If you’re an owner of a reactive or anxious dog you probably worry about the kind of life your dog will have. You may feel like you aren’t doing enough or worry that your dog is missing out on having doggy friends, chasing their ball in the park and running offlead in the woods like ‘normal’ dogs. Every week we meet new clients who adore their dogs, most of which are perfect at home and love their people, but who are reactive to other dogs or can’t cope in the outside world. We often hear from these lovely, kind and dedicated people that they feel like they aren’t doing enough, that they are somehow letting their dogs down as they don’t have the kind of lives they always imagined their dog would have. These dogs are generally happy in their lives with their people and their difficulties are only one aspect (normally walks), there are normally loads of positives and good bits in the rest of their lives.
Sometimes it’s about acceptance, changing our perspective of what we thought life would be like together and coming to a new realisation of what a fantastic life we can share with our reactive canine friends, perhaps just a different one than we imagined.
If our goals are to be offlead in the busy dog park and happy to play with any dog who decides to say hi or to be able to happily ignore dogs that approach and spend 5 minutes sniffing their bum inappropriately then it’s likely we’d face a long road of disappointment as these just aren’t realistic for so many dogs. If we can change those goals to leading a life together with our canine friends that we both and enjoy and finding activities we can engage in that we love doing together then we have a real chance of success.
Our canine friends lives are far too short to keep striving towards goals that may be unachievable or may only be achievable with sacrifices. The time our dogs share with us is so transient that it’s far too precious to waste. There’s so much fun to be had outside of walks- doing scent work, having a massage or a TTouch session, visiting friends and family with your dog, that we shouldn’t let issues on walks become our sole focus. Find what your dog loves and what hidden skills they have, you may see them in a whole new light. Of course we should train and we rehabilitate but this should always be with the goal of a better and less stressful life for both dog and human, not just to reach potentially unrealistic goals.
This isn’t just relevant to reactive dogs but also to dogs that are anxious too. I know this from personal experience as I spent (wasted) many months trying to get my (happy in every other way) but noise phobic and largely agoraphobic young Inuit, Elsa, to increase the boundaries of her small world. She had home, a couple of happy walks and our lovely farm venue that she felt comfortable with and the rest of the world was scary due to her extreme noise issue. She absolutely adored dogs, she must have had a hundred dog pals and would play happily with them for hours at her safe places but I wanted her life to be ‘more’. It seemed such a shame it was so limited, I wanted to be able to do agility in a class and take her on different walks.
I spent a great deal of time working on expanding her safe places and was moderately successful but all that ‘work’ (which was of course all reward based and done without stress) ate into the time we had to just play with pals, do scent work and have fun. I lost Elsa just after her second birthday after several months desperate fight to save her to an untreatable blood disorder. We never had the time to enjoy the ‘bigger’ and more ‘normal’ life we worked so hard for and in hindsight I wish we’d spent less time striving for it.
She taught us so much in her 26 months with us, she played hard, loved her family and friends and saw joy in the little things. She adored playbowing at beetles and doing scent work to find my childrens’ lost Lego. Her world was small and her life wasn’t ‘normal’ but she was so incredibly happy within it- she didn’t want ‘more’ she was content with the life we had.
We should love our time with our dogs, have long term goals to strive towards but also remember to ensure that we enjoy all of our time together and find the fun in our shared journey.
For Elsa 14/6/13-13/9/15
(c) Laura McAuliffe, 2017. Dog Communication