It’s coming up on three years since we adopted Jasper, our terrier terror from the NYACC, and we couldn’t feel more blessed to have him in our lives. It wasn’t always the case but, as so often happens, Jasper taught us a lot about behavior, structure, training, patience and love. So, for Adopt A Shelter Pet Day, we wanted to share Jasper’s story that contains some of our most successful tips to help other pet parents with reactive dogs they’ve adopted. So many dogs are returned to shelters for behavior problems. Training a reactive dog is different than other dogs. We want you to keep the dogs you’ve adopted, and have happy lives together. And, of course, we want to encourage others to adopt, don’t shop!
For those who have followed Jasper’s early story on the blog, you know that he started life in a home where he obviously wasn’t loved and appreciated. As a puppy, we think he was never socialized, was probably taunted by the two young children in the household and was either hit or scared silly by newspapers, coin cans or other loud objects. I mean it said on his paperwork, “Not good with strangers; not good with children. Only likes owner’s wife.” You can see the flat look in his eyes in the picture just below, shortly after we brought him home.
Very quickly after arriving at our apartment, he presented with extremely reactive behavior – lunging, shriek barking and trying to bite pretty much every man, woman, child and dog we passed on the street. Living in New York City, you can imagine you’re passing one of the above every second of each walk!
Jasper also couldn’t tolerate anyone in the elevator he didn’t know. Taking him out for a walk was a big production. Zip him up in the dog bag; stand to the side of the service elevator so, when it opened, he couldn’t see anything out of the bag “window”, darting inside, looking both ways as the door opened downstairs, darting out of the service entrance, placing the carrier on the ground against the building wall, huddling over him as we quickly unzipped the bag, looking both ways for passersby, then quickly lifting him out and setting off on our walk practically at a run. To say the least, it was very stressful and exhausting for the both of us!
I remember having Jasper in the lobby of our building back then, meeting with an industry colleague and friend. We were measuring him for a sweater my friend was making for him and a dog and its owner came walking in. Jasper was so insanely reactive, he didn’t know what he was doing when he took a chunk out of my arm. My friend and her husband looked on in horror. Thank goodness he’s 20 lbs and not 60.
My husband and I regularly had days where we thought we couldn’t go on and wanted to give Jasper up. We already had Sophie, who we could take anywhere and did, until Jas came along. When her brother had one of his moments, she would nonchalantly stand by and watch, maybe wondering what all the fuss was about. Luckily for us and Jas, Stanley and I never had those days simultaneously. So, when one was at their wit’s end, the other talked them off the ledge. It took a solid year and a village of people, services and tools to get Jasper into a more secure emotional place. And, we learned a ton along the way.
One of the things that kept us going was that we saw who Jasper really was; this loving little boy, frightened of the world but so ready to drown us in kisses at every opportunity. I know some of you reading this can relate to that.
So What Helped Us with Jasper the Most?
That village I mentioned above? It came with equipment. The proper equipment is everything and we had it all wrong. How did I know? Celebrity dog trainer and star of Dogs in the City, Justin Silver, told me. During a Skype session from across the country, he watched video of a reactive episode on a walk and said, “You are using the wrong equipment.” Boom. “Get him on a Gentle Leader,” he told me. Wha? What did I know?
Turns out PetSafe makes the Gentle Leader harness. It’s the model that goes around the dog’s nose and behind his ears. It allows you to steer from the cockpit, as Justin likes to say. And, he’s right. Immediately, I felt so much more in control.
Does it hurt the dog? People have stopped me in the street to ask that, to ask what it is. Some think it’s a muzzle. It isn’t. When worn properly, The Gentle Leader is not tight around the dog’s nose. It is loose enough to get your finger through, but fitted enough to steer him or her securely. And, it immediately made a big difference.
That was over two years ago and I swear by the Gentle Leader ever since. For two years, I have been reaching out to PetSafe, telling them how much I love the product. What happened over the past year or so was they also got very stylish (yay!). Now, the Gentle Leader works for Bark & Swagger, and I can rave about a product I love that also comes in very cute colors and new patterns.
