Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"Hello. My Name is Brewster, and I'm Reactive."

First thing's first: I love my dog and if you talk shit on him I will send you a special care package straight from my backyard, 'kay?

But there might be a slim chance that he is maybe not the friendliest, nicest, sweetest dog to ever walk the earth. This is hard--really, really hard--for me to admit because to me he is the friendliest, nicest, sweetest, most loyal, funniest, looniest, smartest, most loving dog that I have ever met or hope to meet. But he does have this issue with strangers: No matter how kind and well-intentioned the person, Brewster is convinced that all strangers are evil, that his very life is in danger, and he responds accordingly. I don't know exactly why he thinks this, but it probably has something to do with his very earliest experiences as a puppy. (Pro Tip #1: The first three months of a puppy's life are crucial.) It probably also relates to his fearfulness resulting from having lived in a home where he was hit. (Pro Tip #2: Hitting with a rolled up newspaper or magazine is still hitting. It still hurts, and, worse, it causes absolute terror. If you doubt me, come over and watch Brewster's reaction when I wave a piece of paper anywhere in his vicinity. And if you can't be bothered to find a better way to train your dog [or your cat or your llama or your child] than to hit it, you might reconsider whether a pet is really for you.) 

Whatever the reason for Brewster's overreaction to strangers, it means that although he is the friendliest, nicest, sweetest, most loyal, funniest, looniest, smartest, and most loving dog I've ever met, he is not the happiest. He does not feel the safest. Since Brewster is my dog and I am Brewster's human, it's my responsibility to change that if I can. So tonight Brewster and I went to our first Reactive Dog Class at the Humane Society.

Can I tell you how much I love that it's called "Reactive Dog Class" instead of "Aggressive Dog Class"? A "reactive" dog is not a bad dog. He's just a dog who's reacting! Brewster isn't trying to be mean; as far as he can tell, his reactions are a perfectly reasonable response to those evil, malicious strangers who might try to hurt him. It's such a relief to be around people who understand that the best way to greet a frightened dog is to not greet him at all, that the greatest kindness they can show my dog is to ignore him.

The class is carefully controlled from the moment the students pull into the parking lot. The two instructors and two assistants are watching for us and as students arrive, we are escorted from our cars one by one so that the dogs can't interact with each other in the parking lot. In the room we are installed into our own "pods" created by makeshift walls of upended tables and towels. No dog can see any other dog. Of course they can smell and hear each other, but not being able to make eye contact helps keep aggression--sorry, reactivity--in check. Brewster spent about the first 10 minutes shaking so hard he looked like a drunk about five hours late for his next bottle, but he did settle eventually. I forgot to bring his favorite towel, so I spread my coat on the floor and targeted him to that. Having a specific place to sit always helps Brew feel better, and it's not like my coat didn't already smell like dog.     

One of the instructors brought her dog, Gracie, a terrier mix who is a bit fearful herself. Gracie showed us humans a thing or two about how to work with a reactive dog. First we learned "Turn! Turn! Turn!" to--you may have already figured this out--turn away from a stimulus that is frightening or aggravating. We also learned about how to encourage eye contact, and about "Good Look!" in which the human acknowledges that the dog has seen something that might be disturbing but has turned his attention back to the human. We also learned to play "Find It!" which even Brewster thought was pretty awesome. We'll be playing that one some more tomorrow.

All in all, it was a pretty successful class. It was well-organized and well-executed, and my fears that my dog might have a bad interaction with another dog are pretty much assuaged for the moment. I do wish they'd had a handout of all the skills we learned tonight. I could hardly take notes while managing Brewster, and I have the sneaking feeling that I've forgotten something important.

This post was supposed to end here, but unfortunately, now that we're home, our evening has not ended on a good note. While I was writing this, Brewster got sick, almost certainly the result of lots of excitement, too many treats, and too much water at once when he got home. That's fine. His tummy probably feels better now, and I am nothing if not expert at cleaning up various kinds of pet icks. (Pro Tip #3: Nature's Miracle really is a miracle.) The problem was Brewster's reaction. He tried to hide from me. When I came back into the office with the roll of paper towels in my hand, he dropped his tail and ran under the desk to get away from me, and I couldn't call him to me until I had cleaned up the mess and put the paper towels aside. That's because at one time he lived in a house where he got hit FOR GETTING SICK. He thinks that when he throws up he is going to be in trouble; that he's going to be hurt; that I, who have never shown the Little Dude anything but love and care, am going to hurt him. There's nothing I can do to make him forget that fear except get the sick cleaned up as fast as possible and put the paper towels aside and wait for him to come out from under the desk so I can love all over him and try to help him understand that I am not that kind of monster. But I don't know if he can understand that.

I am a worrier, and one of the things I worry about is that Brewster's original family will find us, that they'll see us out walking or stumble onto this blog. I worry that they'll see him and demand to have him back. But as I continue to live with Brewster, the less I worry and the more I hope that I will someday have a chance to confront the people who turned a very sweet little dog into a neurotic, fearful, reactive mess. I am glad for the chance to clean up their mess because the rewards are so great. I'd just love the chance to say a couple of things to their face.

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