Joey the Labrador Retriever

Confession: I Hate My Dog’s Reactivity

Joey the Labrador Retriever
My Labrador Retriever Adolescent, Joey

I have a confession to make. Today was a down day, that kind of day where I wasn't my best dog trainer self. At all.

To paraphrase a Reddit that I found when I furiously googled "I hate my dog," in that moment of frustration, I hated him with the passion of 10,000 suns. A surprising number of people have written on the internet that they hate their dogs.

And although hate is too strong of a word, even though it's not my whole truth, and even though I'm a dog trainer and I love dogs, especially this one, and truly hate no one...it still feels really, really freeing to type out the words, "I hate my dog."

OK I don't hate him, really, I love Joey, but I was really angry today.

I wanted to share my experience, to say that even professional dog trainers mad at their dogs. Even trainers like me, who are all about compassion and help other people with dog aggression every day. If you get mad at your dog, you're not alone.

The backstory...I adopted this Labrador Retriever teenager a month ago for my fiancee. He really loves the Labs and besides, Zuki was pining for a new dog friend after we lost Bean to a coyote last year. She's small and I figured  a larger dog would help keep her safe.

Joey was being trained to be a service dog and he washed out because of his fears. As a puppy, they had always kept him in working mode when out and about, rather than really interacting naturally with lots of people and dogs. That's the opposite of what most trainers recommend.

Joey also spent a lot of time in a crate before I got him, to the point that his hind end was weak. Maybe his reactivity developed because of how the organization raised him, maybe it was genetic, or maybe he's a typical Covid puppy. A lot of dogs are really under-socialized right now.

Whatever the cause, my dog is terrified of people (barks like mad), timid around most dogs, and generally only trusts other Labs on sight. He's petrified of going into stores or other houses. This week we urgently need a petsitter to attend a funeral in Chicago. Having Joey instead of just Zuki makes it super difficult.

This month I've been slowly, systematically trying to work through Joey's fears, especially the ones that lead to barking at humans. I've usually been keeping him safe, at a distance where he can handle things. He's made several new friends. So far so good, even though it's a pain to be so careful. I miss the carefree days of just having Zuki, my little solo dog who used to panic around people but now does generally a good job looking 'normal.'

But today, I took the dogs for a walk in a space where I didn't expect any humans -- 40 acres of forest behind my home, where the only people on it are us and the landowners, who live across a footbridge that I keep the dogs from crossing. As I left the house, I thought maybe I should bring the full treat pouch and have him wear a harness, just in case. I settled on carrying a leash, just in case.

And then we ran into a bear. Not a real bear, the bear sculpture in the middle of the field. Joey lost his sh*t and I thought that this would be a good time to use the technique of showing him he was safe by going up to it and touching it. That did help, more or less, but until he figured out that I wasn't going to be eaten by the bear, it wasn't quiet. (Next time I'll use the BAT technique (as shown in the video at the end) so we're quiet all the way through.)

Anyway, the next thing I see is one of the landowner’s helpers swiftly crossing the bridge, walking straight at us.  Joey is terrified by humans anyway, and an intentional approach is the worst, so and barks his head off at them. Normally when a human comes toward us, I'd just toss treats and get out of there, as fast as possible. But I didn't feel like I could just run away and ignore them, since I was on their land. I clipped the leash to Joey’s collar, definitely not my preference (harnesses are way better).

So she walks straight up to us, Joey barking his fool head off, to politely tell me to keep my dogs quiet during nap time. I was trying to end the conversation as quickly as possible, wanting to sink into the ground in shame and exasperation with these clearly untrained dogs (by now, Zuki was also barking).

Why didn't I toss treats right away? Why didn't I quickly say, "got it, I'm so sorry, I'll call you to explain?" Why didn't I just turn and run the other way when I could see she was headed right for us?

It's hard to be human, because we aren't perfect. Darn!

I did eventually pull out treats and do some tossing but it didn't go great, as Joey was Too Close For Comfort. She asked if she could feed Joey and I said yes, as I know she’s great with most animals, even though the little voice in my head said,  "people trying to feed him treats is also a trigger!"

Eventually we got out of there, with some more barking and the question, "are all of your dogs rescue dogs?" Which I took to mean, "clearly there's some explanation why you are a dog trainer and yet your dogs are being total A-holes right now."

