Hi guys! Today I want to tackle a really common training myth that I hear from people all the time (including this week) - one of the hardest things for people with reactive dogs to understand. And that is that reactivity is not a behaviour. Why this is something I want to address is because it really affects how we approach reactivity training.
The biggest issue people have with reactivity training is what to do when the dog goes over threshold, and has a reaction toward the trigger. Most people (even those very familiar with positive reinforcement) see this as undesirable behaviour & therefore they either choose to ignore it, or punish it in hopes that this would cause the behaviour to extinct or decrease. They also believe that if you were to feed the dog in this situation, that this would REINFORCE the behaviour - and therefore cause it to increase in frequency. But that isn't how it works when you are dealing with reactivity - because reactivity comes from emotion, mostly fear. You cannot reinforce or punish fear. In these situations when our dogs go over threshold, training is on a time out. All we can do in these moments is make our dogs feel better - and giving treats is a great way to do that.
I recorded a YouTube video on this. This is my first training video, so bear with me as it is a little bit rambly.. but the information is there. I go into detail on this topic, and hopefully I can help you have that Aha! moment if you, like I once was, are struggling to grasp this concept.
I know it is embarrassing, frustrating, stressful, etc, when our dogs go over threshold - but we need to take a step back and remember that this comes from a place of emotion, not behaviour. Our dogs are not thinking logically, and therefore training can't happen. We simply need to make our dogs feel better in this situation, otherwise we run the risk of the fear getting even worse. If we punish our dogs in this situation, we are adding salt to the wound! Making a scary situation even worse. If we ignore the behaviour, we aren't doing anything to help our dog. But if we feed our dogs, give praise, carry them, jog away while singing to them - we are doing our best job to make them feel safer in that moment. To make that fear they feel a little less raw & scary.
The goal here is to NEVER go over threshold, and to do training at a distance where the dog still has the ability to process things logically. But this is important to know and to understand for those inevitable times where our dogs do over threshold. Be kind. Be patient. Be generous with treats. Your dog needs you to advocate for them.
Remember, it's a dog's world - we're just living in it!
I am so very excited to be reviving the Blog's World! For my first post, I wanted to go with a topic that changed my literal life: Sadie! My reactive little ladle.
There she is in all her glory. Cute, cuddly, and a former reactive dog.
Most of you know who Sadie is, and have probably had the pleasure of seeing me avoid you by running across the street when I see you and your dogs approaching. This isn't because I don't want to say hi, it's because it's what Sadie needs. ANYWAY. Not to get too deep into the actual training side of things, I want to talk about how this reactivity changed my life and made me a better person (and made my business what it is today).
Lets go way back into a brief history of how I found Sadie. I moved to Toronto in January of 2013, with my co-pilot Frankie! I worked really long hours - and thought "Frankie needs a friend to keep him company!" (note, future Kelsey would tell this Kelsey that this is not a good reason to get a new dog, but alas, past Kelsey did not know this). So I started searching for fosters & dogs to adopt. On a fateful Monday morning at my new job, I was searching on the Toronto Animal Services website and they posted 4 ADORABLE 11 WEEK OLD SHIH-POO PUPPIES! I couldn't believe it. It was so rare to see puppies on TAS, and these dogs were insanely cute. 3 boys, and one Sadie. I wanted that little tri-coloured pup SO BAD. I called my mom, and she told me to take the rest of the day off work (my first sick day at the job) and taxi to TAS to get there for when it opened. I took her advice. However, I got really lost trying to find the building, and ended up getting there about 8 minutes after they opened. I walked up the stairs, and the staff knew why I was there - for those ridiculously cute puppies. They warned me "we only have one pup left, and its the girl". I WAS LIKE OMG FATE!!!!!!!!!!!!! Not even 30 seconds later a mom and daughter came up the stairs hoping to secure a puppy, but I was there first and Sadie was MINE. Sorry kiddo. But it really felt like fate. And I had no idea how fateful it would be.
Long story short, Sadie is the reason I became a dog walker. I realized a puppy needed a break during the day, so I needed a dog walker. I got a dog walker. And I became obsessed with the idea of being one myself. So a year later, I did.
That's a brief history. But kind of far from the point. Let's focus!
I will be honest. When I started my business, I didn't know much more other than the fact that I loved dogs - and they loved me right back. I had a knack for entrepreneurship, some really loyal customers who believed in me from the start, and was able to build a fairly successful business right off the bat. But I knew nothing. And I thought this was fine. I was blissfully ignorant. I cared for the dogs, loved the dogs, but I also really cared about being the best dog walker. I cared about that status.
