a lot of hard work and commitment to get to where we are with Omega, but it's been incredibly rewarding to watch him grow as a dog. And when I look at him, and he looks at me, I recognize a sensitive, empathetic soul that connects with mine.
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Have a reactive dog and want to share your words of wisdom? Drop them in the comments below.