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in Boston Terriers, Training and socialization

One Year After I Realized My Boston Terrier Is Reactive

  • January 22, 2020
  • By MaggieLovesOrbit.com
  • 11 Comments
One Year After I Realized My Boston Terrier Is Reactive

My Boston Terrier Maggie is reactive. Out of fear she lunges and barks at other dogs. It’s her way in getting them to move away from her. She was three years old when I realized this.

This is her story. I share it as part of a series of articles . In documenting her journey perhaps it might shed some insights for you.

Houston, We Have A Problem!

We drove over 1600 miles one way to Kansas City, MO to attend Blog Paws. We unfolded out of the car to check in. And within minutes we saw our other dog blogger friends in the lobby.

Imagine my surprise when my two turned into leash gremlins barking at dogs 40 and 50 feet away.

I was mortified. Who were these dogs? Are they mine? This is a dog conference. Are you going to do this for the next three days?

They looked up at me and proudly gave me a thought bubble saying YES MOM WE PROTECT YOU We scared the dogs away.

Oh sigh – I thought – this is going to be a long three days.

Sadly for the rest of the event, we had to maintain a space bubble around us. This was a shame since this was THE last conference Blog Paws was having and some attendees brought their dogs … and I couldn’t hang out with them.

Blog Paws happened almost twenty months ago as of the time I write this article.  It was April 2018.  And that’s when Maggie started to show signs of being territorial towards me and her sibling Orbit.

The reason I’m sitting down to write about it today is to chronicle Maggie’s journey. I want to examine what might have led up to her reactivity so I can understand it better. And in doing so if you yourself have a reactive dog, it might help you on your own journey.

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How Old Was Maggie?

Maggie was a month shy of turning three years old when we went to Blog Paws.

I Sheltered Her Too Much

We got Maggie because our first Boston was attacked by a neighbor’s dog. Unfortunately she didn’t sustain the injuries and she crossed over the rainbow bridge.

As a result we were overprotective. And in doing so robbed Maggie of important socialization experiences.

I remember how when big dogs would approach, I would stiffen up and put tension on the leash.

Every time I did this – I was signaling – “other dogs bad”.

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I Didn’t Help Her Overcome Her Fears

During our walks when she was a puppy we’d encounter strange things like a trash can that was out of place because of the wind as an example.

Maggie would be startled and she’d bark at it.

Instead of walking up to it and helping Maggie understand I was OK with the “thing out of place” to help her comprehend and learn to accept strange things, we moved on.

So what Maggie learned was – “strange things bad and when I bark we move”.

Were There Any Early Warning Signs?

Maggie was a happy and playful puppy. She loved toys, she loved to run around and play fetch and she got along with the puppies at the park.

Looking back – what I realize is I wasn’t knowledgeable in reading dog language and not able to understand calming signals.

I realize now … she lacked social manners. But back then I didn’t know that.

She would go up to dogs and get in their face. Unfortunately Maggie’s park playmates were other puppies so there were no adult dogs that could appropriately guide or correct her to show her the right way. And I didn’t know any better.

When she turned eight months old we enrolled in a socialization class that focused on leash walking as well as interacting with other animals.

I thought it was a fun class but now reflecting back it was not the class we needed.  We needed to focus on socializing her with other dogs.  Instead we went to small farms so that Maggie could be exposed to pigs, and goats, and horses. I learned how to introduce her to these animals by leading the way and demonstrating to her they were our friends.

Unfortunately the ratio of her being socialized with other canines was on the lower end of the scale.

When I reflect on those early months I realize that Maggie’s didn’t get the enough exposure to older dogs to help teach her that her puppy energy had a time and a place.  Next time I’ll use checklists following the Rule of 12.

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When Did Maggie Start To Become Fearful?

I recall her getting into a few scuffles at Fiesta Dog Island.

It always happened because of inappropriate play. She would resort to trying to dominate another dog and exert her rank.

Some dogs didn’t mind. But some did so they corrected her.

