Looking Back On: That Time I Failed

I’ve often heard that when you’re working on or with something that it’s good to keep a journal. Keeping a written record of your journey helps to show yourself how much progress you’ve made.  Especially when working with animals, it is essential to have the ability to look back after a training session that didn’t go so well and see all the victories you’ve made thus far. That way you aren’t too hard on yourself or your animal when things don’t go perfectly one time.

I am extremely lucky to have this blog to track my journey. With the click of a mouse I can access any date in the last 14+ months and see what I was up to on that exact day. Pretty cool, huh? What’s better is when I look back and see just how much I’ve learned.  It’s astonishing at times – I can’t believe where I was and where I went and where I am now.  And, just like I mentioned above, I sometimes find myself needing a little pick-me-up to remember just how far I’ve come (or, on same days, even just that I’ve come anywhere!).

Yesterday started my first week coaching a reactive dog class with Your Dog’s Friend.  As I listened to the instructor give a review to the students last week, I kept nodding in agreement to what she was teaching and thinking in my head, “Yes! Totally! Yes that’s the perfect thing to do!” for all these dog owners who have never learned a successful way to deal with their reactive dogs.  It really got me thinking: holy cow, I have learned so much in just the past few months. Since when did all of this become just engrained in my brain as common sense knowledge?

Just a few months ago I had a pretty rough run in with a reactive dog. Many of you might remember the post That Time I Failed (in fact, lots of you might remember it considering it’s gotten the most views of any of my entries – oy!) about a dog I was supposed to temporarily foster and had to bail on because he was reactive towards my dad and others. I talked about the reality that I didn’t know much about managing a reactive dog. Fast forward five months, and here I am helping to teach a class about it. So what changed?

What changed is that I learned about the way dogs think and why they act the way they do. I learned that reactivity is usually based in fear or frustration. I learned that most of the time when a dog is reacting, you cannot teach it anything because everything in that moment its brain has shut off except for what it’s focused on, and that you must remove the dog from the situation immediately. I learned that it makes total sense for a dog to be reactive towards something it doesn’t like, because when it barks and lunges the bad thing moves away. I learned that practiced behaviors get repeated. I learned SO MUCH and it all just seemed to click (no pun intended, hehe).


Because of all this, I feel the need to point out to myself (and whoever else cares to listen) what I did wrong with Mylo on the night that he lost it in front of my dad. So much of the way our dogs react is caused by the environment and circumstances around them, including their handler (and then of course their previous emotional opinions about things).  I’m glad I can now look back and see how badly I did not set Mylo up for success, and hopefully address these mess ups with any dogs I have in the future.

1.  I forgot to remember that change is scary for dogs.  I should have remembered how much transitions with a new dog can suck. Imagine being moved to a new place with new people you didn’t know – would you act like yourself?  We took Mylo away from his fosters, to Mark’s apartment and then to my home. Sounds like a plenty stressful situation to me, and certainly a good reason to act a bit unlike himself.

2.  I had him in a choke collar. I cringe even typing that. I had gotten instructions from his fosters to put him in a choke collar and, because I hadn’t learned much in the way of how to teach dogs to walk nicely using positive methods at this point, I went with it. Mylo had ZERO interest in letting this thing slow him down, so he was nearly choking himself the entire time. Discomfort adds to stress and can heighten a dog’s reactivity levels because they are redirecting their feelings about the pain.  If I had him today, I would have immediately put Mylo in a sense-ible harness to remove that element of stress.

3.  I introduced him to my dad in the dark and without any preparation. I will always and forever be more careful about introducing my pops to dogs because I have finally realized that when they don’t like him it’s not them, it’s him. He’s tall, he’s got a big beard, and he wears dark clothes. Recipe for disaster for a dog who is weary of large humans!  My poor dad – I didn’t give him any heads up about how to approach Mylo, so he went right up saying, “Hi doggy, hi doggy!” like he always does. Mylo didn’t like that.

Today, I would keep Mylo far enough away that my dad didn’t bother him (known as ‘below his threshold’), and then have my dad throw treats to him to show Mylo that father = yummy things (without putting the pressure on Mylo to approach my dad to take a treat from his hand!).  I would have told my dad to avoid eye contact or hovering over Mylo, and if he got to the point where Mylo wanted to say hi, to crouch down to his level without directly facing his body at Mylo – a much more inviting greeting for a dog!

4. I didn’t bring treats anywhere with me. Treats don’t solve everything, but they sure can get you out of a pinch when you need it.  A dog that’s focused on a high value treat isn’t as quick to focus on something else it might react to.  If I had treats from the get go, Mylo might have been more inclined to pay attention to me instead of his surroundings.

So I know that dwelling on the past isn’t always the best idea, but I think reflecting on it and reminding yourself of lessons learned can sometimes be very beneficial.  I would encourage you to start keeping a written log if you are on any sort of journeys of your own. I know there are plenty of times – even for non-animal related things like training for races – where I wished I could have written evidence of my accomplishments. Everyone deserves to give themselves a pat on the back every once in a while (or maybe get a high-five from your dog), and reflection can help to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity to do so.


