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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Lee

Dogs & The Spectrum of Behavioral Issues | Collaboration Part One

Updated: May 12, 2023

Having a dog with behavioral issues is without a doubt the hardest challenge I have been handed in my adult life. I went from knowing nothing about dogs and dog behavior to being invested and inspired by the world of dog training. I was forced to take a deep dive into this world because of Kane. I would never wish a journey like this on anyone because it is emotionally exhausting, traumatic and just plain hard. I am beyond thankful for the people I have met along this journey because without you all we would not be where we are. The worst part about the early stages of this journey was the feeling of isolation. I didn't know anyone else with a dog like Kane and felt so alone and helpless. I never want anyone else to feel this way; I am always here to offer support, love or just listen.

Thank you to all the wonderful people who contributed to this blog post and shared their difficult journey and most vulnerable moments. I hope this blog post, and part two coming later this week, offer support and hope to anyone who needs it.

Joanna & Kane

We adopted Kane from a local rescue when he was about 1 year old, the shelter’s best guess. When we met him at the rescue he was social with the other dogs, friendly and excited to meet new people and overall just crazy high energy. We brought him home two days later knowing very little about dog ownership, as I know it now. We both grew up with happy go lucky family dogs but did not contribute much to caring for them or training them. For the first year we owned Kane he was social, happy and full of energy. We went to the dog park a few times a week, ran along the Chicago Lakeshore with him and took him to forest preserves outside the city on the weekend. He loved every dog and person he met.

All that changed around the time he turned two. Looking back we brushed off some early warning signs, not knowing anything about dog behavior. He got in a couple scuffles with dogs at the dog park, snapped at a few dogs during leash introductions and he growled at a couple of new people who came into the house but overall he still loved most dogs and most people, so we blamed the situation, the other dogs and the people. We could never imagine what this would evolve into. There were two moments that stick out in my mind as thinking we had hit rock bottom, looking back we weren’t even close to the worst it would get. But these were the moments that triggered me to realize we were in over our head and needed help. The dog related incident was at the dog beach where we went frequently, with no prevous issues. A tiny puppy tried to take a toy from his mouth. He “attacked the puppy”. In reality, he made a lot of noise but did not physically harm the dog. But he definitely mentally hurt that puppy. We left the dog park ashamed and embarrassed, this was the last time Kane went to a dog park. The human related incident took place outside our apartment. My grandma arrived to visit and after dinner I was walking her back to her hotel, I decided to take Kane with me. She had never met Kane and like most people do she reached out to pet him. Again, he didn’t physically harm her but he made a lot of noise on a busy street surrounded by people and scared her, and me.

Our first dive into these issues was with a positive only trainer. She came to our home and did an evaluation of Kane. She explained dog maturity to us and blamed his increased selectivity and aggression on this. She explained that in rescue dogs, these maturity changes can happen later because they never got to have a puppy stage and are delayed in their development. She made recommendations like start a Prozac prescription (which we did), introduce him to dogs off leash and have all guests feed him treats before petting him. Let’s talk about humans first because in my mind this is the much bigger issue with Kane, even today. Her methods seemingly worked for a while. He did well with most people who came over, but overall we stopped having people over as much. I was beyond overwhelmed and had absolutely awful anxiety about him biting someone new or someone he already knew. Avoidance was the easiest way to handle this. The treat before pet method worked until it didn’t. We went on a trip with my friend’s brother and his friends. They were at the airbnb alone with Kane, in hindsight an absolutely awful idea to not have him contained. They used the treat then pet method without me there and he bit my friend’s brother, the first time he had broken skin. Thankfully injuries were very minor and didn’t require medical attention. But, I think that is when we realized how serious this problem was. This was the first time it had been more than noise. After that we told guests to ignore him and once he was comfortable they could feed him and/or pet him. It is hard to remember the exact progression of this process but I also started to muzzle train him.

About 6 months before we left Chicago I met Emma Stoddard at Canine Sports Dog Training. I reached out to her for help with recall training after I lost Kane while hiking. Little did I know that this training journey with her would change my life. When I reached out to her I explained his human and dog issues but said I had them under control (LOL) and just needed help with recall and was interested in the ecollar. I truly thought I did have his issues under control at this point, but looking back I didn’t. As we worked through recall and ecollar training we also dove into this behavioral issues and training overall. I have Emily to thank for my introduction to dog training, dog behavior and the true progression in Kane’s training journey. I learned that he was not the only dog out there with these issues. I started listening to podcasts, reading books, talking to people on Instagram and actually training my dog. When we moved to Colorado in 2018 I still wasn’t sure how to handle Kane with new people, we were playing it by ear depending on the person. We were living with our friends so we were having more people visit than we previously had so I worked with Emily virtually and met Sarah Bayles, with Kathy Santos Dog Training, through the GRC Club we had formed out here. From here we established more clear boundaries and rules for Kane. I also solidified his obedience training, especially his place training, which helped in so many aspects, I could actually control my dog.

While we were making amazing progress in his training, we were training a lot more and our relationship was getting stronger but that didn’t mean it was going to be smooth sailing. He was very neutral to people and other dogs by this point but still did not enjoy interaction with either. I was still in the mindset of thinking he would warm up to people after they had been around for a while so we were still allowing people to pet him, after he ‘warmed up’. Ultimately this unfortunately led to him breaking skin on my mom (December 2018), my dad (January 2020) and my sister (May 2020). In addition he also snapped at a child, which caused bruising but no broken skin in January 2020. It is so embarrassing for me to write about this and list out those dates. I wonder how I didn’t see these events coming and how I didn’t change anything. After every one of these incidents I felt like I was back at square one and that Kane was unpredictable. But I wasn’t and he wasn’t. I was still learning. In reality, we were making incredible progress in these years but there were handler errors thrown in there to remind me that this dog I own is very difficult, that the training journey never ends. I think our biggest progress has happened in the past 2 years and I think our relationship is the strongest it has ever been.