She started to become fearful of dogs that approached her too fast after that. And she would bark back at them in her effort to communicate her discomfort.

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A Sister Enters The Pack

When Maggie turned one we brought Orbit home. Maggie took a few weeks to relax and accept Orbit . We made sure Maggie knew that her rank was protected and she got everything first. She got pet first, fed, first, treats first and so forth.

She got very close to Orbit and then started to show that she was territorial over Orbit. She didn’t want other dogs to play with her and would chase them away and initiate play with just her and Orbit.

How Were Maggie’s Communication Skills?

What I have since learned is that because Maggie didn’t get the proper socialization she needed, she became awkward socially with other dogs and is not very good at giving calming signals.

When she meets other dogs, she goes head to head. Her energy can be intense. 95% of the time the other dog will look away, yawn, or smell the ground. Now I know this is that dog saying to Maggie “I’m not a threat”.

Maggie isn’t very good at initiating these signals nor was she good at reading them.

She would interpret this as an invitation for her to increase the intensity to which she inspected the other dog.

Which often more than not would result in that dog either walking away or in the rare case, correcting Maggie.

When the corrections are coming from a mature adult dog these corrections are crucial.

When they come from another reactive dog it can be disastrous.

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I Enrolled Maggie in Boot Camp

At this time I was working with various trainers to help me with Maggie’s territorial reactivity and I brought her to a boot camp board and train.

What seemed like a good idea at the time … set Maggie backwards.

She could behave around the trainers but I think it was done out of fear.

And after that session she started to move up the ladder of aggression quicker.

What this means is that she would throw of a stare, snarl and then lunge and snap all within what seemed like 1.5 seconds when previously there would be moments before each signal.

Maggie Gets Attacked

One year ago, in January of 2019 Maggie got bit in the face.

We met some friends at the main gate at Fiesta. We were gathered around chatting when a dog entered the park running at full speed into the middle of our group (we had treats).

Maggie turned to correct this new dog who flipped out and attacked her to bite her in the face.

It was a large standard poodle. It was half as tall as me and I picked it up from the back to pull it away from Maggie.

Maggie Starts To Be the Aggressor; Her Reactivity Gets Worse

We minimized our walks with friends so that I could focus rehabilitating Maggie.

Unfortunately that bite left an emotional scar on her and she started to pick on fluffy white dogs to lunge out at them and snap at their backs. Luckily there wasn’t ever any bite marks on the other dog but I knew we were at the critical point where she might just bite another dog.

What Looks Like Aggression is Really My Dog Being Defensive

When Maggie sees something she’s afraid of she only has in her mind one possible course of action – to make them go away.  In her mind, she does this by putting a display of aggression and intimidation which is barking, snapping, and or lunging.

We Worked With a Behaviorist

Soon after I enrolled in @thehikerpups online reactivity class.

Another excellent online class I highly recommend is through Spirit Dog Training.  Her classes are housed on her website.  I especially liked her class becauses you can continue to go back for reference and have access to them for life.

From both trainers – I was able to understand more about reactivity.  There is no way I would have been able to work on Maggie’s behavior rehabilitation without these classes.  And I do not recommend you go it alone.  If you cannot find behaviorist in your city I’d recommend you enroll in both of these classes.

I myself am not a trainer.   And these courses both will give you hours of coursework for you to go through and apply because the rehabilitation will happen with your lead.  All these trainers will do is guide you through the process.

Pack Walks Helped

We co-host pack walks with Real Dog Box. We used to host them once a month. Then we moved to twice a month. But when Maggie started to become more reactive we started to co host them once a week.  It’s allowed me to work on capturing when Maggie is calm and teaching her we can co-exist around other dogs.  If you live in San Diego you can join our Meetup group where we send notifications about the pack walk locations.

We Started Agility

Maggie and I started agility about a month and half after she was attacked.

It’s been great for her rehabilitation because she can be around other dogs in class without having to interact with them.

I’ve learned so much more about behaviour in an agility class which … is a sport class … and I wasn’t expecting that.

