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Use It Or Lose It

Spring. It’s right around the corner. At least, that’s what the calendar tells me. We just got a bunch of snow yesterday. But before that, I saw a patch of grass. And we had a bunch of 40 degree + days here in Maine.

You know what happens when it gets even a little bit nicer out, right? All the dogs come out.  All. Of. Them.

I don’t know where these dogs come from. All winter long, I’m out walking the same dogs, along the same quiet streets. It’s just us, the mailmen, and a few manic speed walkers on their lunch breaks.  We see other dogs too, but it’s the same crew every day. Then spring hits and a tsunami of new dogs hits every neighborhood.

Where are all of these dogs for months and months? Do their people train them to poop in a bucket in the basement until its warm enough for them to go outside again?  Do they all have one of these?

I don’t how it works, but it’s the same every year.  The temperature goes up just a little bit and suddenly my afternoon walks go from being calm and routine to a game of Donkey Kong.

All of the dogs I walk are reactive to some degree. Many of them have some solid training under their belts and are able to stay relatively calm when we pass by dogs on the street (as long as we have some space). Our walks are pretty laid back all winter and we get to be on autopilot.

But when spring comes and the number of dogs they need to deal with is suddenly 1 billion times higher than what they’ve been dealing with all winter, they struggle a bit. They need a little time to acclimate to the deluge.

And I can see the same thing happening for all the basement bucket poopers too. They’re out and about for the first time in months and, while they might normally be very cool on leash, they’re a hot mess at the beginning of spring.

In my experience, the ability to stay calm on leash around other dogs is like a muscle:  If they don’t use it, they lose it. This goes double for reactive dogs.


A lot of people I know are surprised by this. They think that if they take their reactive dogs to a class or two and their dogs improve, then they’re set for life. But in reality, it takes regular practice. You have to keep working at it.

We wouldn’t go to the gym every day for a month, never go back again, but still expect our bodies to stay in shape forever. I have tried this so, so many times and, I swear, it never works. We have to exercise consistently in order to maintain and build our muscles.

“What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.”

Gretchen Rubin

That’s why so many reactive dog owners keep going to classes, join group walks, and do other structured activities around other dogs. It allows them to practice in a safe, structured environment around other dogs. It keeps other dogs from becoming a total novelty (aka a really big deal!) to their dogs. And that helps their dogs stay “fit” so that when they’re out taking a walk in a more hectic environment, their dogs are better equipped to handle the challenges that pop up.

If your reactive dog made huge strides for a while, but then you kept them inside most of the winter (that polar vortex was NO JOKE), then you might experience this sort of “muscle atrophy” when you start going for walks again this spring.

Your dogs haven’t flexed their “I totally know what to do when I see another dog and it is NOT to fling my turds at them” muscle for a while. Every dog they see is a novelty and they’re having trouble remembering the game plan. Don’t panic. Your dogs are  just out of shape.

No judgement. It happens to all of us.

Same goes for the dogs that have been walking all winter. If they’re anything like the dogs I walk, then they’ve been using those muscles, but at the same low level for months. When springtime hits, it’s like jumping up a few levels on the old stair climber. The dogs need some time to gently reacclimate their muscles to this increased challenge.

So if you and your dogs are a little rusty – for whatever reason – don’t freak out. Spring might be a good time to take a training class to ease back into hanging out with other people and dogs again. Or take a few walks with your friends and their dogs. Or if your dog would be up for it, try a structured group walk. Add some sort of regular practice into your routine.

And don’t forget to bring more treats on your walks for a while. There are at least a gazillion and half more dogs out there, plus joggers, that you’ll want to reward your dog for staying cool around. Be sure your pockets are well stocked. No one said we can’t have a snack while we’re working out. So go ahead: Use it, reward it, keep it.  

In the comments tell me: Has this happened with your dogs in the spring or after a dog walking sabbatical? How have you helped them?

  1. Yesterday I could not believe how many dogs were out. I’m thinking, what the HECK is going on? I didn’t make the nice weather/Spring connection but now that you mentioned it, it’s a no brainer. And I have the same question about where those other dogs are the rest of the year. Cuz we’re out approximately 362 days out of the year.

    March 14, 2014
    • Completely on the mark ! Our minpin and -30 windchill have not worked well together so she has a small space in our back yard for quick bathroom breaks and indoor exercise. The walks since the weather has improved have been whacky! Training resuming this week!!

      March 16, 2014
  2. handvolldackel #

    Yes, I’m wondering the same thing. As soon as the sun comes out, you meet all the dogs again you haven’t seen since last October. Where do they go?

    March 14, 2014
  3. Hope Chancey #

    We’re running into too. My rescue dog can be reactive at times. He usually does well unless the other dog starts barking then he wants to join in too. We practice focus on us through out the year but even more now. The watch me and look at that cues are useful for us. Along with yummy treats as you mentioned.

