When your pet is reactive (from avoidance to aggression), it can sometimes feel as if the world has flown out from under your feet. Depending on the severity or your sensitivity to it (or the sensitivity of others to it), your perception of a nice day outside can completely change. The way the of structuring your day becomes different. You stop enjoying walks with your pet or having people over because it becomes too stressful. Over time, you may even stop taking walks on your own. I’ve myself not only seen people who used to hike and jog become the type that over time only go out to work, run errands, and hang out in a way that doesn’t involve taking much of a stroll.
Once upon a time, I even was one of those people very, very briefly while I helped Dougal, my newly adopted and extremely reactive GSD/Hound/Akita/??? 8 year old adjust. And like most other animals, Dougal's only problem was extreme fear and no coping skills beyond reacting instinctively.
More often than not, we're told these are the pets (and I've known all kinds, from dogs to cats, parrots with serious bite risk issues, large mammals, bunnies, the list goes on) are unmanageable and can not be helped, while everyone around us tells us a myriad of ways that are supposed to "fix it". Often, those ways are antiquated or just plain well-meant nonsense passed down through media, family, or friends, and what's more: they can make the problem worse. Suddenly you no longer even have the support of the people who were giving you advice, who not only refuse to take responsibility for pitching bad ideas your way but tell you that you're still not doing it right.
By now, you might be even feeling enough resentment that you think your pet does this to spite you, not because they too are stressed in their own way.
So what’s a burnt out, compassionate animal lover to do?
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting articles and essays specifically about reactivity and fear, and how to help yourself and your pet. We’ll be talking about minimizing reactions to phobic or overstimulating triggers (people, other animals, kids, noises, cars, you name it), building confidence, and then slowly increasing the intensity of said trigger, and throwing in other distractions. While not an overnight cure, these short sessions (which should be attempted with the aid of a certified professional for best results and increased safety) will make a difference in your pet, and allow them and yourself to start enjoying the things you want to enjoy together.
Until our next update, however, do yourself a favor: Change the context.
Have walks become terrifying? Go for a stroll in your neighborhood without your pet and make it enjoyable. Get an ice cream, bring a coffee, sit somewhere and read a book or play with your phone. If you’re in a neighborhood you feel safer with some company, bring a friend. Say hi to your neighbors, strike up a conversation that “oh yes I know, Fluffy’s developed a problem, but we’re starting something to help them out”.
Friends can’t come over? Go to someone else’s house for some hang out time, or meet up somewhere with some pals and enjoy yourself. And then go home, set yourself up with something yummy and relaxing and read or watch a movie with your stressed pet.
Noises or sights at the apartment are scary? Set up a safe place for your pet, be it a crate (yes, even for a cat) or a room with it's own small den area and start pairing scary sounds or sights off with being given a high-value chew (like a kong – even for kitties!) and going to that safe space and hanging out together. Helpful tip: If your pet is reacting to reflections in a door or appliance, get some nice looking contact paper or window cling film (and it looks cool too).
So scared you can’t even get near? Get a professional trainer or behaviorist involved immediately, preferably one CPDT or IAABC certified (no force training!). In the meantime make your existence mean random wonderful things when you walk by at a distance (snacks, toys, etc) and otherwise engage them as little as possible (even if they come up to check you out). Let them greet you on their terms for a bit.