Fall *Absolutely, Madly* in Love with Your (“Reactive/Aggressive/Fearful”) Dog


This blog is inspired by a client of mine and her dog, Leo. Leo’s mom and I are working together to help Leo feel more comfortable around other dogs when resources are in the mix, and to live more peacefully with his housemate dog, Perry. Leo’s mom has been 100% committed to Leo, and in a recent conversation, I realized an important component of her success, and something she and I truly have in common. Despite Leo growling over resources and starting scuffles in the home with the other dog, Leo’s mom truly finds him to be wonderful. We’ve made a ton of progress on their goals, and when I asked her recently how she was feeling about things, she mentioned how much she loves Leo and that is what keeps her going on her behavior plan, and thus why they have made so much progress. Leo’s mom is *absolutely, madly* in love with Leo. This has enabled her to come from a place of compassion and a true desire to help Leo with his behavior, as opposed to a place of resentment and frustration. She loves training with Leo because he is her friend and family member. As cliché as it may sound, they are truly a team. 

When I adopted my pup Helena at nine weeks of age, I saw an instant tendency towards some behaviors that I knew would require modification, and most importantly, management, into the future. But after one week as a foster pup in my home, Helena had also already shown me that she was many things we needed in our household – she’s spunky, curious, loves learning, has a great energy level for our family, and has fur made of velvet, I swear. She’s a perfect match for her canine brother Emery, who needed a young, energetic companion after our two older dogs passed. Helena Handbasket has been the perfect addition, despite a tendency towards resource guarding and dog reactivity. I am 100% *absolutely, madly* in love with Helena. 

If we can come from a place of compassion, love, and playfulness when working with our dogs, we can get farther and have more fun along the way. Behavior issues are challenging. They can bring us to tears, they can hurt – physically and emotionally – and they often come with risk and liability. This can feel like such a heavy load to bear. But if we can see our dogs through a lens of love- and in fact, be IN love with them – it’s no longer us against them. It’s all of us together. 

When Helena barks at another dog, I could respond from a place of embarrassment – I’m a dog trainer after all! Shouldn’t my dog know better?! I could become frustrated and blame Helena – haven’t we worked on this?! But I am *absolutely, madly* in love with Helena, which reframes the whole situation. My first thought is “Helena is stressed, and she needs help. I can help her feel better.” All I want in that moment is my dog to feel o.k. in the world. A dog’s life is too short to spend it not being o.k. And so is mine. 

This also brings up another point, which I know we all forget. Our dogs never asked to be captive animals in our homes. That does not mean I feel sorry for my clients’ dogs, who usually eat the best food, are indoor companions, and have a rock solid human on their side who is an expert on their dog and just wants a little guidance from a trainer. But that being said, living within four walls with another dog they didn’t choose as a companion, a UPS person they didn’t ask to come into their yard, or a child they really don’t prefer touching them can be stressful. These are captive animals, and understanding their challenges, coming from a place of wanting to make their lives the best they can be, and being absolutely in love with the fact that we get to live this closely with another species takes some of the burden off of both us and our dogs. 

But you know what? Don’t feel bad if *absolute, mad* love for your dog has not struck you. If you don’t feel this way, that’s o.k. There’s nothing wrong with you, because like I said, behavior issues are challenging. They affect our relationships with our animals and with other humans. They don’t turn into sunshine and roses just because we care about the animal in front of us. And loving another creature doesn’t have to mean being IN love with them.

If you are *absolutely, madly* in love with your dog, or you’d like to get there, or if you’re not and don’t think you’ll ever be, here’s a framework for all of us to use going forward: 

Try to relate to the creature in front of you. Not the people watching you, judging your choices or your dog, or questioning your journey, or any random person walking by on the street. Haters gonna hate. Remember, behavior issues are rooted in emotions. What is your dog feeling? What need are they begging to have met? How can you meet it?

Defend your dog. Advocate for your dog. Stand by your dog. NO ONE is allowed to criticize MY dog because that is not helpful to MY dog and it is not helpful to ME. Would you like to take the same pledge? 

When we’re working against our dogs the bond we like to have with them is severed. If we embrace that our family members sometimes struggle and we learn to help them through that with grace and acceptance, we’ll be better people for it. Allow yourself to fall hard at least for this idea if you can. 

Be an ally. You do not owe an explanation to anyone on the street. You don’t owe family and friends the chance to give you tips. With a captive animal in your care, you owe your dog safety, consistency, and compassion. 

When you’re coming from a place of understanding, you actually start to appreciate your dog not in spite of their issues, but because of them. Whether desirable or undesirable, your dog’s behaviors are a part of who they are. And that is your dog. 

Update on my client: We have had ten sessions with her dog Leo and he is doing well. She manages the environment in such a way that Leo and his canine housemate have found more harmony. She recognizes Leo’s “hot spots,” or places that really challenge him. She is modifying when she can, and expertly managing the rest. She loves Leo and they have a lot of fun years ahead of them.

And Helena? She just welcomed her first foster dog sister into our home last week, and she is navigating this new dog so well. She has had more calm, smooth walks lately than ever before. She plays fetch every day and is a joy to watch with her ball. And I could not be more in love with her.  

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