You know the Mother Goose Rhyme about the little girl with the curl? When she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was horrid?
This is the rhyme I find myself repeating about Balton, the big dog with the adorable ears, more often than I care to admit. Call it going from Mother Goose to feeling sort of grim, I guess.
When I catch him in sweet moments like this, relaxed, snuggling up with Ollie and behaving like a gem, it surprises me that he can then be so predictably unpredictable in his moments of fear. This is the dog that our small family unit, and a microscopic sampling of the world get to see. Truly, this is the Balton I get to see 98% of the time.
I never have had any misconceptions that that life with a reactive dog would be easy, and I hope it’s evident by now that I genuinely love this dog and want to provide a good life for him. It’s why I chose to adopt him. It’s why I diligently take the road less traveled, why I cross the street when I see something that will in all likelihood upset him, why we walk with a muzzle in spite of the fact that I get stares from my neighbors. It’s why I have devoured literature on classical/operant/counter conditioning, desensitization, BAT, fear behaviors, body language, thresholds, socialization, clicker training, relationship based training, reactivity, aggression, and more.
It’s why every time I have made a mistake in my efforts to help him, I am moved to tears, and why every time we have a great success, I am also moved to tears.
It’s why I try so hard to understand this dog, who, when he’s good, he’s very good. A delight to have around the house and a loyal companion, who so clearly and purely loves the people he identifies as his (Balton’s first foster had noted “if he could fit in your pocket, he would” – heck, I feel like if he could fit in my pocket, life would be a lot easier for us both). But it’s also why I feel so hopelessly frustrated when he’s bad.
Logically, I know that his responses are based in fear that is crippling, and that has advanced to a point where his warning system of reactive behavior is just not all that good. Certified Professional Dog Trainer Nicole Wilde states in her book Help for Your Fearful Dog (my current read, recommended by our trainers at All About Dogs) that “fear-based aggressive behavior grows stronger with repeated episodes.” And so, for every time I didn’t know any better and wasn’t cautious enough, because I wanted so badly to be on the same playing field of dogs who were more readily adoptable, even though he was different, I feel like I have failed him. Because I underestimated how hurtful I was being when I moved too quickly in his interactions with others, or didn’t protect him hard enough from feeling like I wasn’t taking care of him, forcing him in turn to act out, I feel like I did him wrong.
When you’re trying the best you can to make life better for a “when he’s bad, he’s horrid” dog, it’s hard not to get overwhelmed. It’s hard not to take it personally when you get caught in a moment that you find yourself too close to a trigger, and the dog gets worked up to such an emotional state that he detatches from you and nothing you can do in that moment can make it better, until you flee the scene or the “scary monster” goes away.
Even when I study up on the fearful dog literature and work to apply it to my own canine family member, I find myself surrounded by loving dog owners who have fearful dogs who hide from them, or from other people. And to the credit of those dog owners facing their own fear challenges, I ‘m grateful that I don’t need to walk on eggshells with a dog who is suspicious of the family. He’s not. He adores us, and pretty much has since the beginning.
Fear responses are commonly addressed by the phrase “fight or flight.” The underlying cause is the same, but the symptom is different. In my experience of fostering shy (flight) dogs, I have found people are willing to offer help and kindness with the flight dogs who run from their triggers.
Finding the same empathy and understanding among reactive (fight) dogs who take an offensive approach is significantly more challenging, and after reviewing comments and insights from other members of the “fearful dog community”, I sometimes feel like I belong on a different island – the island of misfit dogs and their people. Who can blame people for being less understanding when aggression and fear just don’t seem the obvious combination?
I consider how ridiculous I am when I find myself hiding behind a bush dispensing treats and clicks, in an effort to let someone meander past on the other side of the street with their dog. And yesterday, I found myself surveying the environment when out on our walk and Balton had to take a poop on the grass near the road. When I quickly noted my neighbor approaching us from behind and within a 5 foot radius, off I darted with Balton in tow down the bottom of a hill. As he glanced over, I waved and promised, “I am coming back up to pick up the poop, but my dog is reactive and I need to get him out of the way!”
He hardly seemed moved by my efforts to keep him out of harms way, or to protect my dog from his skewed perception of harms way.
I sometimes picture a scene from the movie Airplane in my head when we’re retreating from a meltdown, when Balton loses his grip on reality, lunging and barking at the human and their dog walking on the other side of the street while we quickly try to move onward. For those of you who are unaware of the 1980 airplane disaster spoof, this scene involves a panicked female passenger who, after a virus onset sacks out most of the crew and to all sorts of slapstick chaos, is desperate to get off the plane. The solution to her ails? Everyone takes turns shaking her silly and telling her to get a hold of herself. If life were a comedic film, I imagine this scene would somehow transpire between Balton and myself.
But life is not a comedic film, and though one of my favorite memorable scenes, a positive-training-minded person would quickly note that everyone’s hands on efforts to calm her down (or shut her up) are pretty ineffective and harsh.
Maybe it’s because I have always sought to avoid conflict, but after so many encounters of the crazy dog kind, it admittedly takes a lot out of me to resonate (or reason) with a dog who identifies their trigger from a distance and reacts so dramatically. Fear is normal. But instinctively combative responses to those fears…not so normal.
I have been told on multiple occasions by multiple trainers that Balton is, and will likely remain, “a dog who needs a lifetime of training and management.” So I suppose one may argue to my laments of life with a reactive dog that I knew what I was getting myself into, and perhaps I should be the one to get a hold of myself.
But sometimes, we people on the other end of the leash are doing the best we can and feeling like we take two steps forward, two steps back, wishing we could go back in time to replay 10 minutes of life where we took a wrong turn, unwittingly made a training decision or put that dog in a situation that may sensitized or generalized a dog’s fears, broken down a bond of trust, have left a haunting sense of “woulda coulda shoulda.” As I’m still figuring it all out, thinking I’m doing what I’m supposed to but ever questioning, finding some new piece of info to tell me maybe I’m not.
Those “what if?” moments continue to haunt me. Those quiet moments before a reaction, where Balton goes out to lunch and no longer connects with me, where learning can no longer take place, continue to exasperate me. Some days, I overwhelmingly find myself thinking, “love hurts”. Love for a dog, no less.
But, with a smile like that, it’s impossible not to love and believe in what he’s capable of. And that love makes it impossible not to want to dig deeper, to not lose hope in striving and practicing for more “very, very good” moments.
While each of us deal with our own unique challenges with our dogs, I can’t help but hope to find some common ground in those issues, different as they may be. Any of you have tough stuff that’s made you feel sort of lost or alone in dog parenting? Any of you come out on the other side and reflect back to realize that it was worth having a little rain so you and your pup could grow from it?