He is currently 7.5 years old and I think we have finally developed the level of trust I have been striving for since day one. I think there are a few factors to this. The first one is me accepting the dog that he is. He is not the dog I ever planned on owning but he is who he is. While I will always push our training to be better and our relationship to be stronger, I accepted that there are situations he will not enjoy or be successful in. When those situations arise, he stays at home. The second component is play based training. While I remain balanced in my training style, utilizing tools that I have found success in, utilizing play and toys as a reward has taken our training and our relationship to the next level. Kane was not a toy or play driven dog; I built this in him, for us. We learned how to play together and I think that was the key. We started with tug, his preference, and have built fetch drive and personal play drive. We now play almost every day. The third was muzzle training. Muzzle training allowed me to test our training, with limits, and feel comfortable. For a long time my anxiety made situations worse, the muzzle took this strain out of our relationship. I think it's important to mention that while we are in the best place we have ever been, he still isn't the dog I wanted. I still grieve this life I was forced into, I still sometimes wish that I hadn't been handed this challenging dog and most importantly, this journey will never end. He will always be a difficult dog to own, no matter how good things are.

Briefly, I will discuss Kane with other dogs throughout this time. Kane does have the skills to live with, play with and enjoy another dog. Nyx is proof of this. Since moving to Colorado he has been successfully introduced to about 6-7 new dogs. He also has dog friends from before his issues started that he remains comfortable around.. However, it is a slow process to introduce him to a new dog. Like really really really slow.. In general he does better with younger, smaller and submissive dogs. He is happy to coexist with absolutely any dog, even in our house and off leash on trails. But the interaction piece is where he struggles. Upon a new dog entering his space, even just a normal/appropriate greeting, he will usually over correct them. If they back off he will go back to not interacting and choose this route. He severely lacks social skills and is very insecure around new dogs. He has never hurt a dog, he is all noise in his corrections, but I wouldn’t take this chance and he is always muzzled around dogs he doesn’t know.

Now, we do things a little differently. Kane does not get touched by anyone except his very small circle of people. Everyone else who is around him is told to ignore him and under no circumstances to touch him. In addition, he is always muzzled around people he doesn’t know. The muzzle serves as a visual reminder to people and protects me and him if someone neglects to follow the rules. When new people come over he doesn’t always see them and sometimes doesn’t meet them. He sometimes stays in the basement and sometimes he is upstairs but on place. It depends on how I feel, who the visitors are, how long they are staying and many other factors. It is a constant risk and benefit assessment to set him up for success.

Kane has taught me so many things about life as a whole. He also introduced me to the world of Dog Instagram and many of my closest friends now. Without the community of dog instagram and the training opportunities it opened up for me I do not think we would be where we are. It has been a long journey and it definitely isn’t over yet, I don’t think it ever will be. But a vast majority of the time he is a very easy dog and we live a great life together. I have learned to accept that those difficult days will come, and when they do it will be hard on me. Some will be really really hard. I think it's important to mention that my relationship suffered for a period of time because of Kane and the anxiety that he brought to my life. I had friends that couldn't or wouldn't understand his needs or this world I was diving into, and we didn't continue to be friends. It takes a huge toll on your life. Handling and processing my own emotions related to living with a dog like Kane has possibly been the hardest challenge of my life. Don’t let anyone diminish that challenge or dismiss those feelings, they will never understand and they are lucky for that. So, if you are in a similar situation please take care of yourself first and foremost because no one else will if you don’t. Make sure you grieve the loss of the dog you thought you were getting but also appreciate the parts of your dog you do love, even if they are hard to remember some days.

Haley & Scout

General background of your dog

Scout came into my hometown’s local shelter as a stray. I brought her home — my first dog all on my own, and oh how excited I was! — in early 2019. She’s always been on the timid end (the shelter described her as “shy but sweet”) and has needed a lot of help to feel confident about the world around her.

When did behavioral issues start? How did they start?

Scout’s first full-blown reactions to other dogs took place about two weeks after I adopted her. She was nervous around other dogs at the shelter and never showed interest in playing with them, but she wasn’t outwardly “reactive”when I initially brought her home. After a few forced on-leash greetings and getting attacked by another dog on a walk, it was a bit like a switch flipped in her — she started barking, growling, and lunging at any dog she saw (even from full city blocks away) in a defensive display to tell them to stay away.

Was there a ‘rock bottom’ moment?

The lowest moments for me have always come after I feel like I’ve let her down. I often deal with those emotions when we’re charged by an off-leash dog, when I see her fearful in a certain situation even after three years of work, or when I lose my own temper. It can be so disheartening to think about all the effort we’ve put in and feel like we’re still not “perfect” or where I want to be — sometimes she’s still afraid of a bag on the side of the road, sometimes she has an off day, sometimes the environment surprises us and I just can’t “be her superhero” the way I used to imagine. Processing my feelings and understanding what I actually can and can’t control has helped a lot in this regard.

What training methods have you tried? Have they all worked? If some haven’t worked, why?

