This Isn’t How I Thought It Would Be
Your dog has been slapped with a label like reactive, naughty, over-aroused, hyperactive, aggressive, scared or scary. It’s isolating, embarrassing, frustrating, sad and very likely not what you thought you were getting yourself into. Dogs are supposed to be our go-to pals in life, but it’s hard to go anywhere when your dog’s behavior is unpredictable, or worse, predictably terrible.
Undesirable behaviors can manifest themselves in all breeds, without prejudice for how much you forked over to buy or adopt, it’s doesn’t matter if the dog is big or small, experienced dog owner for first timer. These behaviors might present themselves all of the time, it may feel random, only on leash, only around children or only men over 5’10 wearing red hats.
It’s easy to get hung up on the “whys, ” Were you abused? Were you socialized? Bad genes? Were you mercilessly harassed by a mail truck in a previous life? Real feelings surface when you see other dogs peacefully walking down the street or hear about our friends' weekly trips to the dog park. Sometimes we think our dogs will just get over it, sometimes we seek professional help, sometimes we pretend it’s not a big deal, sometimes these dogs find their way into or back into the shelter system to become someone else’s burden. No judgement, just reality.
Behavior change takes time and commitment. What that really means is that it takes a lifestyle disruption...and rearranging your home...and altering your expectations...and acceptance that progress is not linear... and ultimately, digging deep for levels of patience, kindness and compassion that you may not even know that you possess. But, change = growth
Over the years, we’ve accumulated these awesome graduates from our Focused and Confident series who wanted more. And, I wanted more. My pups get my leftovers when it comes to training. I was particularly concerned with my guy, Ojai - a wild boy whose engine runs red hot, his heart is fueled by chase and his head is filled with all. the. feelings. We have made most excellent progress, but we live rural and experience winter weather in which no life form goes outside. 4 months of not seeing a bike or another dog generally knocks us back a few notches on our climb.
An Individual with a Tribe
I am, by education and trade, a programmer. Not of the computer variety, but the sort that builds classes, events, teams, club and activities around a central concept and keeps you coming back for more. I am fascinated by the impact of community and connections. So naturally, I set out to build my tribe.
Focused and Confident Social Club (FCSC) is free but exclusive, it’s managed but not coached. The team is invite-only for those who have proven their skills in our Focused and Confident series. Both handler and dog skills are considered prior to invite. Most importantly, we are looking out for the welfare of the dogs involved. Each team member plays a vital role in the safety and success of this program.
We started in Feb 2018. The goal was simple - bring a handful of carefully selected teams together to practice whatever skills that individual team needed to work on. No greetings, no sniffing of any sort, big (BIG) space bubble, head in the game 100% Each location was picked for maximum success. Teams kept a good 10 - 15+ feet from one another. Our initial meet-ups were successful, all of the dogs were doing their thing, humans were releasing tension from their leash and shoulders; I think a few even breathed! Then, it kept getting better.
Our posse was showing up on a regular basis and it was making a difference. Dogs were quick to recover from any barky barky, the group reads situations like real dog pros and they make split second adjustments with grace and ease to maximize everyone's experience. They are simply fantastic.
Not Your Average Walk In The Park
Dog management is dialed to 11. Always. This is the not-secret to our success. We practice trail/path etiquette, we have full treat pouches, we take our time, we make space, we understand and respect our own dog and other dogs' needs and body language. It's exhausting and worth it and it works.
Ellen & Bailey
I fell in love with Bailey, a sweet little brindle pup with the biggest ears I’d ever seen, at an adoption fair for Sandi Paws Rescue. I’d been dreaming of getting a dog and she felt like the perfect match. We had dogs growing up, I thought, how hard could it be? On the drive home from Fond du Lac after picking her up, I realized I had no idea what I was doing.
Over the next few weeks as she started to settle in, her energetic, bold, sassy personality started to shine and I quickly realized we were going to need all the help we could get. I came home from walks feeling embarrassed and frustrated about having the dog that lunged at other people/dogs and jumped up trees barking at squirrels. There were days when we couldn’t even get out the door before the jumping and nipping and leash tugging would start, and I’d turn around and unclip her leash, feeling defeated. I couldn’t sit down at the table or on the couch without her barking at me. More than once I questioned whether I could actually handle this, if we were truly a good fit for each other.
