I love dogs, and enjoy meeting them if the dog wishes and their owners say ok. It’s not something I do with Miller. He doesn’t like dogs. Many dogs he growls and barks at on sight, even from a distance. It’s one of his things. He has fair reason. In the first few months that we had him, he was accosted twice (same dog) and charged by a third. I say accosted because it wasn’t a fight, but it obviously alarmed Miller.
The first incident occurred when a dog came at him from a block away in the dark, across the park near our house. I couldn’t see or hear a dog, but I could hear the owner calling out for its return, and in the last few seconds I realized it was coming at us. The dog galloped up to Miller’s face and Miller was having none of it. He growled and barked at the dog, an understandable reaction to the speedy approach and space invasion. The dog came at him a second time, and Miller barked and air snapped to indicate “Back off!” again. The dog didn’t listen, but by this time, the owner was near enough to grab him by the collar and take him away.
The second time was in the daytime- same dog, same scenario, but I saw him coming this time. I turned in the other direction after the “throw down the treats” trick, but it didn’t stop the dog. It was straight up at Miller, who was clear that was Not. On. The owner caught up and tried to grab the dog, but he ran off and up to another dog across the street. That dog had the same “Back off!” reaction as Miller. The third incident occurred when we turned a corner where there was a high hedge, and a large dog lunged at Miller when he saw him.
We won’t ever know for sure if these instances were what made Miller dog-reactive, but they seemed to seal the deal. Because we didn’t know him as a puppy or in his first year, we don’t know what kind of positive or negative experiences he had with other dogs, especially dogs that looked different from his mother and litter mates. We do know that his reactivity to dogs bloomed after these incidents, expanding to all dogs for a while, and especially to large dark dogs such as the one that came at him. We do know that single event learning can have a deep impact on a dog. (And people for that matter- would you welcome a stranger jumping into your space if the last one scared the heck out of you? Probably not.)
We work consistently to counter condition Miller’s reaction to dogs, and have for two years since these incidents occurred. He’s better than he was with some dogs, yet we also know it may be a lifelong thing. People ask, “Why isn’t he over it? You’ve trained* enough.” I read a great post from 4 Paws University on Facebook that nicely explained the difference between counter conditioning and training. The whole post is well worth a read if you use Facebook, but for those who aren’t, the summary is clear:
“Think of the difference between learning how to do the Chicken Dance at a wedding versus learning not to dodge a bee flying near your face. When you learn the steps to the Chicken Dance, you are relaxed and having a good time [dog training]. When you are dodging a bee, you are avoiding something painful” [the reaction to a frightening trigger. Counter conditioning aims to change the emotional reaction to the trigger, so it’s not the same as training.]
We know Miller won’t ever be a social butterfly, and that is absolutely fine. He has a few friends he adores, and that’s good enough. We’ll keep at the counter conditioning to help him. If you’re out with your dog and see another dog owner turn away when they see you, it’s likely their dog needs space. I have a few friends in the neighbourhood with dogs who need space and I’ve been able to chat about our dogs’ needs when I’m out without Miller. When I do have him and we spot each other from afar, I’ll indicate the change in direction we’ll take to avoid each other.
We like each other. We love our dogs.
Have a reactive dog like Miller? CARE for Reactive Dogs is helpful.
*Note: I’m not a certified dog trainer, just passionate about the best outcomes for dogs. If your dog needs support beyond your own skill level, please choose a certified trainer.
Image: Miller ponders spring.