We’ve done a lot of different things with Scout, from hand-feeding every meal for more than a year to teaching windows of opportunity to box feeding to building strong obedience for use as management to our current big focus on play and so on. It’s hard to isolate variables in life with our dogs since so many of our actions overlap with each other — I don’t think I can accurately imagine what our journey would have looked like if we did things differently! That said, I do suspect that a greater focus on our social interactions and trust (faith in handler, advocacy) from the get-go would have helped.

At a high level, we:

  • Started out with a “force free” approach trying to counter condition with food, but did not find that very effective in our downtown apartment (lots of blind corners and tight quarters)

  • Ended up falling into a bit more of a compulsion approach under the “balanced” label, where we jumped into life with a prong collar and used it to interrupt her reactions (but I didn’t feel like I deep down had a good understanding of correction vs punishment and her emotions and so on)

  • Learned about trainers like Jay Jack and Ivan Balabanov who employ a lot of play and social interaction, started to doubt some of the things we had previously believed and all-in-all felt a huge sense of “this is so complicated, there’s so much nuance!”

  • Reached a comfortable place where I prioritize Scout’s fulfillment, build clarity in our own interactions, create trust that I’ll keep her safe in the world, and set consistent expectations. I often feel like I’m in a sort of middle ground when it comes to a lot of claims in the dog training world, resonating with sentiments from multiple “sides” and finding hard-and-fast labels problematic a lot of the time. I support the use of humane punishment (prompt, consistent, contingent on behavior, clear opportunity for reconciliation) and at the same time believe we need to be fair in our expectations of our dogs, to honor them in their own context.

Progression of training and/or management

The biggest things for our personal journey have been: processing my own emotions, fear, and uncertainty as Scout’s owner; finding ways to have fun together and build a social relationship; thinking about what I’m asking of her in a given situation and whether or not it’s fair.

Here’s a high-level loose timeline:

  • Totally overwhelmed in the early days! Taking in any and all info I could find, lots of training consults, trying very hard but not in much of an organized way. So many conflicting claims out there.

  • Took a stricter approach where I prioritized structured walks and tried to keep Scout in a calm mindset above all else. I felt very reliant on our prong collar to keep her from reacting at this point and was unsure of her emotions and what I was doing with them, though I was trying to stay balanced and think about advocating for her, playing with her, etc. too.

  • Virtual sessions and podcast deep dives as time went on, beginning to broaden my knowledge and develop enough of a foundation to start evaluating different messages — and had owned Scout long enough to see more of who she is and what I felt might be working or not working.

  • Moved to Florida and really started prioritizing play more!

  • Along with that, an increased focus on biological fulfillment — understanding what makes Scout feel satisfied and how to meet her needs.

  • Enrolled in group classes and found areas like outside of dog parks for consistent exposure to other dogs without undue pressure or worry about owners not being responsible. Was able to go on controlled, safe walks with other dogs more regularly.

  • Reached a point where our daily lifestyle felt really comfortable and have continued that sort of lifestyle training / maintenance (with other goals mixed in just to keep things fun and help us stay motivated).

Current management or training schedule

If I had to sum up our current fundamental approach to Scout’s fear, I’d divide it into two parts. First and foremost, I show her that overreacting isn’t necessary. I will protect her from the scary things (faith in handler) and the scary things aren’t even that scary anyway (counter conditioning, desensitization, generalized bravery, watching me eagerly interact with concerning stimuli myself, and so on). I also show her that overreacting isn’t cool. We’ve taken time to build the impulse control and frustration tolerance she needs to handle more and more situations without losing her head, we can clearly communicate whether we’re happy with her choices in a given moment, and we’ve built incompatible behaviors to use as management when necessary.

Words of advice for people on similar journeys

Treat yourself with the same kindness you show your dog. Prioritize biological fulfillment — for both of you! Adjust your expectations. It’s okay to grieve the dog you wish you had, but don’t waste precious time with the one who is in front of you lamenting that she isn’t someone else.

Natalie & Bilbo

We had wanted a German shorthaired pointer (GSP) for several years before we got Bilbo. A GSP was our dream dog to take with us on our outdoor adventures despite neither of us having grown up around the breed. Shortly after moving to a new province at the beginning of 2020, we decided to put down a deposit with a local breeder on a litter that would be due at the end of the year. In February 2021, we picked up Bilbo at the age of 8 weeks old and brought him home. I remember going to pick him up from the breeder and having other puppies from his litter run over to greet us excitedly. Bilbo was across the room sitting under a table, evidently less excited and seemingly a bit nervous. At the time we were concerned but when we brought him home and fed him, he warmed up to our housemates and anyone that came over rather quickly so that was the last we thought of it.

If you know me, you know that I obsessively prepare for things and do extensive research on pretty much everything beforehand. Getting a GSP puppy was no different and I felt prepared for training and meeting Bilbo’s mental and physical stimulation needs. I had a plan laid out for everything and things were going smoothly. We had signed up for a 6-week puppy socialization class that consisted of basic command training and introducing puppies to foreign objects followed by supervised off leash time for the puppies to interact with one another. We were very focused on socializing him properly since covid restrictions in our province were strict at the time and we knew he would have limited exposure to new people and places. The first class was honestly a nightmare for me. There were 5 other puppies that were all lower energy, common family dog breeds and Bilbo was overwhelmed by all of the smells in the doggy daycare room where class was held and struggled to focus and not pull on his leash constantly. I remember crying as soon as I got back to the car when Jordan picked us up. We still powered through classes each week and while it was a struggle, we saw improvement and Bilbo had no issues with other people or dogs. We never took him to dog parks and would take him to a local pet-friendly hardware store to work on engagement and commands around people and distractions. Although he sometimes struggled to focus, he really had no issues with people.

