Faith, Trust, & Foster Pups

Helping dogs on the road to forever, forever finding ourselves as we walk that road with them.


Together we’re unlimited…

This week marks one year since I began professional training with Balton. Right around this time last year, I was feeling pretty lost and sad about my then foster dog, whose behavior was confounding me and frustrating me. I’d been feeling pretty lousy for not knowing how to help him with it. I saw this super dog at home, who by all accounts was a really wonderful companion and joy to have around. On the other hand, walks were miserable and rather unpredictable at the time. I was starting to feel like my argument of “surely this dog is adoptable!” was losing ground, and I was losing confidence in myself as a foster mom.

Last week marked the conclusion of flight school, otherwise known as the basic skills class Balton and I were trying out. The first week went great, the second week was not as great but gave us (me) some things to think about in increasing his comfort level sense of fun. We saw improvements each week in the remaining three weeks of class, and although he was able to participate in most of the class activities, we made some modifications as needed so that he could succeed and enjoy himself. For example, while the other dogs would practice their recall exercises (requiring the trainer to take the leash, which neither Balton nor I would have been okay with), we’d use it as an opportunity to lay down and settle, and just be relaxed amid the activity of the other dogs being excitedly called by their people. Although very much aware of the moving dogs and squealing people trying to call them, he wasn’t worried about it and did a great job practicing his braves.


Mat settling like a boss

By week four, Balton was ready to let our new trainer try tossing some treats from a distance.  Early on when his trainers would do this, he would be too overwhelmed to eat them and sometimes sniff them and refuse them. We promised they weren’t poisoned, but it took him a few months to actually believe us.  Well, wouldn’t you know…when we did this exercise with our flight school trainer, not a single treat was poisoned. 🙂

Week five was our final class and class talent show. Our trick we practiced (and frankly learned just for the talent show) was to “wave,” shaped through hand targeting and then modifying the hand target for shake to a waving hand so he could differentiate the cues. This is what it looks like:

Balton waves hello

Following the end of class, the students who demonstrated the necessary skills taught in the class (many of which Balton came with, but had stage fright about initially) earned what is best described as a hall pass. It’s not exactly a diploma for graduation, but it means the dog has shown capable of moving up to an intermediate or Level 2 class. Coming into this class with pretty uncertain expectations, imagine my surprise when we got handed this:baltonhallpass

I admit that when I got the card, I stared at it and teared up over it and got goosebumps about it. Silly, perhaps, I know.

But when I think about where we were this time last year, and I think about where we are today, I consider what I thought possible for Balton then and what I consider possible for him now. Sure, my thoughts for possibility were perhaps a little idealistic at the time because I wanted so badly for him to be adopted by a family that wasn’t ours. But with that possibility there came a million limitations: no families with kids, must be a savvy adopter committed to what would likely be a lifetime of training and management, must live in a suburban or rural area, must live a quiet lifestyle without many visitors. And when you’re looking at a window of adopters among a sea of dogs without those limitations, that makes for a very, very small window.

When we adopted Balton, we frankly adopted him because of those limitations. When I looked at things objectively, I didn’t really see how we could pass the leash, but I believed he deserved a chance to be more than a dog too limited to live a full and happy life.

For a long time, there were a lot of self-imposed limitations because we couldn’t and wouldn’t push him too far too soon. We had definitely done things wrong for a number of months before we got steered right. But with the pressure off to find him a home, and the reality being that we were the ones to give him that full and happy life  I thought he deserved, we were able to slow things down. We were able to let Balton be the Balton he was, and that allowed him to become the Balton he could be.

These last few weeks, I can’t seem to get over how often I catch Balton smiling. I think it’s because he continues to redefine what his own limits are, and with that his confidence is starting to shine through in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen glimmers of it before, but I’m seeing it a lot more regularly.