On the walk home I think I said "I hate this dog" 20 times. I know that I used a lot of expletives. I said all kinds of mean and scary things in a not-mean-or-scary voice, counting on Joey's lack of comprehension of the English language to prevent permanent damage. I got home and cried, then took a nap. I wondered whether this hot anger was borne of the perfect storm of tiredness, grief (yesterday's death in our human family), and maybe middle-age hormones, added to this new dog thing and the low-grade stress we all face of a seemingly-never-ending pandemic. In dogs, we call that Trigger Stacking, where more than one thing piles up in a time span that's too short to cope with everything.

I railed at the Universe: "I'm tired of dealing with behavior, my own and that of others. Can I please just trust that things will sort themselves out?" And yet I have decades of experience with dog reactivity, I have seen things Not Work Out when people aren't careful. At the very least, I still have to keep my dog from barking his head off at the neighbors.

My prefrontal cortex is still slightly online. I remember that I have more information and reasoning than I can access from a reactive state. I can help the border collie in my head find calm. I pull out the Glimmer I've trained:

I remind myself that I'm Safe. I Belong. I breathe.

Exhale. Then in for 4, hold for 7, out for 8. Again.

My rational mind comes back online. Black-and-white thinking fades back to understanding nuance. I regain my capacity to think things through.

Hi there, empathy, glad to have you back!

One of the things that I've learned in the last 5 years is to "embrace the AND" - seemingly incompatible states can co-exist. I can be angry at Joey AND still love him. And I can be angry without being aggressive.

I can have this white-hot fury at my dog and simultaneously not follow the recommendations of that side of me, that frustration that cares not for consequences, the Giant Monster that wants to grab my dog and throw him 100 feet away, into the river, never to be seen again. I don't follow the advice of the frustration that's tempted to throw him to the ground to just Make Him Stop Barking in this moment, no matter the cost for his fear. I know, in my decades as a dog trainer, that yelling or pinning the dog down is likely to just erode his trust in humans and make his fear worse, but that little part of me that has suddenly become a Giant Angry Dragon is actually willing to do harm to get my dog to stop.

This is why they make you sign a paper, when you get a baby, that you will never shake the baby.

Then I breathe.

The moment passes.

I don't get aggressive, beyond my thoughts and words. I note my emotion and let it flow. I remember that my dog is just a teenage Lab in a fear period and even if it's not a phase, I have the tools to work through this: BAT, for example. Targeting his hand to my palm for up-close greetings when he's a little iffy, then tossing the treat away. Treat and Retreat. Playing with toys.

I was angry for the same reason Joey was barking - we are both being (over)reactive, using antisocial behavior to address something uncomfortable that seems out of control.

The good news for Joey is that I don't really hate him and I have a LOT of dog behavior resources to make this easier for both of us. Reactivity is my speciality and it won't likely last forever.  I was just angry, at that time, and I want the very best for him. He's an adorable smush-face AND he struggles with anxiety sometimes. ❤️

I have the tools to keep him safe, but only if I really accept that he is reactive and needs my help. I need to give up the fantasy of a Labrador Retriever who loves everyone (he doesn't!) and accept that he needs me to consistently use the most powerful tools I have: time, distance, and (when needed) distraction.

He needs time to get to know people, starting at a distance he feels safe, and working his way in. Going for a walk and following them, slowly catching up, works great (I use a long line and the BAT leash handling skills so he feels as off leash as possible while still being safe).

My dog needs me to set the boundaries that he can't right now, to orchestrate his environment so that he can learn to trust people and set his own boundaries without freaking out.

The part that I've been failing at, the part that makes me so angry at him (at myself) is that as I learn what he's capable of, he's been put into situations that he can't handle, and I'm otherwise occupied. It's work, it's a pain in the rear sometimes, and I've been hoping I didn't have to. With some more foresight, I can have fewer moments where he is suddenly too close to a human. I can take a breath and get him out of situations that are too hard, even if it's socially awkward with humans. I can give him a food puzzle and meet guests farther from the house until we have time to do set-ups.

When he's in deep water (metaphorically), he needs me to keep him from drowning by taking control of the situation using the tools I already know and share with clients (see for example Survival Skills and Urban BAT). Things like Mark and Move, cueing him to do a hand target (nose to hand touch), or even just tossing treats, saying "Let's Go," putting out a stop hand to the person and saying "please stay back," etc.

Like any relationship, the dogs that bring out anger in us often have the most to teach us - about how to relate to them and to the parts of ourselves with which we have trouble. Thanks, Joey!

This dog is going to teach me a LOT.

****

Thanks for reading! If you want to learn more about Joey search for the hashtag #JoeyTheLablet on social media.

Here's a video from my Instagram of BAT with Joey around chickens:

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Grisha Stewart (@grishastewart)

And another clip of us doing the Leash Belay at the beach (a technique for walking larger dogs more easily).