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Living with a Reactive Dog: Interview with Dog Trainer Sara Reusche

I’m not sure when or how I stumbled on dog trainer Sara Reusche’s blog, Paws Abilities, but I was psyched that I did. For those of you who don’t know her yet, Sara owns Paws Abilities Dog Training in Minnesota and is dual certified as a veterinary technician and professional dog trainer (CPDT-KA). Her posts about living and training dogs are beyond helpful, always compassionate, and so well-written. Not an easy hat-trick to pull off post after post. 

Earlier this year, Sara wrote a handy three part blog series about living, managing, and training a reactive dog. I was relieved: finally, a straightforward starting place for anyone living with a reactive dog. In the first post Sara defines reactivity. You might want to read that now. We’ll wait. Go ahead.

Next up Sara wrote about how to manage your dog’s reactivity and then went over the foundations for training your reactive dog. Go on and read those two if you haven’t already.

OK, all caught up? Let’s head on down to the interview section of this shindig where I bother Sara with all of my questions about reactivity.

sara_layla_trout

Sara with her dogs Layla and Trout


Jessica: There are lots of books out there about training and working with reactive dogs. If someone is new to living with a reactive dog, what’s the first book you recommend that they read?

Sara: Honestly, I would recommend starting with “Don’t Shoot the Dog!” by Karen Pryor. It’s not a book about reactivity, but it does an absolutely wonderful job of covering all of the fundamentals of training.

I also really like Leslie McDevitt’s “Control Unleashed” books. She has two of them, and I would suggest starting with the “Puppy Program” book, because the exercises and information in there are really applicable to any age, not just puppies. The Puppy Program book is organized a little better, so it will be easier for you to find the exercises you need when you want to brush up on them, and the short chapters are a great example of “splitting” down human behaviors to help you feel successful right away.


J: One of the challenges to working with a reactive dog is that it can (sometimes) be a long road without a quick fix. Any thoughts on helping families to set realistic goals for themselves and their dogs?

S: Two things: keep notes and develop a support network.

I rarely have a student who’s excited about note-taking when I first suggest it (although there are a few geeks out there who start talking spreadsheets and charts right away, and I love ‘em!). That said, tracking your dog’s progress can really help to speed up your training progress and get you through those tough days.

By tracking your dog’s progress, you can oftentimes pick up on patterns that you wouldn’t otherwise notice. One of my clients had a dog who was intermittently destructive. Most of the time the dog was just fine when left home alone, but every so often my clients would return to find a disaster zone with shredded paper and chewed-up carpet. When we started to track the dog’s destructiveness, we found that she was destructive every single Wednesday and occasionally on other days. It turns out that she was terrified of the sound of diesel engines (such as the garbage truck), and only got into stuff when trucks came through her neighborhood. We never would have figured this out without notes. Other clients have figured out that their dogs are worse (or better!) for a few days after daycare, don’t like certain “types” of dog (ears sticking up, large dogs, small fluffy dogs, etc.), or react to specific types of clothing. Knowing what sets your dog off can be half the battle!

The other really great thing that notes can do is to give you a pick-me-up when your dog’s having a tough day or week. It can be so helpful to go back and realize that even though your dog reacted five times this week, she used to react 5-10 times every single week, and she’s improved so much. Progress isn’t linear, and dogs have bad days just like we do. Knowing that it’s just a temporary blip and reviewing just how far you’ve come can be immensely helpful.

Besides note-taking, building a support network is huge. Whether it’s a local network or an Internet community, connecting with others who understand can provide you with much-needed support. Our Growl classes oftentimes come to resemble a support group, since everyone cheers for one another’s success. Our students oftentimes develop friendships with one another and many of them have gone on to schedule training dates outside of class where they get together to practice with someone who understands throughout the week. If you don’t have anyone local to partner with, check out some of the wonderful online communities (such as this one and others in the links section of this blog!).

Remember that each dog is an individual, so as long as your dog is making progress you should celebrate her success. She may not make progress as quickly as other dogs and may make progress more quickly than others, and that’s okay. You probably learn things faster than some and slower than others as well. Focus on your own dog’s successes. If your dog isn’t making any progress at all, look back at your notes and touch base with your support group to see how you can tweak your training plan.


J: What’s the one mistake you see reactive dog owners repeatedly doing that makes life harder for them and their dogs?

S: One of the hardest things to do when you’re first starting off is to keep your dog under threshold. Remember that practice makes perfect, so the more your dog “practices” lunging or barking, the better they get at it. Figuring out how to prevent these behaviors by managing your dog or his environment will go a long way towards helping you get on top of his reactivity.

