Heli – Reactivity.

Brief Synopsis: Heli is a German Shepherd, cooped up for most of her first 6 months of life before her current owner adopted her. Multiple trainers, different suggestions and techniques. None worked. Heli is highly reactive, diagnosed aggressive. First night I met her, she showed she was capable, she’s not an aggressive dog, just insecure. Time frame was initial assessment, 2 hours in a dog park, an hour at owners place, 2 hours alone with me walking ravine with dogs and 2 hours in a dog park. Then off leash. One month or so after the initial meeting, she was running off leash with no muzzle, the owner made the call to trust her dog and it payed off beautifully.

Full story:  This is going to be a long read – but I urge owners with reactive dogs to do so. Every dog is capable, they just need some understanding, proper diagnosis and proper handling. Heli has to be built from the ground up, needs to learn how to be a dog and it really doesn’t take long.

The assessment:

Met with Heli’s owner on April 14th for an assessment of the dog. She left the dog in the vehicle and we stepped away for a talk about the issues she’s having. Told me Heli spent most of her first 6 months cooped up and isolated, and now needs to be socialized. Heli is now a year old, and still very reactive. So we have an owner that is essentially scared of what her dog is going to do to other dogs or people. This is not a way to live. I told her I would get the dog out of the vehicle, and see where she is – and what she’s capable of. I explained to the owner what I was going to do, and what I expected to happen.

Approached the vehicle, Heli was in the front seat and started this frantic bark, shows fearful and very insecure – not aggression. I didn’t make eye contact, that could be considered a challenge and only serve to make matters worse. Heli jumped in the back seat – the back window was down 6 inches, I moved to the back door and offered my head. She needs to smell, dogs like this need to meet nose first. Humans emit a pheromone when they get scared, and I really believe that dogs can pick up on that – and react to it. Dogs don’t rationalize, they only react – how is up to the handler. She has access to my head, could have taken my ear off – but I need to give her some trust, and let her make the choices. She came very close, deafening bark in my ear, could feel her brush my ear – but no bite. She stopped barking, and I could hear her smelling me. Looked at the owner, tapped my nose with a smile, step one complete. Open the back door a crack to let her get the full scent – panic, jump in the front seat. I get in the back seat and offer my hand on the center console, all I get is a sniff, not a bite or nip. I jump in the front seat, Heli is now in the drivers seat – I offer the slip lead, let her smell it – her head went low in acceptance. On goes the slip leash, and we exit the vehicle. Took off the shock and prong collars she was wearing, time for change. Heli is slinking, she’s nervous, no confidence at all – just let her lay. When she was calmed down, I gave affection. Lets go for a walk, around the park we go, owner is watching – Heli is still nervous but moving forward – but all the while looking for her owner – the person to protect. When I gave the leash to the owner, she started to protect her, if I approached – she would bark and snap at me. I don’t back down, don’t react – the dog would back down.

Multiple trainers told the owner that the dog was aggressive – I don’t see any real aggression in the dog, she’s reactive due to fear and insecurity. Yes, she can strike out, but that doesn’t equate to an aggressive dog. The owner is living in fear of the dogs reactivity – that fear puts both the owner and dog into a managed situation and neither will move forward. They are stuck. The main thing I did was show the owner that the dog was indeed capable, misdiagnosed. Left her with a sense of hope – and that’s all I want.

Time to work with her – April 19th.

We met at one of the local dog parks, I wanted at least an hour alone with her. Took her down the back trails on the slip lead, she’s slinking on leash – very insecure. The main goal starting out is to get her confident on lead, so we spent time walking up and down the back trails – few minutes of structured walking, then let her be a dog. Let her sniff and explore the environment, she marked, had a poop. Repeat that process for 20 minutes or so, she’s now walking with confidence, walking proud instead of slinking away – and I have a bit of trust from her. Time to head back into the main park and see what she’s capable of.

First dog we seen, Heli reacted – barking and lunging – my job is to get her to calm down, to relax. Had her sit, down, and I would lay her on her side – not forcefully, she’s a dog that can give up pretty quick. When she went calm, rub her belly, give affection. Move up 50 feet and repeat – when calm, give affection. The game here is to condition the idea that “calm gets me good things”. Before long we’re 30 feet from a pack of dogs – she would react, but calm pretty quick. When a dog is able to lay on her side, and expose her belly and throat when dogs are around – it shows she’s capable. Heli has no social skills at all, and she needs dogs to teach her those skills. She needs to be reminded of what she is – this is not a training ideal – it’s a mistake to look at it that way.

Called the owner down, she needs to see the magic that is about to happen. The nice thing about dog parks, there are alot of easy going dogs and a lot of owners that willing to help. First dog Heli met was a beatiful female pitty – Heli barked at first, that’s her plan A – but we got her to sniff the pitbulls bum. That always calms dogs – let up on the leash, and Heli was fine. Owner was relieved to see this. Next was a beautiful Rottweiler, got Heli to calm, owner brought the dog in, another bum sniff and all is calm. We started walking around the park – and one of the ladies that is there frequently came up with her 3 small dogs. She had no idea that Heli was reactive, but to see Heli remaining calm and sniffing these little dogs? Wonderful. She has an older Dachshund that is blind and near deaf – Heli interacted with no issues. The owner is now seeing that the dog is capable – that’s she’s not aggressive. Heli is simply not social, she wants to meet dogs but doesn’t know how. After 2 hours, lots of relief from the owner, she’s now excited to move forward, excited to see her dog succeed, excited to see that Heli is making good choices. That’s a beautiful thing.

The owner is now starting to trust Heli, allowing her to meet dogs, remaining calm. She’s had interactions with multiple dogs and multiple people in homes – something that wouldn’t happen in the past. As the owners confidence level rises, so does the dogs.

Owner brought Heli to me after an incident at home, little bit of fence fighting put her confidence down a bit. I took her for a 2 hour walk through a local off leash park in the raving thinking it would be quiet. Ended up being very busy, 40 to 50 dogs, adults, kids, but Heli did amazing on lead. Still not 100% sure, but making the right choices and moving forward. Took her to my neighbors (who was taking care of Monty) to meet my dog, she was fine. 3 weeks before, she acted like she wanted to eat him.

May 16th, 2019. Dog park time, owner is feeling alot more confident, time to see what the dog is made of. We had Heli muzzled to give her every chance for success but it was frustrating her. Frustration in a dog park isn’t good. Took the muzzle off, hooked up a 50 foot long line and off we went to meet some dogs. She did great, calm, sniffing dogs and becoming environmentally aware. I spoke with the owner, told her it’s all about her choices, if she wants to let Heli off then do it. And she did. After about 20 minutes, owner removed the long line, gave the dog the trust she needed. Heli did wonderful overall, made the right choices.

It’s an amazing thing to witness a dog become a dog, and just be a dog for the first time in her life. Even more amazing is to witness an owner learn to trust their dog to be a dog, to watch the confidence levels of dog and owner go up so quickly.

Heli will always have a special place in my heart.

Don’t give up on your dog, they all should be given a chance.