This particular happy moment was captured soon after we had a visitor over to our house this past weekend. Balton and I have found a training buddy to practice visits with from the Animal Welfare League of Arlington Pit Crew, the group with whom we do our social walks. The training buddy we are working with has a dog with similar “stranger danger” challenges, so I visit with him and he visits with us in order to “practice” being okay with guests. This Sunday was his second visit. Now, you could probably argue this was Balton’s happy face after our visitor left, but take my word for it when I tell you he was the most relaxed I’ve ever seen him with a guest. He was kept on a leash and we kept our distance, but on this visit our guest tossed him hot dogs while I also fed him treats and he laid at my feet. It helps to have someone visiting who gets what we’re going through, and makes a point not to make eye contact or get too close.  But it also speaks to Balton’s progress in overcoming those fears that have long since limited him. Seeing his world grow in tiny increments makes me so incredibly happy, and seeing this happy face who seems to know how far he’s come makes me grateful that we’ve been taking this journey together.

We’re learning that the world we thought we knew is changing each day, redefining what is possible, and defying gravity as a team. Discovering that our limits are no longer the same as they once were makes me really believe there is no limit to where we can go or what we can do. We just have to understand what our limits are in each moment, and keep walking the path, even if we walk it little more slowly and take some detours behind a car or a tree, or take an emergency u-turn every so often.



Updates from Flight School: Week 2

As you may recall, Balton and I have been improving upon our superhero skills during a recent stint at Flight School. We’re now officially more than halfway through the class and it’s definitely been a unique learning experience for the both of us. Balton’s trainer, and one of his biggest advocates, told us going in that she was less concerned about Balton’s ability to perform as in his ability to remain relaxed and maybe even happy in the new environment. I’ve tried to keep this in mind.

As I mentioned from Week 1, the Basic Skills classroom is much smaller than the one we usually work in, and everyone is much more in Balton’s space than what we typically encounter in our reactive dog class environment. Still, he managed to settle in well and overall, seemed surprisingly comfortable and focused in the first class. Going back for Week 2, I didn’t know whether he would continue to do well, or if he would carry in some new stress, which I know can happen. Sort of like the first time you take a cat to the vet, kitty has no problem getting in the carrier and seems to do all right through the visit, but then the next time kitty needs to go to the vet, or get into the carrier for anything, all bets are off.

Week 2 was a little more kitty carrier response, so to speak.

Frankly, I think Balton was just having a more reactive night than usual. We have a standard Thursday night school routine that involves me high tailing it home from work, taking both boys out for a potty break, grabbing our gear, giving Ollie a Kong, and rolling out the door. He’s to a point where he usually is good through all these regular rituals, but not so much on this day. Balton saw someone walking down the street on the potty break that made him go into a leash gremlin fit. Then he saw some people from the car while we were at stoplights (and we hit just about every light, of course) who needed to be told off. For my part, I was throwing treats into the backseat, running late, feeling  frazzled, and breathing deep in an effort to curb my own inner gremlin.

I’ve gotten into the habit of bringing a mat with me and Balton, because he has long since had some issues with laying down on the floor. The classroom floors, for one, are sort of icky for him (we train in a dog daycare facility). Laying down is also a fairly vulnerable position for a dog to be in. But, when he lays down and gets himself into a settle position, it helps him to get his mind into a similarly more settled state. Anyways, Week 1 I had forgotten to bring the mat with me, but Balton had done just fine without it. I probably should have thought it a fluke and come prepared with the mat the next week, but hindsight is 20/20, right? Sure enough, the idea of laying down on the bare floor he had readily laid on one week earlier was a no-go.

I discovered that our usual go-to best snacks of meatballs and chicken were ineffective at getting/keeping attention, and since they was the best I had in my bag of tricks, Balton was pretty caught up in staring and barking at at the other dogs in the room. Towards the end of class, he was less reactive but still seemed stressed, and was quite honestly kind of shutting me out. We just never found our groove, and I think we both left class feeling exhausted.

Six months ago, I likely would have stewed and lingered and worried we were moving backwards in our progress. I might have worried that we should not go back the next week for fear of setting him back.  I might have wondered if this was all a hopeless plight.

While these thoughts all sort of flashed in my head for a brief moment, I was able to identify a little more easily that we had quite simply had a bad day. And ya know what? Bad days happen, and it’s absolutely okay.

The next day, I loaded up on new and interesting treats (including some cheese sticks and steak strips from the grocery store). I decided not to be complacent at home and we began doing some more skills practice in a less distracting environment. We started working on shaping our Week 5 Talent Show Trick. In between weeks 2 and 3 of Flight School, we got back to partnering with each other and refreshing on how much fun learning is.