Our instructor is also a behaviorist so she’s constantly interpreting for us what the dog might be thinking or doing based on how we’re cueing.

Because our class has other dogs of different shapes, ages, breeds and temperaments it’s fascinating to watch other dogs work and have a better grasp in how dogs and humans communicate or… misunderstand each other.

Agility is a team sport and it uncovers the potential of what you and your dog can accomplish together.  Agility doesn’t have to mean you end up entering trials or competitions.  It can be a fun hobby and activity to do with your dog to deepen your bonds.

Since taking the class I’ve felt a stronger connection to both Maggie and Orbit.

I Keep The Blinds Closed So That They Don’t Bark At. Dogs Walking on the Sidewalk

Anytime our dogs get worked up – their adrenaline and cortisol levels go up also.  And you want to avoid this as much as possible.

One of the things I learned was to set the dogs up for success.

Growling and barking should be minimized unless they are truly communicating for a reason.

I used to keep the blinds open during the day but that just meant they would bark at anything that crossed their line of vision.

Since I’ve closed it the barking has decreased 95%. They still bark when the mailman drops our mail off in our mailbox or when an Amazon package is delivered. But that’s about it. They no longer bark at the the activity happening outside on the sidewalk.

We Take Long Decompression Walks

Decompression walks are a critical part of our day. It’s when we go to a part of Fiesta Island while most people are at work, so that Maggie can walk the meadows to follow all the smells and fill up her nose.

I also enter the side gate where only three percent of the dog community enters when they go to Fiesta.  I avoid the main gate because dogs are bouncing off the walls when they first get to the park and I don’t want Maggie to encounter other dogs when they are in that state.

As it is even Maggie’s energy is high when we arrive at the park.

By entering the side gate and letting them get their yaya’s out they are better equipped once we do encounter other dogs.

I start off the walk off the beaten path.  I take as much time as Maggie needs.

Sniffing is soothing.  It lowers their heart rate. The more time they sniff, the more relaxed they become.

When Maggie is more relaxed she is better able to cope with other dogs around her.

In the video you’ll see a section where we are done with our “sniff walk” and we head to the beach where we encounter other dogs.  By this time Maggie is in a better state and it’s a great way for us to work on counter conditioning exercises.

Safety is always priority number one for me and if at any given moment I feel an approaching dog might set off Maggie then I move her away and avoid going over threshold altogether.

What I’m focused on instead is finding situations where I can create a successful situation where Maggie walks away from a  peaceful dog encounter.  I want her to feel happy and relaxed and the more times I can create those experiences for her, the further away we get from negative memories and the closer we get to behavior modification.

Connecting With My Dog

You know how you’re with a friend and they seem to be distracted. And you ask them, “Hey, are you listening to me?” And they turn to admit they were thinking about something else … and then they focus on you.

Well our dogs can sense that too – when we’re distracted and not focused on them.

In agility I learned about the power of connection. When you’re truly present with your dog, looking at them, doing things together, your dog tends to perform better on the course.

On our walks with the exception of the quick photo or video I might take, I’m not on my phone. Most times I’m not even listening to music. I’m just watching and being present with my dogs.

We Play!

Our dogs are only here for a short time.  My goal is to be Maggie (and Orbit’s) best friend.   I make sure that we play regularly every day.

I Have Treats ALL the TIME

I permanently carry treats on my person.   I carry a variety of “cookie” type treats and high value treats from Real Dog Box.  This way I can work on counter conditioning when triggers are coming up.

One tip I’ve learned is to carry treats inconspicuously (pockets of vests or jackets) as opposed to in a treat pouch.  Another tip from my agility instructor is to have treats placed in random places around the house.  That way my dogs don’t associate treats with the treat pouch and I have access to them at any given time.

From SpiritDog Training I’ve learned about the “Mega Reward” so that there are times when my dogs get that extra special “Mega Reward” after a training session to cement the positive feelings associated with it.

