Respect for the Reactive Dog

My Australian Kelpie, Beretta, has gained popularity among my Facebook friends as the “dog who couldn’t, but now can.” You see, when I got Beretta, she was a free dog on Craigslist. I had so many plans for this dog. I wanted to train her in agility and compete with her by my side, I wanted to make her a demo dog for my training company, and my most difficult goal to achieve, I wanted her to become a service dog for my non-combat related PTSD.

Once Beretta arrived at my home and took three months to warm up to me, my other dog, and generally just look comfortable around her new home, I knew something was wrong. However, I kept telling myself it would get better with time. We could make her a success story instead. Sure, she was a little shy, but she could overcome that, right?

I selfishly continued with my plans unaware of the hell I was putting my dog through at the time. Eventually I decided once Beretta started barking, lunging, and growling at everyone that entered my home or anyone she saw on walks, that I needed help. I needed to put my pride aside and get help from someone with more experience. At that point I contacted a behaviorist with an amazing resume and had a phone session with her. I sent her several videos of Beretta and I told her my hopes and dreams for Beretta.

Her response was, “Well, if you want to do all that, you should have gotten another dog.”

After our hour phone call that I will never forget, I was heartbroken, but still in denial. I made excuses like, “Well, she didn’t even see Beretta in person, what does she know?” and “Such-and-such had a dog like this and now they are better. Why couldn’t Beretta be?” I didn’t respect or accept that my dog was clearly uncomfortable being what I expected her to be.

I spent over a year looking for a miracle solution to my dog’s reactivity before deciding I would actually need to put in the work myself. I would need to spend hours counter conditioning and desensitizing her to everything she thought was scary, which was basically the entire world and everything in it. I would need to put my hopes on the back burner and accept Beretta for who she was before anything would get better. She didn’t need agility training, she didn’t need public access training, and she didn’t need to be the perfect dog I imagined. She needed for me to listen to her and respect that she was scared. She needed me to stop being selfish and be there for her.

Once I set my own feelings aside and stopped looking for a quick fix, Beretta got better with patience, hard work, and accepting her for who she is. Beretta has taught me more than I ever could have learned with my “perfect” dog I wanted.

My first suggestion for anyone with a reactive dog is, accept your dog for who he/she is and if you can’t, you need to let that dog go to someone who can. Dogs that are fear reactive don’t care about our human plans to “better” them and turn them into an inspiring story. They care about surviving, living a stress-free life, and just being free to be a dog that can go on walks without being scared of what is around the next corner.

I don’t care how many reactive dogs a trainer has claimed to fix quickly. I learned over the years that being prideful like that will get you in trouble when it comes to behavioral cases. Rushing a process that should be done carefully and slowly is nothing to be proud of.

Beretta is a success story today, just not the story I imagined for her. She lives with two other dogs happily after proper introductions. She has an inner circle of people that she loves and greets just like family. And she did learn some agility after all, but we keep it to the backyard and have just as much fun. She taught me so much and was my inspiration for starting Faithfully Yours Dog Training’s behavioral programs.

We owe it to our amazing dogs to accept them for who they are. So what if your dog doesn’t want to go to the pet store? There are a hundred other things you can do together that would be fun. So what if your dog can’t compete in dog sports due to injury, aggression, or no drive? Find something else to do that they love and they will succeed.

Respecting your dog for who he is doesn’t mean accepting their “bad” behavior and moving on, it means respecting that the process might take them time. They might be slower or faster than other dogs. We might need to move onto more productive goals or accept that our dog doesn’t love something as much as we do.

If we listen to what our dogs are telling us, we will get further than we ever believed we could.