Fast forward to Bilbo being around 12 weeks old. It was a sunny day and we were sitting outside on the front porch of our house with some friends and Bilbo on leash. A big delivery truck pulled up in front of our house and the delivery man walked up our short driveway to hand us a package. I had Bilbo on leash as the man approached and Bilbo suddenly started barking and lunging aggressively at the delivery man. We were quite taken aback so I just picked him up and quickly grabbed the package and went back to our porch. This was our first instance of human reactivity.

A few days later, a similar incident occurred when a woman came to pick up something from our house and Bilbo again barked and lunged aggressively at her and scared her. We were looking up everything we could online and at first had tried getting him to be ok with people by tossing treats on the ground when he saw people pass close by and getting strangers to give him treats. In hindsight, forcing him to interact with strangers throughout this period likely only made things worse. And it did get worse, to the point where every time we passed by a person when we were on a walk Bilbo would bark and lunge at them on leash. As he grew bigger and stronger, I really struggled to maintain control of him as he pulled me around. This created an anxiety for me whenever I took Bilbo out that just kept growing. It got to a point where I couldn’t walk Bilbo without Jordan there because I was so anxious that he would react and I wouldn’t be able to hold him back. There were several times where Bilbo reacting caught me off guard and he pulled me to the ground and my anxiety got so bad that I would just avoid taking him anywhere with people and was still constantly anxious when I was out of the house with him – this was probably rock bottom for me. In turn, seeing people less frequently probably just made him more reactive.

As we struggled to deal with this, we moved to a relatively remote island with a small population for several months in the summer when Bilbo was nearly 6 months old. Bilbo was so smart, picked up on commands quickly, and was truly our dream dog aside from his human reactivity. We had always planned on ecollar training him to provide him with more off leash freedom and give us some peace of mind when he was off leash or in an emergency. We used balanced training methods to solidify his heeling, reinforce his recall, and work on a few other small things. During this summer we shifted to not letting people interact with Bilbo and advocating for his space in order to build his trust in us that we would protect him to show him that he didn’t need to react. We would reward heavily as soon as he saw a person and worked on disengaging with the person and engaging with us instead. We have been doing this since and working with distance, duration, new distractions etc. and it has been a long, slow journey but we’ve seen improvement. There have been many hiccups along the way, but this has been working for us for the most part and we are now able to walk Bilbo around a university campus or busy area without reactions. We train constantly to maintain the progress we’ve made and it is truly a never-ending journey. We are at a point now where Bilbo still struggles and reacts to people on trails or in situations where a street or area is empty and a person suddenly appears, even if at a bit of a distance away. We still hope to find a trainer or behaviourist to help us work through these challenges in the future.

Despite his human reactivity, Bilbo is a wonderful dog that has made our lives so much better. His human reactivity is still something we struggle with daily, but he is such an intelligent, loving, silly dog that always brightens our day. Truly, the biggest struggles with his human reactivity have been my emotional reaction and recovery time after he has a reaction and accepting that other people are not able to see and know the Bilbo that we do. Something that has helped a lot is just me working on managing my emotions associated with his reactions and peoples’ perceptions of him. I constantly remind myself that Bilbo is not trying to give me a hard time, he is having a hard time.

Throughout all of this, I’ve learned that training is an ongoing journey and never truly ends. I’ve also learned that living with a reactive dog can be so challenging and isolating at times but also still very rewarding and that the Instagram dog community is a place that helps us all feel a little less alone through it all. I’ve learned that reactive dogs don’t need to be “fixed” – my goal is to get Bilbo to a place where he can be neutral around people and I am there to advocate for his space. I’ve learned so much more about dog behaviour than I think I ever would’ve had I not had a reactive dog. I’ve also developed a deep appreciation for reactive dog owners because despite reactions still happening, reactive dog owners are some of the most invested dog owners I’ve met who are so in tune with the body language and behaviour of their dogs. Something that I have learned and still remind myself of is that one reaction or bad day doesn’t ruin all of our training and that when reactions happen in public and people stare, I shouldn’t care what other people think. My biggest pieces of advice for reactive dog owners are that you are not alone, it’s ok to have bad days but don’t let those feelings linger, and that you are stronger than you realize and already an amazing owner for trying to work through your dog’s reactivity.

Corina & Grizzly

General background

Grizzly was 12 weeks old when I picked him up from his breeder. It was on a whim that I had decided to get a dog- the very first “quarantine” for COVID was about to begin and I was living alone in a city I had just moved to. Prior to finding Grizzly, I had two rescue dogs lined up for meet and greets- both were chosen by another person before I was able to meet them. I decided that I would go with what I knew, a field-bred golden retriever from a breeder. I had grown up with working line golden retrievers my whole life, and I *thought* I knew what I was getting myself into. I picked Grizzly up from a breeder that I had found on an online puppy search website. SUPER SKETCH. But, I had asked the breeder for pictures of his parents, pictures of where the puppies were raised, and AKC registration papers. Everything seemed to check out. He grew up on a farm around other kids and adults and with a family who had bred goldens for a few generations. I picked up Grizzly when he was 12 weeks old which is a bit old for puppies, but I had read online that keeping puppies for a few weeks later than 7 weeks is not unheard of and that it would not cause long term damage.

