Reactive dogs and Neighbors

Trouble with the neighbors

We live in a planned community where there are strict dog-leash rules…except for those who don’t believe it applies to them. Fences are also an issue here–one needs authorization to build them, so for the past twenty-six years, we have walked our dogs on the curving, twisting, wooded roads of this community. Unless one lives with a dog-reactive dog, or is terrified of dogs, or has an old or infirm dog or fearful dog, the off-leash issue isn’t a problem (except for the loose dogs themselves who get hit by cars, get into garbage, slug bait, and other toxins). But having lived with a fearful, dog-reactive dog for the past twelve years, who over the past year became old and infirm at the age of thirteen, we have many, many stories to tell.

I have come to the conclusion that most people don’t believe in aggression in dogs.  They don’t believe that a dog’s natural weapon, jaws with teeth, can actually be functional. That they can bite six times per second, puncture, and much worse. For years I talked to neighbors until I was blue in the face, politely explaining Vera’s shortcomings, pleading with them to at least call and hold onto their dog while we passed.  We walked her on two points of contact–a head collar and front-attachment harness.  We did u-turns to avoid dogs, hid up driveways behind cars, took alternate routes, split between her and any potential threat. But time and time again, I would find myself wedged between two raging dogs, Vera straining to attack a dog who was circling to get her. She was easy prey to them–insecure, threatened, rude, and bound to two points of contact and a controlling handler. When this happened, the owners would shout at the dog to come back, suddenly aware that their dog could get hurt.  The dog might return to them, but often would not.

andrew-schultz-443073-unsplash
Loose, friendly dogs running toward you leads to instant panic!

As we slunk through the safest parts of the neighborhood (we knew where every dog lived, the hours they were out, the risks we took by walking V in that direction), we have been jeered at for being cowards, and physically threatened for asking (maybe at this point, demanding) for the hundredth time that one man put his dog on leash. Testosterone-fueled aggression in male humans is rampant when his dog’s leash status is questioned, and one man actually sat in the middle of the road, holding his dog by the collar, effectively blocking our passage by his house when asked to put his dog on leash. As we edged past, blocking Vera with our bodies and feeding her a river of treats, the man actually said “Bite me!”. This man knew about Vera, had owned a reactive dog, had hired me as a reactive-dog trainer, was soft-spoken and articulate, and still could not say “Sorry, I didn’t see you coming–I’m on it!” and leash his dog.

I don’t know what the answer is. My husband learned to be calm and polite no matter how verbally abusive people were.  I tended to be silent, and focused on Vera which was perceived as being rude.  We stayed away from everyone–the pariahs of the neighborhood. I’m not sure how many people realized on a real level that we were just protecting a very fearful dog who saved herself in a very scary way. That we were protecting their dogs from an emotional assault and possible puncture wounds. Until one lives with a reactive dog, I don’t think it’s possible for others to understand the reactive-dog owner’s plight–the isolation, the dedication it takes to give a reactive dog a rich and rewarding life, the love it takes to share one’s life with such a dog. I’ve tried to give this perspective in Finding Vera, and I hope that it educates at least a few people on reactive dogs, and ultimately works towards earning reactive-dog owners the respect they deserve.

Training Tips

  1. Talk to new neighbors about your reactive dog and his/her limitations.
  2. Let neighbors know all that you are doing to keep your dog safe.
  3. Be assertive, but always polite.
  4. Avoid areas where you know neighbors let their dogs off leash.  Vera’s “safe” area became smaller and smaller over the years.
  5. Don’t call out to people to put their dogs on leash if they are a distance away–in my experience, the humans won’t hear you, but the dogs will, and they will charge over to you to investigate. It was always better to just change direction.
  6. Teach your dog an emergency “sit behind” and practice it over and over. If, as in Vera’s case, your dog is too large and reactive to stay behind you, you will need to face your dog, keep him on a short leash, and pivot between your dog and the loose dog. There is the risk of being bitten with this maneuver, though it never happened to me. Once dogs are fighting, the risk of getting a redirected bite from one of the dogs is much greater.
  7. Carry an air horn in case a dog starts to charge up to you from a distance away. The neighbors won’t like it, and it will scare some dogs, but the vast majority of dogs will stop, think about it, and choose to return to their owners or proceed very cautiously, giving you the chance to escape. Follow the air horn link to read more about it.

Protecting Vera: A reactive German shepherd

Protecting Vera

In the very beginning, Vera pulled.  She pulled on the leash so hard that she could drag a person into the ditch, and did so with volunteers at the shelter.  She pulled because she needed to be first, because she was scared, or because she wanted to run.  She pulled because she wanted to see another dog or because she needed to keep him away.  Her legs were sturdy and powerful, well-muscled, her body whip-like and athletic. And she was single-minded. And strong. Incredibly strong. 

