“It is 4 am, I wake to my heart pounding in my ears and sweat pouring down my chest.  Morning is near and I am racked with anxiety again. Thoughts flood my mind; will I run into a dog? will I get hurt again? will I survive another walk?

2 years ago, my husband and I fell in love with “Maddie” while volunteering at our local dog rescue.  Maddie was a  phenomenal dog who loved all the volunteers, loved children and was passionate about life.

What Maddie did NOT love was other dogs. 

Maddie was labled “dog reactive” in rescue parlance. We learned that this was common in stressful kennel environments and were told numerous times that this behavior usually disappears once the dog is in a loving home; “she just needs structure, stability and to learn to trust again” was the narrative.  Naively we trusted this assessment and adopted Maddie.

A year later, Maddie’s reactivity to dogs had not improved. 

Love, stability and lots of exercise had not diffused Maddie’s fear of dogs.  The more my husband and I insulated her from dog encounters the more Maddie’s reactivity heightened. 

After a personal injury caused by Maddie’s lunging at an off leash dog, we resigned ourselves to 5am walks in the dark and  late evening treks with one of us always on the look out. 

Leaving our home took two people; one to watch for dogs in our neighborhood and one to dash to the car with Maddie. Our lives were plunged into a constant state of hyper-vigilance.

One morning I woke in a full blown panic attack and a voice within said, ‘This is not sustainable’.  At that moment I knew something had to change.”

I met Kelly and Richard a year prior when I hired them to take photos of my dogs. They run a local photography business and they are active in the dog welfare community so naturally, they were the perfect choice. 

While I don’t remember all that was said when they initially reached out for help with Maddie’s behavior, I do remember one sentence. Kelly told me ‘We will NOT be politically correct and say she is ‘dog reactive’; in our eyes she is ‘dog aggressive’!”

This was a profound statement, that let me know just how much they were struggling, and how hopeless they were feeling. 

I set an appointment to meet and evaluate Maddie.

Kelly says…

“And so a great journey began…

It was deeply profound to learn that the last thing Maddie needed was for me to avoid other dogs, coddle her or verbally negotiate with her (after all, dogs don’t know English).  My job at the end of the leash was to be a fearless friend who provides clear and consistent direction, redirects impulsive/reactive behavior and inspires good choices. 

My job was to be Maddie’s rock.

Dog owner walking dog with trainer coaching
PC: Richard Probst, Dog Light Photography

I also believed Maddie was only reactive to dogs, but Meagan revealed that reactivity is a complex and multi-layered issue. Maddie had learned that reactive behavior worked because the trigger either moved away or I moved her away thereby reinforcing her behavior. Meagan also explained that reactivity lodges deep into the neurological system and manifests in every aspect of a dog’s life; Maddie’s inability to sit quietly when around people, barking and chasing birds, marking and compulsive sniffing were all behaviors indicating reactivity.

I learned that suppressing these behaviors in Maddie by layering on commands (“No”, “STAY”, “SIT”) pulling on her, negotiating or bribing her only pushed her fear and anxiety underground where it simmered waiting to blow. In contrast, Meagan approaches dog training as a celebration and teaches dogs to make good choices.  She uses games, positive associations and counter conditioning. 

Each training session is filled with  fun and joy.  

Maddie is learning to choose me over reacting to environmental triggers because I am where the greatest reward is. She is forging positive associations with triggers and thereby making healthy, affirming choices.  Maddie is learning that she  can control her impulses and that the human at the end of the leash has her back.”

Through consistent training, Maddie has gone from reacting to every dog in the environment, regardless of whether they are 100 yards away, or just on the other side of the sidewalk, to choosing to focus on her owner. 

We didn’t teach her how to sit, walk on a loose leash, or perform any of the other obedience behaviors trainers often use to help dogs overcome reactivity. 

We simply did two crucial things. 

  1. We rewarded Maddie for choosing to turn away from the environment and engage with her owner 
  2. We created an environment where Maddie could easily make that choice – we set her up for success 

In theory, the training wasn’t hard. In fact, Kelly had two basic tasks. Reward her dog for checking in, and set up her session so that her dog DID offer that check in. 

Seems simple enough. But it required practice. And it required completely uprooting old habits. It required repetition so that these behaviors went from novel to automatic. And more importantly, it required a willingness to constantly push the envelope. 

To confidently step into situations that were downright terrifying in the past…

Where Maddie’s behavior felt unpredictable and out of control…

Where significant trust was lost…

And it required we not fall victim to the emotions that set our minds and bodies on autopilot. To push away the stress, the embarrassment, and the fear and instead support the dog. 

Kelly practiced every day. And had she not been so committed, transforming Maddie’s behavior would have been an impossibility. 

But the more important piece of the puzzle is that Kelly willingly stepped into those areas that made her heart pound. 

She pushed through her fears to help her dog.