Grizzly was an amazing puppy. Because he was at the breeders until he was 12 weeks old, he came already partially crate trained and potty trained. He was SO CALM. In fact, I was very worried about how much he slept. In the beginning, it seemed like I couldn’t keep him awake. He was probably awake for an hour a day. He bit ankles for maybe 2 days, but seemed very uninterested in it when I just ignored it and walked away from him. He slept in his crate quietly at night. Potty training him on a fourth floor apartment was honestly not too difficult.

When did behavioral issues start? How did they start?

I started noticing around 6 months of age that Grizzly was *extremely* dog-motivated. Since I lived in an apartment, I took him to a nearby dog park almost every night. I wasn’t concerned when it seemed like the other dogs bullied him. He seemed to enjoy the rough play and I was absolutely in the “dogs will be dogs, they will figure it out” mindset. As Grizz grew, it seemed like he was bullied more and more. Dogs were getting more aggressive with him at dog parks, and there were a few times where I had to pull some pretty large dogs off my small puppy. I started becoming more concerned when it seemed like Grizzly actually enjoyed that type of play. It was like he wanted to rile up the other dogs. He was never neutered, and I learned later that often times neutered dogs find unneutered dogs as a threat.

What issues popped up and when, was there a progression or warning signs?

Grizz kept having negative experiences with new dogs, so I established a consistent time that we could go to the park where there were familiar dogs that I knew he got along with. Yeah, eyeroll, I know. I STILL didn’t understand that maybe he shouldn’t be going to dog parks. I recognized that male dogs did not seem to like to interact with him, so I began asking people if their dog was a male or a female, and I would attempt to stop play with male dogs. This was around 8-10 months old.

Grizzly’s “negative experiences” looked like: extremely rough-and-tumble play, where Grizz would flip and roll multiple times when playing. Pinning other dogs by the neck and letting them pin him and biting ankles were his go-to moves. He learned this type of play from my parents dog, who is a neutered male dog. Those two would roll around in the yard for hours on end without taking breaks. Grizzly seemed to really love it.

Was there a ‘rock bottom’ moment?

Our “rock bottom” moment was when we went home for Christmas in 2020. I knew Grizzly had a few negative “tussles” that I was trying to avoid, so we slowly re-introduced Grizzly and Rusty (my parents dog). I told my parents I didn’t want them to rough and tumble play, but they didn’t really understand why. So I just separated the boys by redirecting with treats or toys whenever I could. The second day in, I was playing with Rusty with a ball in the garage, and Grizzly ran up behind him. Rusty went after him and they immediately started fighting. After about 30 seconds in, Grizzly ended up with Rusty on the ground in a choke hold. My dad, brother, and boyfriend immediately jumped on the dogs, trying to pry Grizzly’s jaw open. He locked down harder. I’m sure both dogs were terrified. I ran into the kitchen to get a cookie sheet to slam on the garage floor and when I got back they had the dogs separated. My dad said he had twisted Grizzly’s testicles to get him to release Rusty. I have no doubt that if we had not intervened, Grizzly would have killed Rusty. As I am typing this, I can’t help but tear up. That was easily the worst day of my life. We checked Rusty up and down and did not find the bite mark or blood. My parents had found a scab on his neck a few days later.

I had thought this was a one-off situation, and it honestly tarnished my relationship with my family for a while. They blamed my “aggressive dog” and I told them that Grizzly did not start the fight, he just ended it. I was unable to see the underlying issues. A month later, Grizzly nipped a puppy who was much smaller than him over a toy. And a month after that, he pinned a Bernese Mountain Dog that had growled at him in a field when playing in the snow. After that, I began to label him as aggressive-reactive and we stopped all interactions with male dogs.

What training methods have you tried? Have they all worked? If some haven’t worked, why?

I hired a balanced trainer when Grizzly was 10 months old. I knew I wanted to go the balanced route immediately because I had friends whose dogs were extremely well behaved and ecollar trained. My end goal for training was hiking offleash, and I also knew that I would not be able to trust Grizzly off leash without the use of an ecollar. Our trainer helped me work through some of the reactivity stuff as it popped up, but he did tell me upfront that he did not specialize in reactivity.

Current Management/Training Schedule

Right now, my main form of management is managing which dogs Grizzly interacts with. I decide who he gets to meet, play with, and greet. Grizzly has about 5-6 female friends that he is allowed to run around with with his muzzle on. We hike with male dogs with the muzzle on or off, depending on the dog and how I am feeling about their interactions. Grizzly does not meet any dogs on leash. We cross the street or pull off on the trail and let other dogs pass, so I can work on maintaining a calm state of mind with him as they pass. If a dog is running towards us, I have found success with a few different methods. If we are hiking with friends, I will give my friend the leash and tell them to walk the other way, while I try to intercept the dog coming towards us. If we are alone, I carry an air horn that has proven to halt a dog dead in its tracks before reaching us. I also carry pepper spray but would only use that in case of a dog fight.

If you utilize a muzzle, for what?

The muzzle has changed our lives. When Grizzly is wearing the muzzle, I am completely at ease knowing everyone is safe. Grizzly enjoys his muzzle because he wears it when off leash on busy trails or when he gets to play with his friends. It is only associated with positive experiences. When Grizzly is wearing his muzzle, he plays appropriately. He is unable to bite necks or ankles, which is what caused some negative experiences with other dogs in the past. When he is wearing it off leash, I am more relaxed about having an eagle eye on the trail for which dogs are coming towards us.

