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By Sean O’Shea

Yesterday we had a super reactive and dog aggressive dog go home after a three week board and train. His owners had gotten to the point of not walking him because his behavior had become so volatile and dangerous. (He has redirected with multiple bites in the past.)

His past training experiences had asked him to simply not pull on the leash and be respectful of that boundary when out walking. The problem with that approach for this dog (and most of the guys we see here) was that it allowed him to be (and remain) in a semi-aroused mental state at all times. Even though he wasn’t pulling on the leash, he was far too disengaged from his owners, far too engaged with all things in the environment, and allowed to move and make choices on his own constantly. These factors caused him to be in an already too intense mental space when he would actually see a dog. By the time his owners would try to correct him, he would be too worked up, and the corrections would only make him worse. And he would explode.

Instead of doing a loose leash walk, we asked this dog to be in a very specific heel position.

Our desire to have dogs in an immaculate heel has nothing to do with tradition and everything to do with state of mind leverage and management. By asking for a very specific position with very specific rules, we cause the dog to remain tuned into us, he has to use all his mental energy to stay in position rather than use that mental energy to focus on trouble, and he has to practice extreme impulse control. This position also causes the dog to be more deferential and respectful of the handler who is asking for all this hard work and holding the dog accountable. (And that’s an awfully good thing with reactive dogs!)

Think of it like a mindset scale of 0-10. 0 is a totally relaxed dog, and 10 is an explosion. The loose leash walking approach was causing this dog to be cruising around in a constant state of 5, 6, 7 – just revved up and on the precipice of trouble. The mental distance between 5, 6, 7 and 10 is not very much. Once this dog would get an eyeful of another dog, he would hit 8 or 9, his owners would correct, and BOOM, explosion time! But when we walked him in our structured heel, he cruised around at a 1, 2, or 3. This meant that when he saw a dog, we had a ton of mental/intensity cushion between where he was at and the explosion point. He might lift up to a 4, 5, or 6 at worst, but that’s a very manageable state where a dog can still receive information and make positive decisions.

That means our structured heel created the cushion for us and the dog to never see the explosion point. This is why we’re such sticklers for the structured heel. By leveraging this command and all its rules and benefits, we manage to keep reactive dogs as close to 0 as possible. It’s also why these owners remarked that they’ve never had such an amazing walk with their dog before. We passed dog after dog yesterday, and their reactive guy just cruised along. If he got mildly interested in a dog (started to move up the intensity scale) they corrected immediately and brought him right back down instantly. I don’t think he ever went above 3 or 4, and boy is that saying something!!

Without keeping his mindset at a lower, more relaxed place, this dog (and his owners would be set up to fail again and again.)

If you have a reactive dog, the trick is to aim for 0, you’ll probably never actually get it, but if you do a good job of working towards it, you’ll never see 10!

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By Sean O’Shea

There’s a lot of talk in training circles and with owners about “fixing” dogs. I think a lot of this started with the very successful show Dog Whisperer. And for all the good that show did (helping folks to see their part in the their dog’s issues, the value of some simple concepts like exercise, disciple, affection, and rules, boundaries, and limitations, as well as inspiring a whole generation of dog trainers), it also had some other, less favorable impact on the dog owners and dog trainers.

The show and its producers had a great main message – that message was far more about personal growth and development, and the impact and value that has on your dog and relationship – but it also had another message or agenda.

That message was that of magic.

That this one person, because of his amazing abilities and finely honed skill set, could take a dog, regardless of the intensity of the issues, and transform that dog. Completely.

This was something that every dog owner and trainer wanted to buy into. That if you cultivated your skills and your mind, to a high enough degree, you too could affect change on that level and magnitude – and that completely.

But here’s the problem, to imagine or believe that a dog – this incredibly complex and emotionally nuanced being, with whatever genetic material and baggage it comes with, and whatever prior experience baggage it comes with and whatever personality/individuality it comes with – to be something that can be transformed into something completely different than what it is and what it contains, is a disservice to dogs, owners, and trainers.

What I’ve seen is a preponderance of owners and trainers that put unrealistic pressure and expectations on themselves and their dogs.
Because this message was packaged and presented so well on the tv show, many of us have been infected with the complete “fix” belief.
But imagining dogs can be “fixed” (and by fixed I mean back to it’s original state/issue-free) is like imagining that you, with all of your past experiences, traumas, challenges, personality, attitudes, and genetics, could be perfect, or issue-free. You can do as much therapy, self-help, and personal work as possible, and you can make enormous strides, and transformations, but you will still be you. You will still have your quirks. You will still have your tendencies. You can become your very best you, but it will still be you. And you won’t be perfect or fixed.

And that’s the truth with dogs as well. It’s not a negative, or a letdown, it’s simply a reset about reality and having appropriate, and healthy expectations. Expectations that don’t put unrealistic pressure on you, your, dog, or your trainer. (I see SO many trainers who feel they have to deliver magic in every session or they’ve failed.)

Can you get a dog who likes to run away to recall every time? Yes. Can you get that counter-surfing dog to stop surfing? Yes. Can you get the resource guarding dog to stop resource guarding? Yes. Can we make amazing, wild, mind-blowing transformations in problem dogs, and can some of these changes happen quickly? Absolutely! I see it every day. But while some of these issues might be resolved, these dogs aren’t fixed. They haven’t had their individuality – genetics, experience, personality removed and replaced – no, they’ve simply been made a better version of themselves. And that should be the goal (and expectation) in both the dog owner and the dog trainer – to make the dog the very best version of himself that is possible. No magic, no fixes, just the progress and transformation that comes from dedicated, consistent work and focus.

The truth is, some dogs will be able to make more progress than others, and some will have more limitations than than others. And that’s just like it is with us. We’re all individuals, and that’s both the beauty and the challenge.

None of us – our dogs or ourselves – get “fixed”. We can only hope that through hard work and focus to be the best versions of ourselves.

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