PetSafe was generous enough to send us a couple of them and I’m so thankful, because Jasper is all boy and manages to wear his Gentle Leaders out more rapidly than I’d like. I use to secretly wish I could buy those very fashionable collars or harnesses for Jas like I could for Sophie and the Chihuahuas. But with the new colors and patterns, I can!
What other tools helped us?
Structure. Reactive dogs need structure just about all the time, because if left to their own devices, they will inevitably make the wrong decision most of the time. Teaching Jasper the “look at me” command early on; the “stay,” the “wait,” the “leave it”…all of these have been critical in maintaining control and keeping Jas safe.
On our walks, I am always reinforcing these commands, using them intermittently and treating him every three times or so. This keeps Jasper on his toes. Today, when he sees a big dog coming down the street, he looks at me for guidance. That’s what you want.
Does your dog get reactive when they meet someone new? Jasper did (he’s gotten much better now). So, whenever we were having company over or someone coming by, we would have a protocol that never varied. We would put on Jasper’s Gentle Leader, walk him outside and meet the new person in front of the house (or apartment building when we lived in NYC). We used to have to take a short walk with this person and then all go in together. Now, we just meet them, Jasper sniffs, gets a treat for good behavior and in we all go. We’ve even been able to have people come to the door after a first meeting outside.
My point is, have a protocol in place and never waver from it. When Jasper knows what to expect, he’s calmer. Structure. Reactive dogs need structure they can rely on.
There’s a new product we just starting testing out a couple of months ago that I also really like. It’s called Doggie Don’t and it’s purpose is to get the dog’s attention during unwanted behavior, so you can break the spell, give the dog a command and actually have him listen.
The tool is a handheld device that is battery operated. When you push the button, it makes a loud noise that sounds like a taser. At first, Jasper didn’t know what to make of it. I think it scared him. Important instructions on how to properly use the Doggie Don’t say to never use it twice for the same instance, to never use it closer than several feet from the dog and to always combine it with positive reinforcement. So, after setting off the noise, I would call Jasper’s name and say Come! Or, Leave it! As soon as he complied, I’d be doing the happy dance, metaphorically speaking, of course. Lots of praise, a treat. Good boy!
Can I just tell you that this tool is genius?! It even works when Jasper is at his most insane, which is when he’s in our enclosed backyard, he’s heard a noise outside of it and starts doing frantic laps around the property. He usually responds to no commands at those times; he’s in that zone. The Doggie Don’t breaks the spell and Jasper stops, and listens to me when I say Come. It amazes me and I could hug my friend, Sarah Beck, mom to her own reactive dog, who invented it. See where to learn more about Doggie Don’t and purchase it at the end.
Lest you think that Jasper went from being a lunatic, reactive dog to being the perfect dog, he didn’t. I like to say the one thing predictable about Jasper is his unpredictability. I think Jasper will be that way until he’s too old to bother. But…he’s a heck of a lot more predictable today than he was close to three years ago. He meets 99% of all strangers with cautious optimism and showers them with kisses much faster now. As I said, he looks up at me when he sees a dog coming down the street, knowing I’ll tell him what to do. He feels empowered (I can so tell!) when he’s the good boy as we pass a big dog on a walk and he doesn’t react. And, it makes my heart big with joy; hard won success!
So, for those dog parents with their own reactive dogs, sometimes we have to focus on the successes and not the frustrations or the depression of the failures. Jasper has streaks of greatness and streaks of reactivity. We’re in a long streak of greatness right now, long may it live! Hoping this helps other dog parents out there get a handle on their reactive babies, and wishing you much success.
For more info on the Gentle Leader and to purchase.
For more info on the Doggie Don’t and to purchase.
Remember, it’s Adopt A Shelter Pet Day. Spread the word, go out and adopt and tell your friends and family, too! There are so many wonderful dogs and cats out there just waiting for their forever homes.
Do you have helpful tips that have worked with your reactive dog?