Avoiding Going Over Thresholds

I know Maggie is over threshold she’s stressed; she won’t respond and won’t take treats.   She’s keyed in and overly excited or moves to the state where she or barking or lunging.  I avoid going over her thresholds as much as possible.

That means if a situation when we’re over threshold …. I MOVE AWAY right away.  Any time she spends in this “state” puts her backwards.

What I do instead is note that threshold and trigger and work to change her reaction so that over time these thresholds become less and less.

I Worked On Managing My Moods

Dogs can sense our emotions just like those closest to us can.

I started to work on my mood. I have anxious tendencies that surfaced a few years ago when a family member passed. Over time, exercise, and meditation the anxiety has subsided and I think that this has helped decrease Maggie’s reactivity too.

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DISCLOSURE:  Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means that if you click on a product link, I may receive compensation.  This compensation comes at no additional cost to you, and as always I only recommend products I have tried and trust.

Maggielovesorbit, Ilovebostons  is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

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BOOKS

I’ve read every single one of these books at least twice and I constantly refer back to them.  I list my favorite ones in order of how I would recommend you read them.

Proper Playmates

Maggie has a very small circle of friends. She doesn’t seem to be missing out and thrives in sets up like this. Her friends know her and she can feel safe with them.

Building Confidence

The main priority with Maggie is building her confidence.  I do this by focusing on “certainty”.  What this looks like for Maggie is:

Rituals:

The last time Maggie showed her fear was a month ago during our camping trip.  She snarled and “attacked” a dog we went camping with.  Fluffy white dog (which she doesn’t like) and I wasn’t near her.

I was about to get some treats out and Maggie wanted our friends dog to be nowhere near us during that time.  It made me realize I still had a lot of work with Maggie even though it had been months since she had been in that state.

Anyway back to rituals.  The purpose is to give Maggie certainty.  When she has structure in her day and knows what order of of events it gives her sense of confidence.   That there isn’t things to be scared off.

So now we time our walks the same time each day.

I even leash them a specific way.  I used to leash Maggie by chasing her around the house.  She was so excited or scared to go out or nervous… not really sure.

Now I show her the leash and I ask her to jump up on the bench.  This means Maggie has to come to me.  And then she has to stay there while I put on her jacket (it’s cold right now) and then put on her collar.

She used to shake and be nervous and now she looks up at me, patiently waits, and then she licks my hand as if to say – “Thank you I’m looking forward to our outing”.

Oh and she gets a treat for when she jumps up on the bench.  When she lets me put on her jacket.  And then after I put on her collar.

We also have a very set route once we get to the off leash dog park (which is massive and has several acres).  This gives her certainty in knowing where we are going.

She Does Not Have To Meet Dogs When I’m Around

Maggie gets defensive when she has to interact with a dog.  So right now my job is to remove that stress.  We maintain a space bubble for the most part.

There are sections of the park that have dogs that she will meet and sometimes come running at full speed into our space.  When the dog’s energy is greater than Maggie’s then I block the approaching dog and say “Uh-uh” and this works 99.99% of the time – the dog knows I just said you can’t approach.

Or if we are crossing paths I reward her for ignoring the dog.  So she sees the dog, looks at me, and ignores the dog makes treats come from my hand to reward that behavior.  I’m capturing calm energy and connecting with Maggie.

Until she is completely rehabilitated I will not let her meet 98% of the dogs we encounter.  She’s not ready.  I don’t trust her to make the right decision ALL the time.  So until then I make the decision for her.

Doesn’t mean she can’t be around dogs.  We most certainly can but she can’t go nose to nose or nose to rear just yet.

In 2% of the cases when the dog is older, mature, balanced… then I let Maggie say hello because she has to learn how to greet.  But I make sure that my assessment of the dog is such that I feel that Maggie won’t feel fearful or defensive with that dog. She’s done really well in these cases.

Training To Connect

There’s a few things Maggie knows how to do which is spin and do high fives.  I know *eyeroll* our repertoire is massive!

