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Bonnie - my journey with a reactive dog!

21/02/2019 - Training Advice

Bonnie – my dog that had such a hard time!

I wanted to share Bonnie’s story with you. We lost her in 2017 at the ripe old age of 13 (we think) We rescued Bonnie (an ex breeding Labrador) when she was 8. I really wasn’t prepared for the journey that Bonnie would take me on. It’s thanks to Bonnie that I am now doing the job that I love. I wanted to learn about why she was reacting the way she reacted to other dogs.

She was dog to dog reactive and the basis of this reactivity was very much fear. Don’t get me wrong, she lived with our other dogs and if she was introduced in the correct way (slowly, gradually and the dogs weren’t too in her face) she was fine. Meeting other dogs/seeing other dogs out on a walk was a totally different ball game. When we adopted Bonnie and she first starting reacting the way she did, upon sight of another dog, I instinctively knew she was having a hard time and wasn’t giving me a hard time, I just didn’t have a clue how to make her feel better. I enlisted the help of a fab local trainer who helped me understand Bonnie’s fears and gave me the tools to be able to walk her and keep her under threshold. Our whole lives had to change, every morning for years, I would be up at 5 and off to the woods so she could have a good walk, without the fear of bumping in to other dogs. Head torch on, dodging all the other dogs who were struggling, nodding a quick ‘hi’ to the owners and empathising with them. We actually got to know quite a lot of the early morning dog walking brigade and a guy with two Lurchers was particularly understanding. The Lurchers were to become Bonnie’s firm friends.  We holidayed in the middle of nowhere so she didn’t stress too much. We loved it so much, even after her death, we still try and pick holiday cottages in the middle of nowhere!

Alongside managing her on a daily basis and ensuring she didn’t get too stressed, we carried on working with our local behaviourist who started the counter conditioning process. We wanted to change the way that Bonnie felt when she saw another dog. The counter conditioning process did help as she could deal with dogs at a distance (she only had to see a dog to react before) but she was never completely better. It’s very hard and isolating having a dog like Bonnie .  For any of my clients or readers of this post are going through similar, I am totally with you on the feelings it brought up in me. Frustration that we couldn’t enjoy a lovely stroll in the country followed by a nice pub lunch. We encountered a lot of people on our journey that allowed their off lead dogs to run up to Bonnie and this would always set her back. She would wear ‘yellow’ – she was on a lead and a muzzle yet I would still have to ask owners to call their dogs away. I used to repeatedly hear ‘it’s ok he/she is friendly – they only want to play’ All the time, my poor Bonnie was having a panic attack. I remember the time she bit me. I was devastated – I sent a message to our behaviourist who explained about redirected aggression. She couldn’t get to the other dog so lashed out at me.  The muzzle stayed on after this, until she was safely in the car as this incident happened in a wooded area car park when we thought we were safe but another dog came out of nowhere.

I was offered lots of advice from others during this time but luckily I just followed the advice and guidance of trained professional. I knew that fear had to be treated with understanding and kindness but I didn’t have the know how to do it alone.

Do I feel sad when I look back on how I dealt with Bonnie? A big fat YES! I believe I put her in situations when she first came home that she wasn’t happy in but was probably too shut down to show her reactivity. I didn’t read her body language and when I look back at photo’s of her early days, it’s clear to see she was struggling. I’m sorry Bonnie, I should have learnt a lot more, a lot sooner.

The good news is, the journey with Bonnie taught me so much and we’ve welcomed other rescue dogs in to our home (another ex breeder in fact) since and I dealt with things so very differently.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing but didn’t help my Bonnie. I’m human, I made mistakes but I have learnt from them.

To anyone struggling with reactivity (or any other training/behaviour issue) please do seek the advice and help of a trained (positive reinforcement) professional to support you and your dog through the journey.  You need the support just as much as your dog does <3