Regressions are normal.
You've likely heard this before and you'll hear it again.
When changing behaviour, there are no guarantees. Nothing is written in stone, nothing is 100% predictable. You might change one behaviour and another one pops up, like a game of whack-a-mole at the carnival.
It's discouraging, no doubt. We trainers are used to it and we've even come to expect it.
We run multiple reactive dog classes every week, and even more private cases focusing on modifying reactivity. Every trainer we have on staff has (or has had in the past) a reactive dog. We feel your pain more than you can imagine. We have been in your shoes so many times.
We have felt that frustration you channel into the grip of the leash, the heat of embarrassment in front of other dog guardians, the struggle to walk away with your dignity, the worry before each walk, the anger toward people who let their "friendly" dogs run off-leash where they shouldn't, the jealousy of others and their "non-reactive" dogs, the guilt about the seemingly large world you feel you are protecting from your dog (or are you protecting your dog from that world?). We know it well.
We spend our whole career coming up with creative solutions to handle the urban environment and the ever-growing dog population. We sympathise and empathise with each client who comes to us with these challenges. We bring home your sadness and we channel it into our continuing education, always striving to learn more just in case there is something we might have missed.
We celebrate every success with as much excitement as you do and that too, we bring home with us. We document it in our notes and we share it with our colleagues, families, and friends. We say "today was a good day" and we hope tomorrow is the same, and every day after that too.
We wish we had all the answers. A magic wand. Fairy dust and unicorn blood. Anything. Anything to make every walk a peaceful one for each of you. We try and we miss. We try and we succeed. We try and we never really know, because every dog is an individual and every day is a new day.
There are so many reasons our recovering reactive dogs can regress. Sometimes it's us - we lay off the management and we take a risk and we fail. We "get greedy" and we push our dogs a little further than they can handle. We get lazy and we stop rewarding good choices. We get frustrated and we punish communication.
Maybe we've done none of that and it's not us. Maybe our dog isn't feeling well today and in turn, they're crankier than usual, or they didn't get a good sleep and they're off their game. Maybe there's a change in the environment or routine that is causing additional stress and leads to trigger stacking. Maybe something is bothering them and they're taking it out on the nearest used-to-be-trigger. It could just be that this particular trigger on this particular day with the wind blowing in that particular direction was just IT.
Like the Shirelles said...
I went walking the other day,
Everything was going fine.
I met a little boy named Billy Joe,
And then I almost lost my mind.
Mama said there'll be days like this,
There'll be days like this, Mama said.
Just switch out Billy Joe for your nearest Fido or Fluffy, or man wearing a hat or a woman with an umbrella, or a child doing cartwheels. You name it.
(You're welcome for the earworm.)
So what can we do?
Back to the basics.
- 1Tighten up on management (avoid and prevent outbursts as best as you can)
- 2Try to lower their general stress levels for a few days (practice the fun stuff at home)
- 3Change their associations to other dogs through classical counterconditioning (it rains meatballs every time they are exposed to their trigger at a safe distance, regardless of their reaction)
- 4Mark the trigger with a click or "yes" and reward them (diffuse the emotion and make it safe for them to watch the scary thing)
- 5Ask for an alternate behaviour (sit, watch me, touch) to replace all the stuff you don't like (barking, lunging, growling)
Regressions are temporary and we can work through them. When in doubt, reach out. I'm here for you!