Not only do you not need to put your dog in difficult situations to train him, but doing so will slow down his progress. Start where your dog is successful and work up to the more challenging environments or situations.


J: Reactivity is a really broad label that covers a lot of very different dogs. What works for one dog, may not work for another. Can you speak to the differences in reactivity? How does that impact the approach you take when working with them?

For example: Do you approach working with a very sensitive, fearful dog, the same way as you would a reactive dog that is not sensitive to people or the environment?

S: Great question! Reactivity is definitely not one-size-fits-all, and it’s important to always remember that your dog is an individual. Some dogs are very specifically reactive – perhaps only towards other dogs or to men in hats or people wearing white lab coats – while others react to everything.

This is one situation where I think it’s very useful for us to anthropomorphize a bit. Put yourself in your dog’s paws. If you were your dog, how would you want someone to work with you? If you found the world really overwhelming and were on high alert every time you left the house, would you want someone to make you leave the house every single day and go on a long walk where you saw many scary things, or would you prefer it if that person took you on short little field trips and helped you feel brave a couple times a week? On the other hand, if you just got really excited when you saw specific people and had a hard time containing yourself, how would you like someone to help you learn to control yourself? Be as kind and fair to your dog as you’d want someone to be to you.

There are a lot of different approaches out there to working with reactivity, so educate yourself about them and choose the one that feels right for your dog. You are your dog’s advocate, so it’s always okay to change things up if that will help your dog be successful. If this is all new to you and a little overwhelming, a good trainer can be invaluable.


J: There are a lot of trainers offering classes and sessions for reactive dogs. But they’re not all equally skilled. How can someone determine if a trainer or class is the right fit for their individual dog’s needs?

S: Choosing the right trainer is huge in helping your dog to be successful. Talk to the trainer ahead of time and ask them a little bit about their experience and the methods they use. Ask if you can observe a class or a private training session and make sure you’re comfortable with that trainer’s interactions with dogs and people. The students – both human and canine – should both appear to be having fun and being successful. Look for a trainer who is kind and respects both ends of the leash.

One of the best questions I recommend people ask their potential trainer has to do with education. Good trainers continually work to better ourselves. Ask your trainer about the most recent training book she’s read or training seminar she’s attended. If she’s not committed to ongoing education, look elsewhere. No one knows everything.


Thank you Sara!

For those of you who haven’t already, be sure to stop by Sara’s blog and catch up on all of her posts. She’s an excellent resource for anyone living with dogs (even the ones that aren’t reactive)!

If you’re looking for more resources for living with your reactive dog, check out the Dogs in Need of Space website. Under the tab “Resources for Dog Owners” you’ll find books, articles, group classes, and much more to help you help your dogs.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. rangerskat #

    Thank you for the positive reinforcement :-) According to this I’m doing pretty darn well in living with and working on rehabilitating a severely damaged reactive dog. She was raised by animal hoarders, never socialized, never handled, and kept in a constant state of uncertainty from what I can tell. In her previous life something that was encouraged one minute (jumping up for example) would be punished the next. Living in a household where things are pretty consistent has made a world of difference but her complete lack of knowledge about the world is an ongoing challenge. We try to help her be brave when she confronts something new or unexpected and sometimes we even succeed. The hardest thing for me to remember is that everything is novel to her and just because she learned that wind chimes for example, are nothing to worry about in her yard doesn’t mean that all wind chimes everywhere are nothing to worry about. Slowly, one baby step at time she improves.

    October 22, 2013
  2. Good stuff! Loved this quote “If you found the world really overwhelming and were on high alert every time you left the house, would you want someone to make you leave the house every single day and go on a long walk where you saw many scary things, or would you prefer it if that person took you on short little field trips and helped you feel brave a couple times a week?”

    Once I started doing just that both my dog AND myself starting living a little easier, and I find he can handle stressful situations better now, since his stress levels have a chance to go back down in between outings.

    October 22, 2013
  3. Really good stuff!! My newer dog (adopted about 8 months ago) is reactive, in the sense that she gets REALLY excited and jazzed up when she sees other dogs on leash and pulls, lunges, and cries. We have had our challenges, but I love to see the smaller successes come together. I definitely think long and hard about the situations I bring her into and try not to over-stimulate her. I’d rather take a casual walk around the block, where I know I have the space to work with her when we do see other dogs, and have a really good walk than bring her somewhere where she will basically be set up for failure. She has made SO much progress since we got her, but we still have work to do!

    October 24, 2013

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