17 thoughts on “Looking Back On: That Time I Failed

  1. Katie

    A little over a year ago when my husband and I adopted our first pit bull I knew nothing about training a dog. Sure, I had grown up with dogs so I thought I knew about them, clearly I didn’t. However, reading your blog and several others have given me a WEALTH of knowledge and I know so much more than I ever thought I would about how to train and handle a dog, read body language, and appropriate play/mental stimulation (AKA kongs=best invention ever). So not only are your “mistakes” valuable to you, they are also valuable for us to read about. Thank you for sharing!!

  2. Joanie Hoffman

    Great post! It is amazing how quickly we humans can learn when given the opportunity! I thought I “knew” dogs until I volunteered at BARCS. Whew, I didn’t know squat. Thanks for this post. Now a question, the Sense-ible harness has a plastic buckle, would you really be okay with that for a new dog that pulls? I am a champion worrier, btw. Happy Thursday!

    • Hey Joanie. It’s funny you bring up that concern – I’d never thought about the plastic buckle being an issue! I have never, ever felt like it wasn’t secure or that it was unsafe, and I’ve seen some pretty intense pullers in them and similar harnesses. The way this harness and many others harness designs are put together doesn’t really put much pressure, if any, on the buckle portion when the dog pulls. So I think you’ll be okay! if you’re worried, you can clip the leash to both the front ring on the harness as well as the collar for double security should they get out of one or the other.

  3. Janet in Cambridge

    Life is full of failures; get ready for that! And it is very important to reflect on what happened, as you have done, to understand what didn’t work (which is NOT the same as failure) and what is better to do with your new-found knowledge and skills.

  4. Danielle

    Thank you for reflecting and sharing. I made a fair amount of errors with a reactive rescue and having gotten much older and having continuously learned about dog behavior I often reflect, with sorrow, and think about all I should have done different. I know I cannot change the past but I am certain I am less likely to make the same mistakes in the future.

  5. Trish

    Great post. I think looking back helps you see how far you’ve come and it helps you know what you would do differently next time. We are constantly learning.

  6. Karen King

    Really great post (I’m partial to the last picture of course)!! And I agree that keeping a log is so important. My last dog was very reactive, and difficult in so many ways. I recently came across an inch-thick training file I had the first 2 years we had her- notes to ask my trainer, notes from the trainer, printouts from an online clicker training group that gave me support; I had notes on reactivity, cat-chasing, resource guarding, relaxation protocols, you name it. After 12 years with my dog, I almost had completely forgotten what we went through together; I made plenty of mistakes too. Keeping a log allowed me to continually review, and also see progress when I felt like I was failing. And now it’s just a great memory of my beloved dog…and maybe tools to help another.

  7. Danemom

    I can say its easy to try to teach someone with a reactive dog then to live with one. Its so sad I have to live this life. This is truly something I would not wish on anyone. My dog has a few people he trusts and when I think he may do well, something sets him off. People do not understand we spend a lot of money to try to positively train our dog so when he does something “normal” dogs don’t do I have to hear that is unacceptable and it pisses me off! I’m sorry for the language but they get to go home and we still have this big dog who hates people and other dogs, but will still go to dog daycare and do fine. I guess I’m lucky there, since he can go there when we go on vacation. He is who he is but I there are days I wish he were someone else….. :-( I live with a reactive dog!

    I love your blog! And pitbulls even though I do not have one! Thanks for keeping up with this as much as you do.

  8. Andrea Joy

    Great post as always! But I must ask: how/where is Mylo? I hope he’s fortunate enough to have a found a foster home (or better yet a permanent one!) with humans who are as open-minded, willing to learn and understanding as you!

  9. Thanks for sharing the tips and helping the rest of us. Everyone learns from their own mistakes, but it’s always great when someone also teaches others so that they don’t have to make the same mistake.

  10. Good on you for learning all this so quickly! Please don’t be hard on yourself as none of this is instinctive or natural for us silly humans. It took me a good year and a half before I finally felt confident handling my reactive dog so I think you are far ahead of the game! Thanks for sharing all you learned. I have no doubt it will help many other people-dog teams.

  11. We are working with our Maggie on her reactivity issues and boy is it rough. Some days are GREAT and then another time, she sees a kitty or another pup and it’s all over. But we really have learned so much since getting her in September and she’s so wonderful otherwise, I wouldn’t trade her for another dog!

  12. Meg

    I really like your blog post. I believe I have a reactive dog, towards other dogs. I am at a loss at what to do, so I just try to keep her away from them. She is the perfect dog otherwise. Le sigh.

  13. It takes a big person to admit mistakes and a bigger person to learn from them! Kudos to you! So far, my fosters have been pretty easy, but I will keep this post in my thoughts in case I get a challenging foster at some point. Thanks for sharing your knowledge! You never know who you might be helping!

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