Words of advice for people on similar journeys

For people on similar journeys: I need you to know that it will get better. I know it feels helpless. It feels like you are the only one who has a “mean” dog, but that is not the truth. You can still live the life you dreamed of when you got your dog. I absolutely went through the 5 stages of grief when realizing that I had a reactive dog. I denied Grizzly’s reactivity for a while as it was developing. My “depression” stage lasted for a long time. Like, almost a whole year. I dealt with severe anxiety. Anyone who hiked with me knew that I was ALWAYS asking, “Is that a dog? Are they on a leash?” on the trails. But I’ve finally come to accept that this is the way that Grizzly is. I can’t change him, I can only love him for who he is.

What have you learned from your journey and your dog

I have learned, more than anything, to stand up for myself and my dog. I have learned to advocate for his space. I have learned that stressing over what people think or say about my dog will not do anything other than add more stress to my life. I have learned that I don’t actually have to put him in uncomfortable scenarios to make other people feel better. I don’t have to explain in detail the ins and outs of his reactivity to people who will never understand. I have learned so much about myself throughout this journey with Grizzly, and I couldn’t be more grateful that the universe decided to pair us together. <3

Ally & Maggie

General background

I picked up Maggie at the age of 8 weeks old from a breeder in Washington. Maggie is an intentionally bred border collie & golden retriever mix, and she breaks down to be 75% Border Collie, and 25% Golden Retriever. When I picked up Maggie, I was so excited to have my dream dog. The perfect mix of my two favorite breeds. What could go wrong?! She was described as a dog with the temperament of a golden and smarts of a border collie, minus the high strung-parts that typically comes with owning a border collie. I couldn’t have been more excited. That being said, would I recommend her breeder? Not at all - but, you live and you learn.

When did behavioral issues start? How did they start?

From the first day I brought my little 8 week old ball of fluff home, she’s exhibited signs of resource guarding. I was an ecstatic first time puppy owner, and the first meal I ever fed her, she latched onto my hand and nearly broke skin. This is where our journey begins!

What issues popped up and when, was there a progression or warning signs?

A few warning signs popped up for Maggie from the start. At first, I thought maybe these were “weird puppy quirks”, but later realized these were aspects of her personality that I was going to have to manage for the rest of her life.

There were a few warning signs that we saw from a young age:

  • Dog Selectivity: Maggie has always been choosy with her friends and their corresponding play styles. She likes things to be on HER terms. An example of how this popped up at a young age was when she was 9 weeks old and first met another puppy her age. The other puppy was derpy, rolling around, pawing at her, and trying to engage in play. Maggie responded with growling, snarling, and snapping. Yes, my 9 week old puppy was SNARLING AND SNAPPING at another completely innocent and adorable 9 week old puppy.

  • Proximity Sensitivity: Maggie loves her space and alone time, and this is another sign that we saw from a young age. She would have dogs she would play and romp around with for HOURS, but if that same dog tried to approach her while she was relaxing, she would snarl or snap. This warning sign started mild and her reactions have increased in intensity with age.

  • Resource Guarding: Since she was young, she’s resource guarded just about anything and everything that she might find valuable (which is a lot). She would growl if you happened to walk by too close while she was eating, or if she thought you might want to steal her toy. She would guard spaces (ie, couch) from the other dogs & people in our house. Again, these signs started VERY young.

Was there a ‘rock bottom’ moment?

We have 2 rock bottom moments. I hate that it took 2 for me to realize the intensity & severity of the problem, but again, you live and you learn. Both rock bottom moments resulted in a puncture to the other dog. The first broke skin and bled, the second broke skin and required stitches.

Rock bottom moment #1 was when Maggie one day decided to attack our roommate's dog, who she had known her entire life. The situation was a game night at our house, and Maggie, Airabell, and our roommate's dog were all asleep under the table. Maggie had her cone on, as she was 1 week into her spay recovery. All of a sudden, mid-game, I hear a piercing cry come from underneath the table, and our roommate's white dog ran out covered in blood splatters with a hole punctured through his ear. So many questions came into my head: WHY? Did he get too close? What caused this? Why would she do this? She’s known him since day 1. She had always been the one to initiate play between the two (which was daily!), and he was always extremely respectful of any boundaries she set. To this day I’ll never understand and I’m still not sure what caused the change of heart, But, it’s something I’ve spent way too much time fixating on, and it was a decision she made and since then she never turned back.

Rock bottom moment #2 was when Maggie attacked a dog she had spent a ton of time with. A dog I thought was her best friend. This was a dog she had been on camping trips with, a dog who she spent a week with while we were on vacation without any issues, and a dog that she had eaten around in many different situations and scenarios (treats & meals, indoor & outdoor). However, one day when that dog showed up at our house for a long weekend, I made a mistake that resulted in a bite wound to the other dog. I knew Maggie struggled with resource guarding, but had never had any issues with her guarding treats in my hand. Up to this point, I had only seen her guard food that was on the ground or already in her possession. Well, fast forward to me pulling out 3 low value treats (one for each dog). I wanted to make sure I set Maggie up for success, so I sat her with a ~5 foot buffer from the other two dogs. I had them all sitting in a line, and was about to distribute treats. Then - it happened so fast. All of a sudden adrenaline kicked in and I was ending a dog fight. I immediately removed Maggie from the situation and crated her. I came upstairs to the other dog limping with a quarter-sized puncture wound on her leg. Heartbroken, confused, and devastated don’t even begin to describe how I was feeling in the hours, days, weeks, and even months following these events.

What training methods have you tried? Have they all worked? If some haven’t worked, why?

Maggie has primarily been trained using a positive-reinforcement method. We have focused her training on 4 core areas:

  • Muzzle Desensitization & Training. When I realized Maggie was indeed a bite risk, this was a top priority for me. We followed a step-by-step guide to muzzle desensitization from the book Mine!, taking it slow to build confidence and comfort around the muzzle.

