Lessons from a “bad” dog
For almost 2 months, I’ve been spending endless hours staring at the cursor on my screen being busy going back and forth, back and forth, as I constantly write and then delete four simple words: my dog is reactive.
Facing up to the fact myself that I have a reactive dog was really hard but admitting it publicly is a thousand times worse as I face the humiliating shame of criticism from others that I have failed my dog. I have been an owner of a reactive dog for over eight years now and I am not new to being the target of razor sharp opinionated judgments: “Your dog is bad”, “You’re not a good dog owner”, “Look at the state of that dog”, “That dog should wear a muzzle at all times”, and worse. Much, much worse.
Over time, I came to realize that I’m not alone. There are many of us out there who feel ashamed of our apparent failures as dog owners, feeling hopeless that the situation will ever change and utterly alone in carrying this heavy burden.
We walk our dogs early in the mornings or late in the evenings when it’s quiet, we know all the most secluded places where we’re on the constant lookout for something, anything that may cause our dog to react. Our lives are ruled by meticulously managing our dogs to reduce the possibility of an incident and we can’t ever truly relax.
This was not how we imagined our life as a dog owner would be when we first got our puppy. So many times, we secretly admit to ourselves that we’d actually just like to quit, to throw in the towel, to jump off this train because it’s just not working and we’re actually just so damned tired of it all.
But we don’t. We are no quitters; we don’t give up on our animals. We know our dog is not “bad”, we just know that something somewhere along the line has gone wrong and both us and our reactive dog aren’t coping very well at all. We feel out of our depth and can no longer ignore the heart-breaking expressive eyes of our dogs which are relaying emotions of confusion, fear or utter panic when in certain situations and we realise our dog is way out of his depth too. When alone and in safe, familiar surroundings, we ourselves see what a great dog he is, and we wring our hands in despair for being the only one to know that.
This is my story and the story of my beloved Czechoslovakian Wolfdog, Brenin. This is our personal roller coaster and how we rode the illusion of traditional training’s effectiveness, plunging into a dizzy free fall of despair, and, with modern training reconstruction, final resurrection.
Until I was 24 years old, I can’t remember a single month in my life when I hadn’t had a dog. Back then, in my home village in Italy, having a dog was just what everyone did and no one made a big deal out of it. There were no puppy classes, racks and racks of dog toys, treats, puppy training pads and harnesses in shops. Times were different then and dogs weren’t expected to sit quietly for hours under restaurant tables, walk nicely with us in crowded shopping malls and greet strangers politely who entered our space. They were “just the dog”.
After University, I moved to Luxemburg and ten years later, I brought a young Czechoslovakian Wolfdog puppy home. Times had changed, our social structure is now more complex, our acceptance of anti-social behaviour has decreased, our expectations have increased. I was totally intending to make him the most sociable, obedient, skilled-in-every-situation dog possible. I don’t do sloppy, I’m not a half-hearted project manager and I put 100% commitment to this project and had Brenin enrolled in puppy classes, obedience training courses, seminars of all kinds of activities such as agility, trick-dogging and tracking. For increased socialization, I enrolled him into a day-care facility five times per week and we had bi-weekly downtown and shopping mall exposure sessions. Every chance of training was seized, no matter the weather, the daily schedule or sheer exhaustion.
Sadly, I only now realize that my work with Brenin was all about my goals and my aspirations. My dog had no choice in the matter as I believed that my objectives would result in him having a better quality of life. I can see now that this absolute belief of being right obscured my understanding of the clearly obvious feedback that Brenin was giving me at the time.
In life we all operate with the knowledge we have in any given moment and at that moment, I was convinced by local trainers, best-selling books, Youtubers and celebrity behaviourists, that the right way to train a dog was to reward desired behaviours and firmly punish unwanted behaviours. Good dog owners act as Supreme Judges of Behaviour as well as always being Group Leaders, and need to consistently slap down any attempt by the dog to move his position up the hierarchy ladder. If a trainer, showcasing his perfectly behaved dogs, said I had to correct my dog, I was definitely doing that as long as it was proving to work. After all, punishment is something we all know: human society largely relies on it and we all grew up experiencing some degree of it.
Sadly, Brenin experienced quite wide variety of punishment: equipment I used included compressed air sprays, water sprays, choke collars and prong collars and I also added in alpha rolls, neck side jerks and sidekicks for good measure, all ‘tools’ which are either openly displayed in pet shops and/or used in popular TV shows so how much could they hurt? I was about to discover…
It really seemed to work well for a while. We were almost always the best students in every class we were attending.
