By Arden Moore
It’s canine confession time for me. I am betting many of you can relate to my situation. Kona, my terrier mix, is a great dog. She aced several dog obedience classes after I adopted her from a shelter seven years ago. She is terrific four-legged helper in my pet first-aid classes. She sweetly greets cats and people of all ages.
When she is in work mode, Kona walks easily on a leash, heeds all my cues quickly and basically ignores other dogs in our classes held at dog training centers and doggy day cares.
But her personality shifted dramatically about two years ago when Bujeau, our mellow Bernese mountain dog, died at age 10. Kona always trotted nicely next to Bujeau on walks.
Now without Bujeau, Kona has morphed into 35 pounds of excitability when she spots another dog.
She isn’t aggressive. Rather, she is over-the-top, yanking on the leash, squealing and leaping in the air to try to say hi to that approaching dog. I find myself crossing the street, reversing directions and offering apologies to my neighbors. The minute she walks back into my house, however, she is back to being chill and calm Kona.
My name is Arden Moore and I have a reactive dog. I am not alone. Canine reactivity is real and far too prevalent. Fortunately, help is here. Meet “The Real Dog Nerds,” Dr. Lisa Radosta and Mindy Cox. Together, they have created a comprehensive reactive dog program.
“Canine reactivity is a blanket term that, depending on the dog, can be displayed as a dog being overly excited, extremely fearful, overly aroused or aggressive when on a leash,” says Radosta, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist who operates the Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in West Palm Beach and Coral Springs. “They may be afraid of stuff in the environment: cars, trucks, construction noise. Basically, reactive dogs have abnormal responses to normal situations.”
You could have a reactive dog if:
• Your dog gets quickly aroused when seeing usually normal happenings on a neighborhood walk: a squirrel, another leashed dog, a jogger.
• Your dog may respond in these situations by lunging, barking and even trying to bite his leash.
• Your dog becomes so consumed by these situations that he won’t sit or stay on cue and may refuse to eat treats.
• The routine of walking your dog has become frustrating and a struggle.
The Real Dog Nerds reactivity course features a stress ladder in four color zones. Red represents a very stressed, not-able-to-listen-to-you dog. In the orange zone, a dog stares intently, strains on the leash and sports a tense body. Dogs in the yellow zone may stop sniffing to focus on a distraction and need you to repeat a cue a couple of times before responding.
The ideal dog is in the green zone. This dog heeds your cues, walks happily with a relaxed body and easily accepts treats while ignoring distractions.
Cox, a certified dog trainer and certified animal behavior consultant, knows people are frustrated and may feel helpless on how to help their reactive dogs.
“It is important to know that this reactivity is not a choice a dog is making. The dog is out of control and emotions can control actions,” says Cox, a former veterinary hospital administrator. “How people react to their dogs can unintentionally make the situation worse.”
She shares a few no-no’s:
• Don’t yell at your dog when he is spiraling out of control.
• Don’t pull hard on the leash to get your dog to move backward.
• Don’t blame yourself or your dog to those you encounter on a reactive walk.
• Don’t take advice from well-meaning neighbors or those not certified in dog behavior and training.
If you think you have a reactive dog, Radosta suggests that you first get a thorough medical exam performed on your dog by your veterinarian. The real cause may be physical pain from an injury or ailment.
“Sick dogs can act weird,” she says. “I had a dog come into my center for reactivity. I could not touch him in the exam room because he was too aggressive. But I watched him walk and saw that he was shifting his weight off his left hind leg and his toes were splayed. We sedated him and discovered this dog had arthritis in both hips and in one elbow.
“I put him on pain medication, and he was no longer reactive. If your dog is scared or can’t be touched, please see your veterinarian. A medical condition may be the reason for your dog’s reactivity.”
Cox adds that each dog’s situation is unique. She shares a success story involving a dog reactive on walks. During the home consultation, Cox noticed that the dog became worried when he heard specific sounds from the outside.
“This ramped up his anxiety,” says Cox. “So, by the time he was ready to go outside for a walk, he was highly stressed. We worked on helping the dog become calmer, more zen inside the house. Then we worked on helping the dog stay calm when opening the door and going for a walk. This dog became 80% better and that is huge. Sometimes, it is hard to get 100%.”
As for Kona, she is my best friend. That is why I will be enrolling in this canine reactivity program. I know not to expect overnight results, but steady progress.
Parting advice from Radosta: “Accept this is not about you. It is about your dog who needs help. Don’t let guilt paralyze you. We are here to help you and your dog.”
Arden Moore is an author, speaker and master certified pet first-aid instructor. She hosts a radio show, Arden Moore’s Four Legged Life (www.fourleggedlife.com), and the weekly Oh Behave! podcast on PetLifeRadio.com. Learn more by visiting www.ardenmoore.com.
Learn more about Dog Nerds program
The online ‘Reactive Dog Program: From Anxious to Zensational’ features 15 chapters, multiple video lessons and direct access to Dr. Lisa Radosta and Mindy Cox. You will be invited to join a private Facebook page on canine reactivity. You can enroll for free for the first seven days. Then the course costs $35 per month and you can cancel at any time. Visit https://therealdognerds.com/reactive-program.