Things were going great, but I noticed Sadie "out of no where" started barking at dogs (*note, reactivity doesn't come out of no where - but that's for another post). It was pretty embarrassing. Here I was, a dog walker determined to be the best.. and yet my own dog was a disaster. When she would bark I would be like "SADIE! stop!" This did not help. Obviously. It got way worse, she would bark at dogs across the street and waiting for the elevator became an extremely stressful event for us. Would another dog be in there? If so, Sadie would make a scene and I would be embarrassed.
This is where I know I have changed. Sadie was suffering, and I was concerned about myself and my status. Makes me so sad when I think about it.
I honestly didn't know what to do, and eventually got a prong collar for her (UGH). It didn't help either (OBVIOUSLY). As fate would have it, around this time I was registered for a Dog Walking Certification course with Dog*Biz. It was at the TCCE and it was an eye opener. We learned about positive reinforcement, on top of MANY other things. I came home after the first day and literally could not stop crying. Not only did I realize how little I knew, but I realized I was hurting Sadie and making her life pretty scary. I completed the course (with 100%) and made it my mission to learn everything I needed to make Sadie's life better.
From here, I was able to get a volunteer position with When Hounds Fly. Andre took me under his wing, and being able to watch him teach foundations and puppy socialization was so incredible. After a few months, Andre learned of Sadie & the issues I was having with her. After the dog*biz course and my volunteer experience, I was definitely on the right track. I was using treats on our walks, and got rid of that awful prong collar. But she was still reactive. Andre offered to come and walk with Sadie and I - and give advice on how to help her. Again, this isn't a post about training, but this meeting was life changing. He made me realize that I am Sadie's advocate. I am responsible for making her feel safe and happy. And after this, there was a switch. And I would never be where I am today without that switch.
I was on an absolute mission, my objective wasn't to have a less embarrassing/less barky dog - it was to make Sadie feel better. That was it. That was all I cared about. When we saw other dogs, we would cross the street. If I had to, I would pick Sadie up and carry her. If Sadie did have a reaction, I wouldn't shush her or get embarrassed or flustered. I would praise the crap out of her, while adding distance from the dog, and give her ALL THE FOOD IN THE WORLD! I didn't give a fuck what other people thought. I am sure I came (come?) across as being cold, never socializing with neighbours and literally running away from them - but I didn't care. I didn't care that maybe I was turning away potential customers. Old Kelsey would be mortified. Make excuses. Try to sell myself and make sure they know that Sadie doesn't define my business. Not new Kelsey. Nope. New Kelsey just wanted her Sadle Ladle to feel safe and loved.
Overtime, like, a year later - I started noticing Sadie was healing. She could get surprised by a dog and not bark (WHO IS THIS DOG). She wasn't perfect, but as long as I had treats and an escape route we could avoid a reaction. Add another year onto that, and Sadie is almost healed completely. Of course there will be times when we can't escape situations, but for the most part she is so happy and relaxed on our walks. As am I.
So what changed?
One, I learned so much about Positive Reinforcement and learned I wanted to be a dog trainer. I now work as an instructor at When Hounds Fly, and in 2019 hope to earn my CPDT-KA title.
Two, Instead of being selfish and caring about how good I looked as a dog walker, or if I had the most customers - I cared about making sure the walks were the best experience for the dogs. On our walks, we WALK! We are in our own world. I don't need to impress the general public or other dog walkers, because I know in my heart that the work I am doing is amazing. And honestly - this is WHY someone should want to be my customer. I care THAT much, that I would put Sadie's health and happiness (and every single dog I walk) before schmoozing.
Three, When I had customers who were overexcited or stressed, I knew how to handle them. I was able to advocate for them like I would for my own Sadie.
Four, I gained a confidence I never had before. Before, I didn't know much - and because of this I was really insecure. Obviously. I didn't know why I was insecure, but now I know. I cared so much about my reputation, and less about the actual work I was doing. Now, I couldn't care less about my rep. I know I do the absolute best for my customers, giving them world class walks, and I am SO proud of the work I do. I know I make a difference. I know I advocate for the dogs. I know I do incredible work. I have a priority to my customers. When I am confident, I am focused - and the dogs sure benefit from it.
Five, my priorities changed. Not just with dog walking, but with life too. I care so much about giving my dogs the best life possible - and I love spending time with them. Instead of taking courses to make myself look knowledgeable and impressive - I take them to LEARN. I am obsessed with learning.
Finally, I gained an empathy that I never knew I was missing. For that, I am forever thankful. I am so thankful for all my mistakes, because from them - I was able to grow into the dog walker, trainer, and advocate that I am.
Sadie, I am so sorry the world was so scary to you. I am sorry it took me so long to realize that that was how you felt. I am sorry for every time I got frustrated with you, or embarrassed by you.
Sadie, thank you. Thank you for changing my life. Thank you for making me a better person. Thank you for making me a better dog walker. Thank you for helping me change the future of dog walking & be able to impact and improve other dog's lives like I was able to with you.
This is the first selfie of Sadie and I on the day I brought her home.