Many times, I heard people on the street or on our hikes commenting “Look how well behaved that dog is!” I was very proud of my “little soldier” and I kept parading him around on a massive carousel of training and further exposure in the name of obedience, failing to realize that a dominance/correction-based training, coupled with overwhelming stimuli for my own individual dog would lead me into a whole heap of trouble.
The fact is, at some point, it all went South. Brenin first displayed signs of human reactivity at 13 months of age and, as the months went by, the intensity of his aggressive displays began to increase. He was lunging, barking and growling at approaching people for seemingly no apparent reason. At the same time, he sometimes didn’t eat for six days in a row and had persistent but inexplicable stomach issues, which flummoxed both myself and the vet but, in hindsight, I cannot believe I failed to realize that the physical issues he had were the manifestation of his mental state. If a friend was clearly not eating and had symptoms of inflammatory colitis, I’d immediately suspect they were suffering from severe stress and want to support them. Instead, I was systematically putting my sweet, sensitive, non-confrontational, fragile Brenin, a dog of a breed well known to be, at best, wary of humans if not downright frightened of them, into scary environments in which scary people were mean to him. Not to mention that, as he undoubtedly viewed it, his own owner was being unreliable in her actions and behaving like a psycho: petting with one hand and punishing with the other one. It was as though I was pushing a person with a phobia of snakes into a snake pit in order to ‘cure’ them then berating them harshly for freaking out and pushing them back in again. And again.
Over time, Brenin’s by then generalized fear toward people and the lack of a trustworthy relationship between he and I led to a variety of other unwanted behaviours. As soon as it seemed I was successfully tackling one issue, a new one popped up. It felt like we were constantly moving to a next level issue, with the old ones re-surfacing again after a short while. I was jumping from one issue to another and from one trainer to the other, but all my issues remained unresolved, and I had the added constant accusation of being blamed for not being a firm enough owner, for being an anxious owner, an owner whose attitude was having a negative impact on my dog. The only antidote to my inadequacy seemed to be found in more choke and prong collars, more leash side neck jerks, more bottles filled with noisy coins and more scary air sprays.
In desperation, I did all of this but after a while, I completely lost all confidence and reached rock bottom. I was obviously useless as a dog owner and any dog related activity wasn’t pleasurable and fun anymore. I felt trapped and couldn’t see a solution or way out. These supposed quick-fix, corrective methods for training my dog had unleashed a whole host of issues that had ballooned into a plethora of unmanageable behaviour.
For the first time in my life I was ready to give up on my dog, for good, turning into someone I would have despised forever.
Luckily, I was persuaded not to and, ironically enough, that aching feeling of permanent insecurity, anxiety, fear and building pressure I was experiencing was probably very similar to the permanent state of mind that I’d plunged Brenin in for such a long time. He and I were at the end of the line with it all and needed to find another way forward.
Trust me, there is light at the end of the tunnel with this, but it requires a leap of faith, an unravelling of what you’ve likely been doing so far and a whole lot of time.
In need of a huge turnaround, I found a behaviourist that managed to crash my cultural programming: I was now asked to question my faith in some long-held cultural assumptions and learn from scientific observation and behaviour analysis. I was led to abandon the traditional training ranks to join the positive reinforcement army. I was introduced to the science of behaviour modification and to the inspiring work of Susan Friedman and major animal trainers around the world, such as Karen Pryor and Ken Ramirez.
I must confess Brenin’s behaviour modification plan wasn’t always clear to me. Often times I just had to force myself to have faith and keep going one step at a time. This journey has been like working on a puzzle: you start from the corners as those 4 pieces are the only ones that make sense and from there, you slowly put the sides together. Then, you concentrate on smaller portions of the inside, until everything connects and you understand the big picture.
I remember that my first appointment solemnly ended with a question: “Is this (modifying the unwanted behaviour) your priority?”. I obviously replied “of course!” mainly because it would have been rude to answer anything different… Truth is that only later I fully grasped how meaningful that question was and how much my own behaviour would need to change. In other words: “How far would you go to reach your objective?” This is crucial as there is often a big gap between what we say we would be prepared to do, and what we actually do!