  • Extended Down Stays with Distractions, Distance, and Duration. We spend time building this skill daily.

  • Place. We’ve done tons of place work to teach Maggie that her place is her safe area in the house that she can go to when she’s feeling overwhelmed. And with the premise that if she’s there I won’t let anyone mess with her, and will advocate for her and protect that space as hers (so she doesn’t have to take it into her own hands).

  • Engagement in the presence of new distractions, or in new places. Some examples of this include: recall off other dogs or wildlife, heel work with distractions, down stays while I run the opposite direction, down/sit stays in new places, or even bringing our place mat to a park to practice “go to place” under new distractions.

The combination of these 4 skills have helped me to manage Maggie in our day to day. They weren’t skills that came overnight, but the time invested has helped to make our lives so much more manageable, and enjoyable. If we’re greeting new dogs, Maggie can be muzzled to protect both parties. If an off leash dog is approaching us on a trail, I can put Maggie into a down stay, walk away, and handle the situation. If Maggie feels uncomfortable in the house for any reason, you’ll see her go to her place mat for peace. I think the biggest realization for me in all of this was learning not how to FIX Maggie to make her like other dogs, but rather investing in the tools & building the skills to manage her successfully in situations where she would otherwise react.

Current Management/Training Schedule

Maggie is on a very consistent schedule Monday-Friday. She sleeps in her crate every night, and gets a 4-5 hour nap from 1pm-5pm every weekday, after exercise. Maggie gets at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day, along with 30-45 minutes of mental stimulation each day, at a minimum. Realistically she ends up getting much more than that each day. And, I also love looking for ways to combine the two. For example, some days I’ll make Maggie hold a down stay while I throw the frisbee, and she must hold that stay until she is released. This helps build the skill of performing under extremely high distractions, and while the frisbee is something that makes her VERY HAPPY - it practices that muscle of engaging with me despite overwhelming surroundings (ie, not chasing the super cool and exciting frisbee being thrown).

Some things that I do to keep Maggie entertained (this list is not comprehensive but more intended for inspiration):

  • Physically: Frisbee, hiking, neighborhood walks or runs

  • Mentally: Brain games for meals, rear end awareness training, free shaping new tricks, sharpening up current commands, combining physical with a mental aspect

Progression of training and/or management

Maggie’s progression of training has been one where freedom is earned, not given. When we first realized Maggie resource guarding the entire house was a risk, we implemented a rule that she didn’t get to free roam when other dogs came over. When we realized she guarded a couch, she lost couch privileges. When she guarded our entire bedroom from our other dog, Airabell - she lost free roaming privileges in our bedroom. Normally doing the reactive thing just reinforces for dogs how fun it is and that it works - so in the early days I made sure to not put her in any situations where she would have to resource guard or react. Here begins our journey of keeping her under threshold, and eventually working towards building up tolerance through training & implementing management techniques for these situations.

The first step in this for us was identifying and learning her triggers. When I began to realize this was a problem I was going to have to handle, I sat down and wrote every situation I had ever seen Maggie be overly dramatic or react in. This helped me to write down a list of triggers I had identified, and set rules around them to help her be successful. In the early days of our training journey, I updated this list almost weekly. I hung this updating list on the fridge for months, to hold myself accountable and to remind everyone in the house the rules Maggie must live by.

With regards to training, each week I plan out 3-4 exercises that I want to do for that week. This helps set me up for success as her owner, so I can track what we work on each week. And, it helps having a list of exercises ready to go as opposed to finishing work on a Tuesday and wondering “what the heck should I train my dog today?!” Some examples of exercises we are focusing on this week: Impulse control with rocks, place work (go to place on command while ignoring the treats on the floor between her and place), and free shaping (we are currently training “back up”). I try to keep a mixture each week of training sessions that really challenge her and work her brain, along with sessions that might be more fun (she is so fun to free shape with, she gets really into it!).

If you use a muzzle, for what?

We use a muzzle for Maggie when she needs to greet new dogs, or if she’s going to be in an indoor space/area where other dogs will be present.

Words of advice for people on similar journeys

  • Don’t dwell on the past, learn from it. It happened, and you can’t go back and change it. I’ll never be able to undo Maggie puncturing two dogs, but what I could do was learn about how to prevent it from happening again. Learn from your mistakes, and make a plan to move forward.

  • Talk about it. Talk about your reactive dog, and you’ll quickly find you are not alone in your struggles. Social media only shows the sides of people that they want you to see - but in sharing more about Maggie & our struggles, I’ve found a solid support system.

  • Be intentional about your training journey. Maybe I’m just a type A planner, but setting goals and putting intention behind weekly training sessions (rather than just doing it when I remembered) has helped me tremendously.

  • Work with a trainer. Even if it’s just for a few sessions, it’s worth it. Not only will you have someone behind you & on your side rooting for you, but also someone who can help you identify triggers and make a plan to address them.

What have you learned from your journey and your dog

Maggie taught me that you don’t have to be “on” all the time. You don’t have to be friends with everyone. You don’t have to be the girl that loves everyone and is excited about everything. And that is okay. Maggie has taught me to set boundaries. I had to learn how to tell people “no, your dog can’t greet my dog” and being okay with saying that. She’s also taught me patience. When this all started I wanted a quick fix, I wanted the problems to go away, and for my dog to be like everyone else's dog who shares toys, plays like there’s no tomorrow, and is stoked to meet any and all new dog friends. I had to learn to be okay with the fact that she doesn’t NEED those things to be happy, and in fact is happier without them. While I’m always training Maggie, she is also always teaching me.

