This is the story of Margot and my quest to teach her impulse control and the joys of having dog friends.
It began in 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.
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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 our other dog, Bruce, could often be found snuggled up next to each other, catching sunbeams. Margot seemed to be fitting into our family with little difficulty.
We’d Adopted a Reactive Dog
Not more than 2 weeks into her time at the doggie daycare, we were advised that Margot couldn’t stay there without intensive one-on-one training. She’d 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 (like a cross between a gremlin and Chewbacca).
We were the owners of a reactive dog and we were stumped.
The training method the private dog park employed is often called dominance training. Should a dog exhibit an unwanted or rude behavior, the human ‘pack leader’ makes a sharp “shhht” noise, employs a two-fingered jab, and/or rolls the dog over onto her side or back.
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 we wanted to take.
But then, what route WAS best?
After what seemed like hours of Google searches, the book we decided to buy was Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog by Emma Parsons.
Since I was the one walking with the dogs most, I started the positive reinforcement training. All you need to start are a clicker, a treat pouch, and a TON of treats. You’re working on reinforcing the behaviors you want to see with the click, followed very quickly with the treat.
In Margot’s case, calm behaviors were rewarded and the undesirable 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. 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 we were, 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. We were overjoyed that Seattle had an abundance of dog trainers.
Shortly before our move, we had discovered a book called Behavioral Adjustment Training by Grisha Stewart. Behavioral Adjustment Training, or BAT, focuses on the functions of growling, lunging, or fleeing, and helps dogs learn more socially acceptable behaviors.
The trick is to keep the dog in her comfort zone. You build on the good behavioral choices before attempting to move forward.
More socially acceptable behaviors include turning away from the trigger, sniffing the ground, or focusing on her people instead of interacting with the stress object.
We found Ahimsa Dog Training, which specializes in growly dogs (in fact, a couple of their classes are called Growly Dog) and offers BAT clinics.
In working with Margot there, we realized that a lot of her reactivity comes from impulse control. She sees another dog and she goes from 0 to 60 in a heartbeat. As a self-proclaimed pizza addict, I’m more than familiar with a lack of self-control, and wasn’t sure if I could help my dog through it. But we kept working.
She sees another dog and she goes from 0 to 60 in a heartbeat.
Where Are We Now?
Brock and I have taken Margot to ‘Growly Dog 1’ and ‘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. I admit, there are times 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 get all the playtime and pets she can handle. It might take awhile, but we’re on the right path to getting there.