In fact, my first assignment was to not expose the dog to any human encounter for a full month. Not one. Not even from a distance! At the time, this didn’t really make any sense as it was the complete opposite of what I’d learned at that point about socialization. How was I supposed to habituate my dog to humans if he was not seeing any of them for such a long time? Weren’t we just losing more time and worsening the problem? But I went along with it, partly out of determination to prove to this new trainer that Brenin was my priority but also, I confess, there was an element of relief that, although I was now having to walk my dog during very inconvenient hours during the day and travelling by car to secluded places, by doing so and having no-one around to cause him to react, he and I could just enjoy our walks. No prong collars, no corrective sprays, just he and I. I cancelled my September vacation to avoid him going to kennels.
Lesson 1: prioritize your animal’s needs. It isn’t about you anymore: your life, your schedule, your routine, your expectations. It is all about him and your action plan.
Lesson 2: stop repeating the unwanted behaviour! If I kept exposing Brenin to his triggers, he was going to practice over and over his aggressive strategies and I was going to repeat over and over my punishment techniques! This chain of misery needs to be interrupted as soon as possible, as no training is better than improper training.
Lesson 3: hormones count! Decreasing stress is one of the most essential steps to help your fearful dog. When our animal is exposed to a stressful event, the sympathetic nervous system is activated and stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, are released. It can take up to 72 hours for stress hormones to leave the body after a stressful event. If the exposure to such events are repeated, the stress response is activated frequently, leading to trigger stacking and chronic stress. Chronic stress suppresses the immune system, affects metabolism and digestion (so there you go, the inexplicable illness explained) and impedes learning, jeopardizing the success of your action plan. Think of it, think of your own fears: would you be able to do some math while I was throwing at you spiders or whatever you are afraid of?
Lesson 4: keep your animal feeling safe. It doesn’t matter whether you think your animal is safe, what matters is that he feels safe.
For our first session on the field, we found ourselves literally in the middle of nowhere. The first human Brenin was seeing in a month was our trainer: she was standing so far away from us that we had to communicate through walkie talkies! Again, I was perplexed and I clearly remember commenting to my husband “Come on, we can do much better than this! This dog can walk nicely in the city centre with people around!”. However, the objective of our first training was to identify the lowest point of intensity of Brenin’s aggressive displays. I thought it was 4-5 meters, instead we discovered it was something like 300 meters!
Lesson 5: there is more than a tail and two ears. We must be able to accurately read body language and recognize the earliest signs of stress in our dogs. Our perfect heel in a challenging situation didn’t mean the dog was doing fine. On the contrary, an animal can be so overwhelmed by the influx of emotions generated in a particular environment that he might barely move or express himself. Our animals communicate through a complex combination of all their body parts. My concentrating only on some of them had led me to fail in understanding and assessing his reactions. If I could go back, I would probably now notice a stiff body, increased respiration and heart rate, dilated pupils, hard ridges around the mouth.
Our first homework assignment was to find a common language with Brenin. This is done by introducing a bridging stimulus, a marker. A marker is a universal, simple and clear form of information between verbal humans and nonverbal animals, which marks the exact moment the animal does something we like, something we want him to repeat. A marker can be a word, a gesture, a sound, an object. We chose “yes” to pinpoint any desired behaviour that will earn him reinforcement.
Lesson 6: behaviour is either “desired” or “undesired”. A marker informs the animal he just did something right. On the other hand, the absence of a marker informs the animal the behaviour he just performed wasn’t right. There is no need to resort to punishment.
Lesson 7: information is empowering to an animal. The sound of a marker informs the animal about the successful completion of a desired behaviour and the attainment of reinforcement. Over time, once the animal realizes that it is in control of its own environment and of the consequences of its actions, his confidence grows and he will make better choices.
Our training sessions were in the coldest and windiest middle of nowhere Luxembourg has to offer. Basically, the entire winter and spring. Just me, the dog, the trainer and a walk-in assistant representing the human trigger. With the means of a harness and a 5 meter leash, the idea was that of letting the dog choose where to sniff, where to walk, when to pause, when to look at the trigger, when to interrupt the training and remove himself from the entire situation.
Initially, my job consisted in marking and rewarding the dog’s behaviour of looking at his trigger (who was usually randomly walking, waving hands, carrying objects, wearing different outfits).
After a good while of this, Brenin reactions changed: he was now looking at his trigger and, in anticipation of the treat, immediately looking at me. By now, I was withholding my marker and using it to pinpoint and reward the behaviour of looking at me. In other words, we were now teaching Brenin that, whenever confronted by a scary stimulus, he could choose to give attention to me and because that is a desired behaviour, that would earn him a reward.