I read this article from Reactive Champion and was gently reminded that some classical conditioning, or creating a positive emotional response/association (vs. operant conditioning, or teaching a behavior) is sometimes all you can do or expect with a stressed out dog. Also, that “behavior modification is not a race against others.”


Sometimes, you just have to take a couple steps back in order to get a better look at the picture in front of you, before stepping forward to straighten it out a little bit.


One Step at a Time

As you may recall, Balton was given clearance to attend his first group class last week, after almost a year’s worth of working weekly on behavior modification and desensitization as a “Rowdy Rover.” Thursday night classes have become a regular routine for Balton by now, and while awhile ago his favorite part of class was the going home part at the very end,  not long ago he actually began looking forward to them and enjoying himself while actually in the classroom. In fact, when Thursday night last week rolled around and we turned left instead of right to go to our new class, he was visibly thrown off by the fact we deviated from our normal route. Routine and consistency really do make an impression on a dog. He even has developed a lovely relationship with his one instructor, who has dependably become the one trainer who gives him treats each week, but doesn’t try to push their interactions further than that and a couple kind and gentle words. For someone who was so cautious for so long, it’s been really refreshing to see this change in perspective.

Still, as I saw him doing better and knowing that this weekly staple in his routine was really good for him, I did find myself asking questions like “what’s next?” and “how do we take all the good stuff he’s doing in the super controlled Rowdy Rovers out to the real world?” When you’re dealing with classmates who understand reactive dogs, and trainers who really work to keep those dogs in a safe learning environment, it’s a spectacular setting for learning, but it’s not real life. Real life is a world where you can’t always find a place to escape to, and where not everyone understands the importance of respecting the space of a DINOS (or where they might not realize your dog is a DINOS until they’ve invaded your space before you could do anything to prevent it or bail out).

Group class with “normal” dogs is probably the best transition zone for a dog like Balton, because he’s got some professional support on top of my managing and working with him, but as we learned in our first class, there are a lot of lovely dog parents with lovely dogs, who honestly have lovely intentions, but no manners. I don’t mean that with any ill-intent or judginess. People enroll dogs into training classes to help them with their manners, and our group classmates were literally in their very first obedience lesson. Balton’s been building the basics and then some much longer than they have, which was evident once we settled in and found our stride.

Still, the difference in dog management, coupled with a much smaller room than we are used to, made for a challenging first few minutes in the new class. Novelty is not Balton’s friend, and when the over-excited Husky next to us kept barking at him, Balton also decided they were also not to be friends. There was some growling, and I was doing a lot more body blocking and redirecting attention than I normally do in class at first.

This is where professional intervention is helpful, since I was a little overwhelmed myself and didn’t think to ask for a barrier.Our instructor (who has assisted in Rowdy Rover classes and is the mom of one herself) took it upon herself to put one up between Balton and our next-door neighbor to the left, which was a big help (even though there were couple moments of both trying to sneak a peek around the fence to each other). It wasn’t long before Balton settled in and began participating in all the training games and exercises that his classmates were working on (the “name game,” the attention game, sits, downs, and “lets go/come” activities). He already knows a lot of these games, so the skills themselves weren’t hard, but there were a whole new set of distractions, which is what I anticipated would make offering behaviors difficult. The fact that he was able to reliably lay down, even given the fact I left his safety bath mat in the car by mistake, was as delightful a surprise as walking into my back yard to discover a unicorn grazing.

After class, we had a near run in with someone who was in the class after us and coming through the front door. I stammered and stumbled a bit in assessing and asking could she please let us by before the other classmates came from behind us out of the classroom. Nothing bad happened, per se, but Balton did use the pause in the lobby as an opportunity to pee on the floor. Awesome.

I managed to direct her back out to the parking lot, confusing the poor woman who didn’t entirely seem to understand why I would not let her enter the building, but followed direction well enough. I scampered out with Balton, put him in the car, then ran back in to tattle on him and help clean up his puddle. I asked our trainer how she thought he did, and she said she thought he did really well. She noted his initial stress but that he had seemed to calm down after a bit of a tough start. She also said he was clearly the most focused dog in class. All in all, I think it went leaps and bounds better than we could have expected (though I admit my expectations were rather low).