We started training with Local Dog (formerly Dog Face), learning the basics, Bailey is smart and eager to learn, but as her leash-reactive behaviors grew worse I knew we needed more. As we worked through the Focused & Confident series, joined social club walks with other reactive dogs, and did in-home training for leash skills and boredom busters, I began to see the progress we were making. Both Bailey’s confidence and mine were growing, and our walks were becoming much more enjoyable. I’m better able to predict situations where we’ll need a distraction, and when she does react she’s able to recover more quickly. I’ve learned the value of being an advocate for your dog - the importance of keeping distance when needed, avoiding potential triggers, and being comfortable with saying no when someone approaches asking to pet her or if our dogs can meet.
We certainly still have struggles, but growth is a continuous journey, and we’re going to keep working! It’s my goal to take the skills we’ve been using outdoors and apply them to stressful situations at home as well - building calmness toward the vacuum cleaner for example, and managing over-arousal during playtime.
Over our year and a half together, Bailey has challenged me in the best ways and shown me all the love she has to offer. Walking past other dogs with ease and snuggling on the couch without all the barking, are reminders that hard work pays off, and it’s 100% worth it! - Ellen
Julie & Princess Leia
Princess Leia started her dog-dog reactivity at about the age of 6 months. There are several scenarios as to ‘what went wrong’, but after several years of trying to place the blame, I finally realized that isn’t important. What’s important is giving my little girl the best and happiest life with what we have.
When first showing signs of reactivity, I was SO devastated. Afterall, I had big plans for this pup! I competed in agility with my previous dog, and when he retired, Leia was going to be my ‘National Champion’ dog. So as soon as her little body and mind could handle it, we began our agility instructions.
I remember my first Local Dog (Dog Face) class well. Focused and Confident, Level 1. I sat in a room with 5 other people, NO DOGS ALLOWED, discussing our dog’s issues and what our goals were. Goals? I never thought about a goal. Just ‘fix’ my dog! That’s all I wanted.
I finally figured out that my immediate goal was to get Leia from her crate to the start line at an agility trial, without throwing a tantrum or hurting another dog. Once in the ring, alone, we will be fine.
I continued the rest of the F&C 1 classes, without much improvement. The shear sight of a dog, a block away, would send Leia into a growling, shaking, drooling mess. And there was no coming back once she started. We would actually have to leave the building in order for me to calm her down and get her attention back.
I wasn’t giving up! Then the magical day arrived. We walked into our classroom, treat in hand, leash pulled tight. I’m dreading that deadly walk from the door, past our classmates, to our seat. We walked into the room, and like clockwork, Leia began her intense eye contact, body tightening, growling noises at sight of our neighboring poodle. Oh here we go again!! But, catching me completely off-guard, SHE LOOKED AWAY! Her eyes concentrated on me, tail wagging, I think she was actually smiling, as we continued our walk to our ‘special corner’. I couldn’t believe it!
I had spent dozens of times crying in despair after our classes, losing hope. That day my tears were ‘happy tears’.
As we left class that day, still shaking from the unbelievable events from earlier, she locked eye contact with our neighboring shepherd dog. Growling and carrying on. Oh well. It’s true what they say…one step forward, 2 steps back. But every little step forward counts.
Yes, Leia reached our goal of being able to walk from her cage to the agility start line. And we’ve continued to grow from there. I have to keep on top of things, always being aware of our surroundings, and letting others know about her ‘problem’. It was important that I learn to communicate this to others, to help us be successful. I needed to accept that she will still have ‘bad days’, and there will always be that dog that no matter how much we train, she ain’t ever gonna like (Poor Paco. Sorry, Dude!)
Most importantly, I needed to stop feeling guilty about her ‘condition’. Who cares why she’s like this. I had to get over it and move forward. And through the years I have become confident in our strengths, and know what her vulnerabilities are. It’s ALWAYS a work in progress, and I frequently go back to the basics and work on our “Look at that dog” exercises.
Local Dog Adventure Blog
Join me and my 3-dog crew as we share our stories of training and adventure. Whether you're a newly leashed dog guardian, veteran handler, weekend warrior, cuddle on the couch sort, got yourself a fancy AF purebred or filthy, little mudblood, all are welcome in the Local Dog Tribe. If you want your pooch to think you're the coolest thing since sliced hot dogs, read on!