When Spartacus looks up at us with his soulful eyes full of innocence, it's easy to forget about the side of him that seems vicious and aggressive. Especially considering what an angel he is to his little sister, Delilah. He's never shown an ounce of meanness toward her, even though she pounces on him in his sleep and chews on his ears and jowls when he's trying to relax. He doesn't put up a fight when she steals his bones and toys, and he's happy to be her pillow any time of day.
After going through Basic Training when he was a year and a half old, he also became quite the gentleman toward people. Sparty prefers to properly introduce himself with a handshake. He still has trouble containing his excitement and wants to hug visitors, but overall he knows his manners and understands he has to earn his privileges with good behavior and neat tricks. He won first place in "Down Stay with Distractions" when he graduated his Basics course, after all.
And let's not forget his never-ending concern for his people. Indoors, we sometimes regard Sparty as our therapy dog. His love of cuddling is intense, and he's the kind of dog that will wake up from his slumber and lick tears off your face if you've had a bad day.
This all changes when we leave the comfort of our home. His soft brow with his sweet, sad eyes furrows as Sparty locks in on the target, another dog walking on leash. All hell breaks loose and he goes berzerk - lunging, growling, barking, writhing in the air. Spartacus is leash reactive and his main trigger is other dogs walking on leashes.
Luckily we've never lost control of the leash, so the worst that's come out of this most of the time is embarrassment, and startling strangers. But a strong 60 pound dog resisting the leash with all his might is not to be taken lightly, and can pose a danger to the handler, other dogs and people, and the reactive dog itself. We've had our share of bruises to prove it.
He didn't start out this way. He was a happy go lucky puppy for the most part, despite being found homeless with Canine Distemper and mange. We didn't know very much about training and were intent on spoiling this puppy who had suffered so greatly. We barely socialized him due to his weak immune system. By the time he was full grown, he was difficult to control but still perfectly happy, a bit too enthusiastic maybe, to pass dogs on leash. His aggressive reactivity seems to coincide with the time we started training him to heel, ironically. We have some theories about where we went wrong, and we suspect a combination of genetics, upbringing, and day to day management are all equally related to reactivity. Like others, we are guilty of doting on the past and over-analyzing our mistakes. Ultimately, it's more fruitful to focus on what we are doing in the present to manage Sparty's aggressive reaction to other dogs he sees on leash.
Luckily, we have the help of a professional and the support of a community to guide us in learning to manage our Dr.Jeckyll and Mr.Hyde pup. We are taking a special class with a handful of other reactive dogs, and learning how to implement well-timed rewards and corrections to counter-condition our dogs to their triggers. Like many others, the "watch me" command is our starting point. Currently, we use a parachute cord slip collar to give corrections when Spartacus is ignoring us and starting to target another dog. We understand that some people want to use 100% reward based management, but with a strong 60 pound dog, it's impossible to ignore his outbursts - he might literally drag us into moving traffic if given the opportunity.
In the last month since we started our class, we have progressed to being able to be on the opposite sidewalk of passing dogs with Sparty choosing to look to us for treats. Closer distances to passing dogs still have mixed results, but by body-blocking and grabbing Sparty's collar, we can get him to calm down quicker when he does react. It makes us sad to see something that is so normal for other dogs, including our Delilah, be so stressful for our special boy. We hope that the new techniques we are implementing will eventually make these experiences more normal and enjoyable for us all.
*This post is part of the WOOF (Working Out Our Fears) Support blog hop, where other owners with reactive dogs can join together to share their experiences. Today's theme is "A walk in my shoes/paws". #WOOFsupport