    March 14, 2014
  4. Great pointers. Important to do it consistently – use it or lose it is a perfect slogan for so many things!

    March 14, 2014
  5. Geri #

    Ha! It just happened to me not 5 minutes ago! I have worked really hard & consistently with my dog since she was a puppy (she celebrated her 5th birthday in Feb), but, yeah…the polar vortex definitely got to us this winter so there hasn’t been much practice. She’s signed up for a new class beginning next week & in the meantime, I do my best to manage it…we’re back on the super-early bird walk schedule and my pockets are full of great treats. I just got caught off-guard a few minutes ago but fortunately I noticed the woman with the leash before my dog did and I resorted to something I haven’t done in a long-time….the scoop the pup up and turn and move away so fast before pup realizes what’s happening! I’m sure the woman thought I was a kook but I successfully avoided a reactive scene 🙂

    March 14, 2014
  6. Shelby #

    omg, but seriously, what DO people do with their dogs in the winter? I love the sun, but I love the winter for its empty parks and streets.

    We had a bad encounter with a fairweather park user today. At least I didn’t end up on my rear like she did! I was especially grateful that my dog and I use it so we don’t lose it.

    March 14, 2014
  7. This totally happens, but we just back up a few steps in the expectations and we’re back on track in no time. It reminds me of when we had horses, and couldn’t ride all winter. We’d call our first few springtime rides “spring flings” because a lot of flinging (of us) went down. Spring makes everybody crazy. There have definitely been days this winter that I wish Murphy knew how to use the toilet. But hey, a bucket. Now that has possibilities…

    March 14, 2014
    • I love it – Spring Flings has such a nice ring to it! It pairs nicely with Winter Whoopsies and Fall, uh…Falls.

      Toilets are way too high, but I figured a bucket might actually work. I’m nothing if not a realist. ; )

      March 14, 2014
  8. Lovely and quite timely. I am fully prepared for this nightmare. We are at somewhere around 100 inches of snowfall with record cold temps here in Southeast Michigan. So I have quite happily let my “bucket dogs” enjoy their roomy fenced-in acreage at the price of their social muscles atrophying. 🙂 I’ll surely be spending most of the spring with balls of cheese and bacon in my pockets.

    March 14, 2014
  9. Marjie Douty #

    I know, right? I have two reactive dogs (one reacts to people…mostly kids, the other loves kids and most adults but is terrified of other dogs and wants to kill cats and wildlife). We walk almost every day no matter what but but when it is snowing, raining or stupid degrees freezing it’s pretty quiet. Last Saturday we had a day that was almost 70. We did ok. My dogs remembered what side the treats come from and that treats come when we pass “scary stuff” and it was not as stressful as I expected. When it is stupid freezing, etc. I can walk them together. Not so much going on. We have lots of space. Now, I will be walking them separately so I can deal with paying attention to each one’s needs without losing my mind. Nonetheless, I am glad the warmer weather is coming.

    March 14, 2014
  10. As i walked my dogs this morning, I was just thinking about how I never see people handing their dogs treats when out walking. Then I read your post reminding folks to bring great. Great advice

    March 15, 2014
  11. a billion other smells to distract the dogs too! I’ve already spotted my first skunk of the season, and Gwynn’s reaction to cat-like-creatures on our walks is still ‘be very very excited!’ I’ve grown lax in my usual ‘avoid being too close to large shrubs’ rule 😛

    March 17, 2014
  12. Morgan #

    Perfect timing! I experienced the first Spring Fever walk yesterday. An English Bulldog with a jogger? Weird! Kids, joggers, walkers, bike sneaking up behind us, kids in a motorized car, and several basement bucket poopers.

    March 21, 2014
  13. Alisa #

    Reading through some of your old posts and came across this one. It’s making me feel extra guilty/stressed about not giving my dogs a lot of doggie interaction. I live in Malawi, Africa and all the dogs here are either feral or have zero social skills because their kept in a gated compound their whole lives. We’ve only had one good playmate and they moved away 😦 I’ve also tried finding a social dog at the local SPCA, but they all have no social skills either. I will be moving back to the states in a year though and will definitely need to help them build up their skills again.

    February 20, 2015
    • Nothing to feel guilty about – it doesn’t sound like there’s anything you can do about it right now! When you get to the States, look for a reactive dog training class and you’ll be able to help your dog practice around other dogs again. It’ll be ok!

      February 20, 2015
  14. Tracey #

    Thank you for this! My girl just had TPLO surg so I have to keep her calm on her allotted 10 minute walk. She is leash reactive – I have to plan better to avoid the dog walkers for now. Good times!

    March 23, 2015

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