We’ll throw in a few training sessions that literally last a minute but the action in doing them gives her a way to show me she’s doing something to affect an outcome (treats and praise) and it gives her confidence to think “I can do these things and it’s fun to connect with my owner plus I get treats”.

I’m Looking for Maggie to Make the Right Choices That Make Her Feel Safe

To combat her fear … I need to make her feel safe. 

To change her behavior … I need her to CHOOSE what to do.

Coming to me to be leashed instead of me going to her is Maggie choosing.

Certain trick training sessions require Maggie to choose the action.  She feels in control.

When there are other dogs I don’t let them come near her.  But when I see a dog that I think will be a good dog for her to meet I step aside.  She then can choose to ignore the dog, or she can choose to say hello.

My goal for her is to leave interactions in peach and without her having to show fear.  The more times she can be in that state, the more that her behavior will change towards other dogs.

Reflections A Year Later

Maggie still has moments when a fluffy white dog that is too close will set her off. When that happens Maggie will go into full on snarl attack mode which almost looks like she’s biting but it’s all just air snapping.

Even though this still happens, it happens less frequently.  I have to note the trigger and situation and then manage around it.  Even though I can’t yet trust her fully on her own to make the right decisions we are in a much better place than we started and  we are trending in the right direction.

I also have to avoid white fluffy dogs as much as I can because it reminds her of the poodle that attacked her.

I also know that now I am her biggest advocate. I’m not going to put her in in a situation where she feels pressured and might make the wrong decision. I’m going to set her up for success whenever I can.

We’re also doing the socialization steps that we should have done when she was a puppy. When we encounter other dogs, I gently talk to the other dog to send signals that “other dogs good”. When Maggie interacts with other dogs appropriately, I reward that behavior.

It Takes Time

Our Agility Instructor has a reactive dog herself. He’s a Grand Champion in his breed and I think he’s now nine. What I’ve learned from her is that behavior modification takes time.  And in some cases there are situations that dogs may never be ok with.  Her dog was also bit a few years ago and since then he prefers to just socialize with his sibling or do dog sport things.

Just like people don’t always want to hug each other when they first meet, some dogs don’t either .

In Closing – Where Do We Go From Here

Reactive dogs feel secure when they know that they will never be forced into a situation where they feel uncomfortable.

Dogs like Maggie also thrive when there is certainty to their schedule. We’re quite regimented and we do specific thing at certain times of the day and we do specific things on different days. We have a schedule. And we stick to it.

If you’ve read to the end of this article, and you also have a reactive dog, what I can impart is that rehabilitating your dog and behavior modification takes time.  You will not see overnight success.

It can often be a lonely journey when you have a reactive dog.  And I don’t want you to give up.  Don’t feel discouraged. Don’t feel guilt.  Our dogs need us the most right now and these are the last emotions we can sit in during this time.

I share the story in the hopes that it gives you enough clues as to what to do with your own dog.  That there are tools and resources out there and to give it proper time!

As for us, we’re going to continue to work on connecting with each other, bonding and creating positive experiences because I strongly believe that this is just a temporary situation and we’ll turn Maggie into a happy balanced dog.  We’ve probably got another year or so …. but that’s ok with me.

And l look forward to the next story I share about her will be that she’s become a reactive dog success story!

SHARING IS CARING

Share this with another dog lover friend on your social media or Pinterest because that helps me grow the blog and growing the blog helps get the girls more treats =)

Resources:

If your dog is reactive, you can read our other blog article on resources for your reactive dog. Some quick links are also dropped below.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hannah Zulueta and her two dogs Maggie and Orbit

Hello my name is Hannah and I dance with my dogs.  A self proclaimed Boston Terrier addict, (aka breed advocate) I started this blog because there isn’t enough space to write on our Instagram.  Maggie is my socially awkward one; which I find highly relatable because I am completely out of place in large groups myself.  And Orbit is my sensitive flower.  Blow on her skin wrong (ok I might be exaggerating) and she breaks out in a rash.