Vera was polite and smart by nature…

Because she was so polite and smart, she soon learned to walk on a loose leash—even on a flat collar—without tension. Unless there was a squirrel or a cat or a deer or a dog.  Then her reactions were dramatic, her bark frantic and cannon-loud, her body tense as steel, her eyes wild. 

With such distractions and Vera in a flat collar, we, as her handlers, were doomed. I was dragged; Joel was tripped by the whip and spin of her body. And if we had Tessie or Lola, they would join in with dedicated excitement.

I was overpowered, her attention swallowed by her victim, such that even cheese and steak couldn’t distract her. She would choke, and with her trachea damaged from the chain that bound her in her first year and a half of life, we moved to the gentle leader where we could at least turn her head away from the distraction and maintain some control.  

Two points of contact
Kane working on two points of contact with Vera

After working with a reactive dog trainer, we changed to two points of contactwonder walker harness coupled with the head collar to take pressure off her muzzle and transfer it to the harness. Each end of the leash was clipped to one piece of equipment. For a long time, V shied away from the harness. The one she’d worn at the shelter had been too small, and rubbed behind her front legs, causing a raw, painful sore. Not realizing it was there, we had continued to walk her with it. It took years for her to get past this.

She was easier to handle with two points of contact. Sometimes we walked her on the narrow, winding roads of Sudden Valley.  At 100 feet from a dog she would tense, alert, her eyes riveted, tail high over her back. We would treat her with cheese, hot dogs, do “look at that”, and walk her away. But still, she would look back, scared, tense, and ready to take on the world. 

Two dogs bark at us from a deck high above.  A crash, and in slow motion, the barrier shifts, gives way, smashes onto the steps below.  The dogs leap the rubble, the drum of their paws thunderous on the wooden steps, their barks insane. I am quick, but V is quicker.  She lunges, barks, her voice frantic, teeth exposed. I turn and run, my throat closed in panic. But V is like an anchor and in seconds the dogs are upon us. 

“V, behind!” I shout. It is more of a scream. There is nowhere to go, nowhere to hide.  The road rises steeply above us, drops off below us, the hillside a 45 degree slope.

But V is intent on facing them off. She stands her ground in front of me. And attacks. 

They fall back, their faces shocked, and in that moment, I swing my body between them. I face Vera. She is too strong to hold behind me. I pivot between Vera and the dogs, blocking their access to each other. If they connect, there will be blood and punctures, possibly slashes and tears. I can’t bear for Vera to be hurt. I can’t bear for her to injure another dog. I pivot between them and shout for help while the dogs bark and snarl and lunge around me. I am wearing shorts and my legs bleed and throb from Vera’s claws. The moments stretch, and I feel I have been there for eternity. 

There is a honk, people shouting. The loose dogs falter, whirl, and they are gone, loping up the road away from us. The people in the car shout curses up at the house on the hill above me. And we leave. 

Vera is unruffled. She struts beside me, calm, her mouth open, back straight, her eyes soft.  There are no wrinkles on her head, and her ears are neutral. I have protected her. But I am fried. My body trembles like I’ve survived a battle. Every muscle aches, and I am chilled to the core in spite of the warm day. 

Back home, we sit in the garden on the bench next to her digger-dog hole. She hops up beside me, allows my arm to circle her shoulders, allows my hand to caress her face, to rub her chest.  She is not a demonstrative dog, and sitting there beside her, peaceful and safe, I am honored. I sink into her courage, am lost in her grace. 

Training Tips

  • Loving and living with a reactive dog takes on a whole new meaning if you are only used to lovely, sweet, good natured dogs.
  • Your goal is always to keep your dog safe.  For me it was at any cost and for years, blocking Vera from loose dogs with my body was my last-ditch diversion. Ironically, I  was never bitten by V or by any of the loose dogs who tried to approach her.  But I was lucky.
  • Watch for open garages, invisible fences that dogs can blow through, insecure fences and barriers.
  • Turn away from approaching dog walkers, always keeping in mind an escape route.
  • Carry high value treats.  Dogs cannot respond to you when stressed in the same way they would  when they are relaxed. But sometimes they will follow the odor of food.
  • As V aged, we learned that a small air horn, blasted at an approaching dog, even from 50-100 feet away, would keep approaching dogs at bay. They never seemed frightened, just confused and not interested in approaching–much better than having a human rage at them to stay away thus triggering a fear of humans.
  • You do need to desensitize your dog to the sound of the horn–best done by having someone help you. When you blast the horn, move your dog behind you.
    • To desensitize: Give a short blast a distance from your dog (up to 100 feet depending on your dog’s sensitivity) with the sound focused in the opposite direction from your dog. Play with or feed your dog after the blast.  Repeat twice more.  If your dog is afraid after the first blast, stop play with your dog. A few days later increase your dog’s distance by at least 50 feet  from the horn and increase the reinforcement after the blast. Play with your dog.