And when Maddie had a reaction, or had a setback, she dusted herself off and kept going. 

She never let the tough training sessions stop her on her quest to help her dog. 

Kelly says…

“It is difficult for me to find the words to express the depth of transformation that Meagan has set in motion. With each training session I work through MY fear of being hurt again, fear of running into a dog and shame and embarrassment that my dog behaves so erratically. Sometimes it feels personal, like Maddie’s behavior is my failure.   I frequently feel I am in a therapy session as I confront patterns of frustration, issues of control and observe my ego kicking and screaming.  Meagan compassionately listens and moves seamlessly from canine behavior to human psychology.  She shares, encourages and enlightens. Maddie and Meagan work flawlessly around other dogs and though I am frequently behind the curve, I am filled with gratitude and hope as I watch Maddie transcend her fears.”

I tell all of my students that reactivity is a team sport. And this is what makes it so challenging. 

Not only does your dog have to change their pattern of behaviors, and the emotions charging those behaviors, but you as your dog’s handler have to change your patterns too. And digging deep and overcoming your fears, your habits, and your control issues is perhaps the most challenging aspect of training. 

And here’s the tough love...

Regardless of how good your trainer is, if you are pulling on your dog’s leash, if you are stressed, and scared of a reaction, and if you’re constantly scanning the environment, heart pounding as other dogs approach, not only will you be ineffective in your training as your reflexes freeze in response to stress, but you’ll also be sending a message to your dog that there is cause for concern. And that can make any formerly reactive dog revert to old ways.

Kelly and Maddie have come SO far in their training together. Rather than avoiding other dogs, Kelly now seeks them out for the training opportunity that they are. And while there are still some trouble areas to work through, Maddie is now consistently choosing (no “commands” needed) Kelly over her environment, a profound transformation from the dog that moved through the environment, at the end of her leash, nose stuck to the ground, alternating between sniffing so hard it seemed like she was deaf, and scanning the environment for triggers. 

Kelly says: 

“Maddie is transforming from the INSIDE OUT as am I.  Maddie and I are developing an amazing partnership.  She is engaging with me and looking to me for information about the environment and triggers, such as dogs.  When Maddie sees a dog, she is learning to immediately turn and look to me for reward and confirmation. She is less reactive to  everything, including bikes, skateboards, cars, lawnmowers, weed eaters, goats, geese and overly excited dog lovers.  She is calm, less reactive, more balanced.  Through my eyes, I see a beautiful, intelligent dog conquering her fears and becoming whole. 

As for me, I no longer dread the morning light. I look forward to our walks and our afternoon training adventures.  I know there will be times when we encounter a dog that will throw us off track, but Meagan continues to teach me skills that help us work through reactivity.  With each passing day, I am becoming more confident and Maddie and I are learning the steps to a beautiful dance.

We are so very grateful for you, Meagan!

With love,

Richard, Kelly and Maddie

And I am so grateful for this team, whose commitment to overcoming reactivity, to listening to their dog, rather than forcing her to behave, to practicing day in and day out, even when it gets hard, is the REAL reason Maddie has come so far, so fast.

Reactivity is a team sport. And Maddie has one hell of a team behind her.

If you’re struggling with reactivity, you’re not alone. Click here to learn the exact methods used to overcome Maddie’s reactivity toward other dogs.

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    2 replies to "Inside Out: One Dog’s Journey overcoming Reactivity"

    • Lisa S

      Ooof. I’m…not loving this.

      I really don’t appreciate when people with nutcase dogs “seek out” other dogs for “training opportunities.” My dogs are not your training opportunities. The damage that having reactive, aggressive dogs barking and carrying on while my dogs are working hard to keep their cool is significant, especially if I have a young dog or an untrained one.

      Dogs should not be out in public if they can’t behave. Keep them in controlled environments until they can not cause problems for others. If that means paying other people to make their dogs available as “training opportunities,” so be it – that’s the way it goes. So, so many walks/hikes/swims/outings have been ruined by people/dogs like this and I don’t tolerate it anymore. Please don’t encourage people to do this.

      • Meagan Karnes

        It’s an interesting perspective. Thanks for sharing. The dogs we have in training are also working hard to keep their cool and I can relate to the frustration that occurs when other dogs lose their mind at them. However, I always look at those scenarios as fantastic training opportunities for all of my clients, as inevitably, the dogs that “can’t behave” aren’t working with professionals – in fact, I encounter far more of those than not when out in public so I find it’s important that all my dogs, and my client’s dogs learn how to keep their cool in those stressful situations. Also, I think your perception of “training opportunities” and mine differ. Because for me, every outing is a “training opportunity”. As is every instance passing a dog, or a human. Using other dogs as training opportunities doesn’t mean these dogs in training aren’t respectful. It means these are opportunities for these teams to practice all of the skills they’ve worked so hard on. 🙂

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