You won’t read about cats here… but you will get a fairly large dosage of articles dedicated to the Boston Terrier.    Read more about us. 

By MaggieLovesOrbit.com, January 22, 2020
  • 11
11 Comments
  • Alisa
    January 29, 2020

    Loved reading your journey with reactivity. I also learned so much about dog behavior and training from my reactive dog. They aren’t easy, but they teach us so much. I especially like what you said about the importance of giving our dogs choice. I 100% agree!

    • Maggie Loves Orbit
      January 29, 2020

      100% agree – reactive dogs teach us so much more and I have so much more empathy for those in the same boat and it’s truly allowed me to respect how dogs are and how they communicate. Thank you so much for stopping by.

  • Candy
    January 29, 2020

    Wow what a great read.
    First off, I had no idea about the incident with a neighbor’s dog that caused you to lose your dog. I’m so sorry!
    It’s really amazing how, after researching and learning yourself, you were able to pick up on your own behaviors that were sending the wrong signals to Maggie.
    I’ve recently started working with Boogie and a trainer and learning about how us humans communicate with our dogs has been the best part.
    Boogie was attacked a few years ago while walking with his petsitter and has been reactive when he sees brown pitbulls ever since, so I can relate to Maggie’s issues while large white fluffy dogs.
    It’s crazy because on the one hand, I’ve learned about how dogs can bounce back from trauma, but on the other, I see how they retain certain things.
    I’ll be looking out for further updates – good luck! and thanks for including the courses and books that were helpful.

    • Maggie Loves Orbit
      January 29, 2020

      They certainly have a memory. Maggie and Orbit have this hole they run to at the park because the rabbits hide there lol and they know exactly where to go on the way into the park and the way out of the park. So sorry to read about Boogie and glad you’re working with a trainer.

  • Ruth Epstein
    January 29, 2020

    What a great post and thank you as I am dog sitting for a friends puppy who is just a ball of bounce and this has given me some insight also. I am fortunate that Layla is very mellow and will only ever react if a good really gets in her face and am working on that although a friend of mine who is a dog trainer told me senior dogs do that to draw a boundary and Layla being 12 it makes sense.

    • Maggie Loves Orbit
      January 29, 2020

      Thank you!!! and Yes I’ve heard the same that senior dogs have clear boundaries. They get set in their ways lol. And they have no qualms about letting you know if you’ve gone to far with them!!! Thank you again for stopping by!

  • Jenna Emmons
    January 30, 2020

    I had no idea Maggie had been through so much! Louie and I loved joining your “Pack Walk” last year when we visited San Diego.

    • Maggie Loves Orbit
      January 31, 2020

      Hi Jenna. She’s the reason I keep organizing them. It truly changed her from barking and lunging at dogs 30 feet away to now they can be next to her and she won’t react unless they try to smell her nose. That’s why at the pack walks I always maintain my distance lol. Glad you joined and hope we cross paths again.

  • Erin Sullivan
    January 30, 2020

    I had no idea what a “reactive dog” was until I started blogging and getting more involved on Instagram. It’s shocking to see that there’s so many dogs and owners dealing with situations like yours and I had never known about it! As I read posts like this, it makes me think of my dog Jack a lot. I wouldn’t say he’s reactive toward other dogs, but he hates any kind of change. Anything from moving furniture to wearing a new hat can set him off. The worst part is that I struggle to take him on walks these days because he barks the entire time. He had “gotten over it” for a little while over the summer, but he fell back into his old ways!

    • Maggie Loves Orbit
      January 31, 2020

      Hi Erin, I think as humans we think dogs should be a certain way and forget they can have different personalities like people too. A friend of mine brought up that I had been eating the same breakfast for 5 years lol. M-F I eat my yogurt one of two flavors and on weekends I might have eggs. Dogs like structure and certainty too. I am learning they need to know what is happening next and they need to know they are safe. Anyway makes us all more aware and have more empathy. Thank you so much for stopping by.

  • Krystian
    February 5, 2020

    Those are some fabulous books you listed!

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