Once the sight of the trigger becomes the cue for eye contact, you can then find many ways to avoid aggression.
Lesson 8: treating aggression incorporates both classical and operant conditioning principles: by marking and treating the dog in the presence of an aversive trigger, we change his emotional association toward the aversive environment (classical conditioning). By marking every correct decision, we teach him how to “operate” in his environment (operant conditioning). We teach him to correctly choose how to behave.
Lesson 9: choice is a primary reinforcer, it is essential to survival like food, shelter and water. The more the animal feels in control of the environment, the safer and more confident he feels, with the consequence that the more likely he will react properly to formerly stressful situations.
Many months passed by. An autumn, a winter, a spring, a summer, a new autumn and a new winter… Brenin’s skills to operate in his environment improved dramatically. We were able to progressively decrease the distance from human triggers and we could move to real life environments.
While doing all this, we were massively working on my own behaviour and handling skills. I was trained to never put pressure on the leash by constantly anticipating and managing each situation, I was trained to decline requests to pet my dog (nicely and less nicely), I was trained to review my expectations based on my dog’s feedback.
Lesson 10: behaviour change doesn’t come overnight. Have you ever noticed this tendency we have to expect our animals to change their behaviour in a blink of an eye, but we can’t often change our own behaviour? I haven’t overcome my habit of biting my nails in 35 years, but somehow, I was expecting Brenin to overcome his fear of humans in just a handful of sessions! Silly me!
Lesson 11: not only the dog. Training our own behaviour is important as well. We need to learn to control our responses as much as possible, as our fear and anxiety is often our dog’s first cue that something is wrong in the environment. While in the past I was only blamed for being anxious, I was now shown how to control my reactions and I was helped in practising over and over my handling and managing skills. Because again, control is a primary reinforcer to all animals, humans included. The more we feel in control, the more confident we are, the more likely we will cope with stressful situations that used to defeat us in the past.
Lesson 12: foundation behaviours can save your life. Eye contacts, sits, downs, jumps, targets, spins, play bows, play… any behaviour in your dog’s repertoire may serve as incompatible behaviour that you can request to head off from any situation in which he might become aggressive.
Lesson 13: respect your animal. Going through the whole action plan allows us to know our pets better: we now recognize their limits and we know what makes them happy. There is no need to put them in situations they struggle to handle at all costs. We are not doing this to ourselves nor our children. Why should it be different with our pets? We must refrain from thinking everything is easier to them. We ought to respect our pet animal, where respect means helping them in facing difficult situations through appropriate training, not forcing them into them unprepared.
Lesson 14: advocate for your dog. The social pressure to have a “friendly” dog is real. You will get unsolicited advice, your dog’s personal space will be invaded, and you will face the shame that comes along with people’s opinions. Don’t be afraid to advocate for your dog and do what’s going to keep him feeling safe, even if it makes someone else uncomfortable. Trust that you know what’s best for your dog better than anyone else.
Lesson 15: follow the lead of a certified trainer. The dog training industry is highly unregulated, so be sure to look for a certified professional who practices modern, positive reinforcement-based methods without the use of corrections and aversive tools.
Lesson 16: meet your animal where he stands. You might be disappointed because you had expectations. It is what it is. Accept the animal that stands in front of you, the way he is. He might lead you to unexpected places, places you weren’t even dreaming of.
It’s not easy being a fearful dog and it’s not easy caring for one.
Progress is achievable, but it is different for every dog and you can’t dictate its pace. Some days will be good, some days will be bad. Just work hard and have faith because at some point, the good days will outnumber the bad days.
Brenin and I, we celebrate 2 full years of “sobriety”: no neck side jerks, no alpha rolls, no nasty collars, no aversive tools, no dramas. Solely positive reinforcement. Solely hard work in re-filling that trust account I almost dried out.
Brenin will never be a completely secure dog, but it really amazed me to witness the lengths he was able to go and how he flourished along the process. He is more resilient, confident, relaxed, enthusiastic, happier, cuddlier, sweeter. Dog activities are fun again and our bond is stronger than ever because he can rest assured, I will only disperse positive experiences.
He now seems smiling all the time, making my heart explode with joy.
Every day I look at him and I hope he has forgotten the person that I was and I thank him for turning me into the person that I have become.
Brenin is my greatest gift.
A special thanks to Lisa, Sharline and Vincenzo. You encouraged me to not give up, to learn more and to never lose hope.