Later, I sent a note to our Rowdy Rover trainers to send our week one progress report, and snapped a photo when we got home of Balton looking super pleased with his first week in higher education. I figured his usual teachers might have missed him, and would have enjoyed seeing him look so happy in his orange bandana. I didn’t figure that they would share their own happiness by reporting on him on their Facebook Page though, which pretty much made my weekend. My dog is literally a poster child (well, if you can call a Facebook wall posting a poster, which is exactly what I am doing) for behavior modification and the power of positive reinforcement.


Balton’s had a lot of big wins this month, but I know better than to take these awesome moments of progress as evidence of being “fixed” or as license to put him in situations that he’s not ready for. There’s a note that sticks with me from the Sophia Yin Seminar I attended back in October, about the big mistake reactive dog handlers make when addressing situations that may trigger a fear response. Truth told, it’s the root of so many mistakes I made early on. Handlers tend to hope their dog will “be okay”. Instead, they must assume dog will be reactive on each encounter and take precautions. 

I’m smarter now than I once was, and tend to err on the side of caution in expanding his horizons and building his confidence. I know how not to set Balton up for failure, no matter how much belief I have in him. It’s my job to protect him while giving him the best quality of life possible, and it’s a job I take very seriously. I know better, so I do better, and oftentimes doing better means progress in tiny, tiny increments. Over time, the forest has started to emerge from among the trees.

It’s a fact that I am a fan of happy pop tunes with an inspirational message. I remain unapologetic for it, but ask that you try not to judge me too harshly for the fact that I’ve pretty much been singing this Jordyn Sparks song on repeat in my head when I think of Balton’s big moments of the last week.

“We live and we learn to take one step at a time. There’s no need to rush. It’s like learning to fly or falling in love. It’s gonna happen when it’s supposed to happen, and we find the reasons why one step at a time.”


Balton the Brave: Super Hero Flight School

Life as a superhero in training is perhaps a little different for Balton than the average caped crusader. While other heroes are working on leaping tall buildings in a single bound or using superhuman strength to carry cars over their heads, Balton works on not sweating the small stuff and using superpuppy self-control to keep calm and carry on.

Following Balton’s beautiful stranger moment, I didn’t think it could get much better for the week in class. But it did, because our classmate wasn’t the only one who had noticed Balton’s good behavior. After nearly a year of hard work and much practice, Balton earned a new cape.


Okay, not a cape, exactly. But close. This orange bandana is what they give to Rowdy Rovers when they are allowed to go to a “regular” class. It means Balton has  shown enough confidence and skills through his behavior modification to try one out, so he can work on his training skills in a new environment. Much like the capes that he’s worn before, this orange bandana must be worn in his new class, so the other students and new teachers can easily identify he needs space, and Balton can learn without getting overwhelmed by other people not familiar with Rowdy Rover protocol being too close or making him uncomfortable. But unlike those other capes, he’s earned this one. And he’s going where no Balton has dared to go before.

Our caped crusader’s next adventure is going to be different. It’s going to be new, which means it’s probably going to be just a little scary at first. But I know his teachers will help me to help him feel safe, just as a good super hero sidekick helps to provide backup. And if we do a good job, B will have found one more not-so-scary place in this world.

We hope you’ll wish us a little extra Lucky Dog luck this week, but more than that, we hope you’ll send us lots of encouragement for superhero courage.


Muzzle Up!

“In the world of dog behavior, one of the most essential pieces of safety equipment we have is the muzzle. Unfortunately,  their appearance and the judgments associated with them prevent their usage, sometimes with tragic consequences.”
– Maureen Backman, Mutts About Town & The Muzzle Up! Project

Social media is a beautiful thing sometimes. Last week, an article on my Facebook news feed led me to my most current “I am so excited about this” thing. And let me tell you, I am excited about it.


