Leash Reactive Anonymous. The first step is admitting you have a problem.
Affectionately modeled after group-step rehabilitation, Refined K-9’s LRA group class is for dog owners who have experienced the stress, fear, alienation, and guilt that owning a reactive or leash-aggressive dog brings. Some dog owners have been asked to leave group training because their dog was too disruptive or potentially dangerous in group settings, while others have been ridiculed by fellow dog owners. These experiences and emotions are rarely the focus of group dog training classes, and dog owners often leave feeling defeated. Until now.
Refined K-9’s LRA class was designed to bring people together under the common goals of change, understanding, and acceptance. When we set out to create a place where owners of reactive and aggressive dogs could succeed, we asked ourselves, first, why they all too often fail? The No. 1 reason people do not feel they can take control of their dog’s behavior is due to social pressure — not just the pressure of how their dog behaved, but of what tools they used, what method they chose, or sometimes over the breed they own. People often offer unsolicited advice as to why their dog was behaving this way or that, and the uninformed explanation sometimes leaves people more confused than before. This passive-aggressive and argumentative environment does not cultivate the confidence needed to achieve one’s goals.
So at Refined K-9, we decided to create a safe place, in which owners could share their fears and anxieties with those who could relate, as well as accommodate a large number of different behavioral backgrounds and goals. Our LRA members had prior one-on-one training to understand their situation and training needs. We worked first with each individual and his or her dog to achieve a state of confidence in his or her ability.
Once people have begun this therapeutic journey privately, they are then ready to join LRA. The class typically meets at Treasure Island on a large field. Usually, we first allow the owners and dogs to warm up by walking around cones in the same direction. We then pull groups that are generally more relaxed and have better control to come to the inside and walk against traffic. This allows for the scenario of walking toward other dogs on sidewalks or in neighborhoods. These classes are designed to recreate stimulant triggers, such as skateboards, walking erratically, hats, sunglasses, hoods, roller bags, high-pitched voices upon approach, yelling, opening umbrellas, canes, and walkers, reaching out to pet the dog, or stopping someone to shake his of her hand. The idea is that owners and dogs learn to maintain a level of relaxation and control. This is the perfect setting for people and dogs to make mistakes, because two to four of Refined K-9’s professional trainers are recreating these everyday triggers and stimulants and helping with the correct solution.
Sound hectic? It sure can can be, but this is the best way to instill in our dogs the obedience needed to expose them safely and responsibly. We frequently see owners who have had unfortunate experiences with trainer advice to “keep exposing the dog” to the trigger when they, as the dog owner, did not have appropriate control over themselves or their dog for this to be successful. The bottom line is that we cannot count on strangers or strange dogs to be reliable, because this often results in creating an environment not well suited for learning. That can be a dangerous and high-liability situation.
Ultimately everyone should walk away from this class knowing more about himself or herself and his or her relationship with his or her dog. And hopefully participants will be more confidence in how to handle the everyday interactions (even some new unexpected ones) that previously felt like a battleground. Most importantly, we encourage this group to keep in touch with one another, practice together, and be each other’s sponsors. Having a support system truly does help, and a therapeutic and forgiving approach works. Comradery is one of the missing pieces to successful group training.
Theophainia Brassard opened Refined K-9 Dog Training & Psychological Rehabilitation 10 years ago, after studying both human animal behavioral sciences throughout college in Boston. With a holistic forward-thinking approach, she and the trainers who work beside her design effective, individualized behavior modification programs to address mild to severe anxiety and aggression in all breeds of dogs. Learn more at RefinedK9.com.
Each month, this column is written by a different trainer or dog professional. If you’d like to contribute, contact Editor@BayWoof.com.
Main article photo by: GlobalP-istock