Did you work with a professional trainer?

Yes - KSDT, Sarah Bayles

Kate & Bear

I have loved dogs for my entire life, I had one as a child but when I moved away for college it felt like something was missing. When I was ready to get a dog while in pharmacy school I decided that I wanted to rescue. I visited the rescue planning to see a different dog and not at all planning to bring one home that day, and then I saw Bear, a small puppy who had just been brought in, not yet listed on the website. This “12 week GSD/Golden Retriever mix” was the wiggliest, cutest thing I had ever seen. I went home that day with a puppy named Bear. (If you have seen pictures of baby Bear I hope you can understand my impulsivity). At our first vet appointment I learned that due to his teeth there was no way he was 12 weeks old— probably more like 6-8 weeks. As he grew my skepticism of there being any retriever in him also grew and I ended up doing an Embark test. No surprise, 0% golden retriever and a whole lot of working line GSD. Now at 3 years old Bear is just shy of 70 pounds, and my favorite companion.

I will start by saying hindsight is 20/20. Llooking back with the knowledge I have now there were a lot of warning signs that I completely missed and there are a lot of things I as a dog owner did wrong even though I truly tried my best. At the time, Bear was a scared puppy who needed rescuing. Now my perspective may have been different. Bear has always been nervous, he has always been skeptical of new people. He has never wanted to greet strangers or get snuggles, not even as an 8 week old puppy. None of what I am describing is normal behavior but I didn't know better. I tried to do things right, we did puppy training classes, took him to patios for socialization with people, went to the dog park to meet other puppies like I thought you should. The true behavioral issues started showing around 5 months of age. This looked like alert barking, pulling and lunging on leash, getting close to people and then freaking out after he realized the situation he was in (a lot of barking and running away). We already had been working with a purely positive trainer since Bear came home and we entered their reactive dog class but things did not get better…maybe even worse. It got to a point where it was obvious that Bear was outside their expertise. Through a cordial conversation we parted ways after a muzzle fitting. This was hard to hear as an owner but I have a lot of respect for them knowing their limits. Bear is a very smart dog, he has the drive of a working dog, he is stubborn, and he is nervy. I believe that most of Bear’s behavioral issues are genetic but were exacerbated by poor experiences I forced upon him trying to provide him exposure. I failed him in that sense. We searched and researched trainers for a while, while attempting to continue to work on things ourselves before finding one that would be a good fit.

My rock bottom moment unfortunately came when I wasn’t with Bear. I think that makes it worse for me as a member of the community and a dog owner who really wanted to be responsible by advocating for my dog and utilizing a muzzle. Through a series of miscommunication Bear was taken on a training session in a pet friendly store. He was handled by a trainer he did not know well and who did not muzzle him. I will never know 100% what happened in order to have this situation created (trainer taking a nervous dog they don’t know? No muzzle on a dog being trained for reactivity? Allowing a stranger to greet said nervous unmuzzled dog?) but I do know that Bear bit someone and it shattered me. The human is ok and did not require medical attention but it still happened. The thing I had worked so hard to prevent, avoid, counter condition…happened. I felt again like I had failed him. He was not set up for success that day and failed spectacularly. That was my rock bottom.

After I hit rock bottom and feeling the grief of my own failures, we went back to work. Working with trainers and being very open about the issues we were dealing with. This is the time when I really had to accept that Bear was not going to live the life of a pet dog as I had known it before. We had tried positive only training and it did not work for us, behaviors escalated despite our training. Bear did not understand what we wanted and he was so stressed he was not motivated by treats, toys, or affection. I couldn’t communicate with him. We found balanced training and I finally felt like I could communicate with Bear what was expected of him and what I wanted from him. Through the guidance of trainers experienced in the breed and the tools we introduced the e-collar, the prong collar, and reinforced the muzzle. These tools made him a different dog but there was still lots of work to be done. We celebrated the small wins in the beginning including walking at a time when other people and their dogs would be out walking. I stopped living a life of avoidance because now I had ways to communicate with him to work through the triggers and stressors. Fast forward two and a half years, we now celebrate big wins like a flawless trip to Home Depot with confidence to climb over scary things and to enjoy a hike with a new dog and play respectfully.

There are still triggers and stressors but Bear and I are better equipped to handle them as they come and shake them off as they go. I have also accepted that some things Bear just does not need to do. Bear doesn’t need to come to the coffee shop with me or hang out at a brewery. Can he? Sure he could but he won’t enjoy It and honestly neither would I. I’d be on edge about other dogs, people who try to pet muzzled dogs and on and on. Bear would be much happier at home for that and play fetch or go hiking another time. That acceptance has taken a long time to be ok with but I think It has truly bettered our relationship. I have failed him too many times to let the selfishness of wanting my dog to come places with me win. Bear lives HIS best life. That looks different from many other pets but he lives free in ways many other pets do not. It’s a balance.

I have learned so much about dogs, about Bear, and about myself on this journey. Bear has made me a better handler, and my next dog will be set up for success because of the struggles he had. Bear will always have his limitations and that’s ok. I’m so proud of how far we’ve come from the dog that felt like he needed to defend himself to the dog that looks to me for guidance when he’s unsure or scared. We wouldn’t be here without the help of our trainers or the time and tears that we put in outside of those sessions to be better. Hard work pays off and I’m happy that we are getting to a place in our journey where it’s less work and more hard work paying off.

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