Those of you who know this blog, or the dog in training who inspires much of it, know that Balton has been a work in progress when it comes to his reactions to people on leash and in the home. While it makes me happy to report that many of his learnings in doggy school seem to be translating to real life, and his confidence in new interactions continues to improve, he is still in training. Because his reactions to the things that scare him lean to the “fight” side of “fight or flight”, and the outside world is unpredictable sometimes, we use a muzzle as an extra layer of management.

For a really long time I was wary of using a muzzle, and I regret not embracing its use earlier on in training. My reason for being so wary was because I was afraid of the stigma that would be attached to it. I read articles about how muzzles are great management tools while training reactive dogs, like this one from Best Friends Animal Society, or this one from

I understood the message: Muzzles are important. Muzzles keep people safe. Counter-condition your dog to using the muzzle, and do it, because it is the responsible thing to do.

But, nowhere in these wonderfully informative articles do they address the hangup I had, or the hangup that I suspect a lot of people have with them: Muzzles look scary, and I didn’t want to taint my then foster dog’s public image any further by using one.

Eventually I had a wake up call, and with it, the basket muzzle became staple on all walks. Even the most experienced handlers, trainers, dog walkers, whomever, are susceptible to accidents. No human is immune to human error, and I never again want to find myself in a situation where a dog who may potentially bite actually does, because I was too stubborn and insecure to put a muzzle on him.

It’s now an accessory that accompanies Balton on every walk, every time.  But still, I felt by putting a muzzle on him, I was basically telling the world he was bad. He was broken. He was mean. He was a menace. When in reality, what I wanted people to know was, yes, he’s a DINOS. He’s got his issues that he is working on. But he is a GOOD DOG.

Even for the number of photos I share of my dogs here, and on Facebook and Instagram, I was always wary to post photos of Balton wearing his muzzle for fear of public opinion. I guess there’s an element of identifying your “kid” is not like all the others, but not wanting to plaster it everywhere for people to editorialize about.

Enter the Muzzle Up! Project to help people like me get over the hangups, and be proud to promote muzzle wearing pups like mine. The movement “promotes safety and education on muzzles and dog behavior, and aims to reduce the stigma associated with dogs who have to wear them…It’s not unreasonable that we should be wary of muzzles. After all, their main usage is to prevent dog bites, something we’ve been conditioned to fear. But which scenario is more unsettling: Encountering a dog whose owner has taken the protective measure of using a muzzle, or encountering a dog whose owner is aware of the potential for aggressive behavior but refrains from using one? While the second dog may not look as scary, the lack of muzzle presents a much more dangerous situation.”

So. Very. True. I wish I had this insight six months ago.

But, learning is a process, so while I can’t go back in time, I can pay it forward right now and encourage you to join B and me in spreading the word that muzzles are to be respected, but not to be feared. To help send that message home, here are a few photos of Balton living, loving, and “nuzzling his muzzle”.

To join in the movement, visit The Muzzle Up! Project site or follow them on Facebook.


Persistence Drive

Every Thursday night for the last almost 4 months now, I have brought Balton out to our “Relaxing Rowdy Rovers” behavior modification class at All About Dogs. Each week I try to time my commute just so, so that I can zip from Tysons Corner to Woodbridge (almost 30 miles each way) by catching the HOV lanes right when they open, swing by home to grab Balton, a treat pouch and frozen/apportioned treats that I refer to as his “school snack”, and zip again to the other side of Woodbridge (another 8 miles door to door) so we can make it there by 7pm.

Sometimes I am late, and often I am flustered and feeling like I am just about to hit the run course of a Sprint Triathlon when I arrive, as a result of my calculated preparations, transitions, moments of panic, and yet still not being done for the day. I hit traffic, or I get home and realize I forgot to lay out the Thundershirt. Last week Nick beat me home, and his proactive effort to be helpful by feeding the boys was met with a crazed and ungrateful “Why did you feed him before class?!” Sometimes I think perhaps I should be in a class for Finding-Your-Happy-Place for Fido’s Frantic Female, or something to that effect.

All (human) students attend an orientation before their first class, and they tell us that they rather we show up late than not at all. So, while I try not to be late, I take that advice to heart each week. If I get there at 6:55 or 7:20, I show up, no matter what.

