This is the story of Margot and my quest to teach her impulse control and the joys of having dog friends.
It began in early October 2014 when my boyfriend Brock and I volunteered for a weekend at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, UT. Neither of us had considered the possibility of adding a second dog to our family. Then Brock met Margot. She put her head in his hands and he was instantly smitten with this lovable, sweet girl.
Fast forward a couple of weeks, and we were already renting a van to go pick her up, prepping our dog Bruce to meet his potential new sister, and getting everything ready to welcome our new family member.
I’d heard that it takes a couple weeks for a dog to reach their comfort zone and their unique personality to shine through. Margot was definitely nervous when we first brought her home, but she soon learned that the couch and our bed were two of her favorite places to snooze. She and Bruce could often be found snuggled up next to each other, catching sunbeams. Margot became best buddies with our gray kitty, Oscar, and seemed to be fitting into our family with little difficulty. Bruce had been going to a doggie daycare at a local members only dog park, so we quickly signed Margot up to go with him. We were sure that she would enjoy it just as much as he did.
We’d Adopted a Reactive Dog
Not more than 2 weeks into her time at the doggie daycare, we were advised that if we wanted Margot to continue being allowed there, she would have to have intensive one-on-one training. She had been displaying behaviors that were consistent with dog-related reactivity.
Initially, we were surprised, but then small things we’d noticed on walks started to fall into place: the excitement when she saw other dogs, the jumping up and down, the chomping and pulling on the leash, the strange noises that she made (oh the noises! They were like a cross between a gremlin and Chewbacca).
We were the owners of a reactive dog and we were stumped.
The training method that the private dog park employed was similar to something you would see on The Dog Whisperer, and is often called dominance training. Should a dog exhibit an unwanted or rude behavior, the human pack leader would make a sharp “shhht” noise, employ a two-fingered jab, and/or roll the dog over onto her side or back (this is typically called the alpha rollover).
Neither of us had ever been confident in the success of the dominance training method. Since we were afraid that Margot’s behaviors seemed to have escalated with that training, it was not the route that we wanted to take.
But then, what route WAS best?
After what seemed like hours of Google searches and book browsing, the first book we decided to buy was Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog by Emma Parsons.
Since I was the one primarily walking with the dogs during the day, I started the positive reinforcement training. The only things you need to start are a clicker, a treat pouch, and a TON of treats. What you’re going for is reinforcing the behaviors you want to see with the click and then follow up very quickly with the treat. In Margot’s case, calm behaviors were rewarded and the undesirable reactive ones were ignored.
If we ran into another dog at the elevator, we ran the risk of a total meltdown.
Margot began to respond very well, but it wasn’t consistent behavior. For example, if we ran into another dog at the elevator, we ran the risk of a total meltdown, complete with barking, chomping, and jumping. Not only was Margot on edge, but her humans had started to be too.
We needed help—and fast.
Our move to from Las Vegas to Seattle couldn’t have come at a better time. We knew we needed to enlist help from a positive reinforcement professional, but the closest ones to us had been in Los Angeles. When we found out we would be moving to Washington, we were overjoyed that Seattle had an abundance of dog trainers.
Behavioral Adjustment Training
Shortly before our move, we had discovered a book called Behavioral Adjustment Training by Grisha Stewart. Behavioral Adjustment Training, or BAT as it’s called for short, focuses on the functions of growling, lunging, or fleeing and helps dogs learn more socially acceptable behaviors. The trick is to keep the dog inside her comfort zone and build on her good behavioral choices before attempting to move forward. More socially acceptable behaviors include turning away from the trigger, sniffing the ground to let it know she’s not interested in an interaction, or focusing on her people instead of interacting with the stress object.
We found a place in Seattle called Ahimsa Dog Training that specializes in growly dogs (in fact, a couple of their classes are called Growly Dog) and offers BAT clinics. In working with Margot, we realized that a lot of her reactivity comes from impulse control. She sees another dog and she goes from 0 to 60 in seemingly a heartbeat. As a self-proclaimed pizza addict, I am more than familiar with a lack of self-control, so how can I possibly help my dog accomplish it?
She sees another dog and she goes from 0 to 60 in seemingly a heartbeat.
Where are We Now?
Brock and I have taken Margot to Growly Dog 1 and are soon starting Growly Dog 2. She goes to BAT clinic nearly every weekend, where we work with other reactive dogs. This past class, we were within 30 feet of another dog and she was more interested in sniffing the ground than her usual chomping the leash and jumping.
We’re still surprised at the elevators by other dogs, but now, I have more time to react because Margot tries to use the behaviors she has learned. It’s not always perfect and sometimes we have the same old meltdown. It’s frustrating and I admit, there are times where I feel helpless and want to give up.
We’re still surprised at the elevators by other dogs, but now, I have more time to react.
My dream is to bring her into the Rover office every day so she can hang out with everyone and get all of the playtime and pets that she can handle. It might take awhile, but for the first time, I think we’re on the right path to getting there.