In some ways it’s nice to be in a class with other people and dogs like us. We never converse with one another for the benefit of our dogs, and going from our cars to the classroom and our individual condos (which, by the way, are not as luxurious as they sounds – but fashioned out of PVC piping and draped with a garbage bag) is like air traffic control, but in our own quiet, non-communicative way, we tell each other we get it. Nobody feels like they have to apologize for outbursts, and no one needs to be on alert to say “sorry, my dog is reactive, please keep your distance” to unknowing people who walk right at you with their dogs on retractable leashes that don’t seem to ever lock.

Some weeks are better for us than others, as might be expected when you are in a room with 5 other dogs who all have different levels of and triggers for their reactivity issues. It’s sort of a rolling admission class, so space is limited to no more than six dogs. If you’re identified as a Rowdy Rover, you’re placed on a waiting list until a spot opens, and you stay in for as long as you (a) need the class and (b) are able/willing to renew membership for. Some Rowdy Rovers are dog reactive, some are human reactive, some are both. Some have been in the class a few weeks, some a few months, some over a year. When I first signed up for the class I signed up for 4 months, thinking Balton would build some skills over the span of about a month or so and quickly graduate out to the basic obedience levels classes.

4 months later, we remain Rowdy Rovers and are preparing to renew – my long term goal remains to graduate and integrate into a class setting with “regular” dogs. I just don’t know how long it will take to reach that goal, and though I remain hopeful that he is on his way, our accomplishments are measured and celebrated in smaller increments:

  • being able to eat, focus, touch, sit, lay down, settle inside the condo
  • Being able to handle the extra stimulation outside the condo.
  • Heck, I even count it a victory when Balton doesn’t pee on the condo.

For most, it’s probably not anything special when someone says “remind me next week that I am going to toss your dog treats.” For me, those words from our trainer equates to hearing we won some rally title at an obedience competition, because it means he’s getting closer to having positive human interactions in an environment where he can learn, where people understand his body language, and where they have reasonable expectations of how far he can go before he reaches his tipping point.

Our trainers identify him as a worrier, but he works hard each week.  He often starts out excited to work, and after time wears on, the barking dogs around him from in class and the daycare next door start to wear on him. He doesn’t ever join in on the barking, but his ears move back and forth like antennae and he sometimes shows concern about what is behind him when I’m asking him to sit and focus on me. When we go back to the car, he is relieved to be done and my hands smell like the flavor of the week – sometimes chicken, sometimes lamb, sometimes fish. 45 minutes of being a good student tends to look something like this at the end:


And I can’t help but feel that way a little myself as we head out of the parking lot, after intently watching each signal Balton offers  – to tell me he can handle it, to tell me moments later no, he’d rather not – and when he tells me that, finding a way to let him know he’s been heard and helping him relax within the limited confines of the classroom environment. It’s the delicate dance we do, the silent talk we have, in order to make sure he knows he’s safe, that he doesn’t have to act out, and that the strange people and dogs around him (who, to be fair, are starting to become familiar faces) mean there are delicious treats coming. In this talk, he also tells me he’s ready to practice our work of the day. He hasn’t lunged in class since week two, and his cut-off signals have become much more polite.

Translating our experiences in our classroom to the world outside it is bit different, and we still struggle to get through daily walks without reactions. Maybe he knows he’s in good company at Rowdy Rovers class, and that each week, no matter the worry, he gets his most delicious treats and makes it out okay. In class, space is respected, and in the outside world, the retractable leashes are still there, still not locking. The people still walk at us and are quick to judge if Balton isn’t okay with it because he can’t predict their intentions.  Because of this, I know he’s not quite ready to graduate to a class with the “regular” dogs. Not yet.

And as we turn onto the road that our school is on, as we turn off it to head home, we pass the street sign that acts as a gentle zen landmark for me. Our school on Persistence Drive.


He may not be ready to move up next week, or the next, or the next. But one day, he will be, and so we keep at it. While I somehow doubt the placement was deliberate, this street sign sure helps my frantic-post work self take a breath on our way in, and helps me look forward to going back the next week.


Mother Goose and Grimm

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.

photo (2)

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.


A slightly more adorable depiction of my dog and me in the bush. Photo credit To Dog With Love

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?