I haven't posted in a long, long time, but I wanted to update in case anyone stumbles across this.
If you have a reactive dog...please, if I can tell you anything, its that it takes a ton of work, a ton of time, but it does get better. Every good dog trainer will emphasize the importance of consistency, and it is almost doubly important in the case of the reactive dog. It means consistency that stays consistent over the course of years. It's a depressing thought to think you may be training on something for years, but...I don't think reactivity ever goes away, or at least, reactivity becomes a mindset, a way of working with your dog.
Rocket is coming up on her third year of living on this earth at the end of October, and this of course is a major part of who she is and her reactivity. She is growing up and mellowing out, just like she should be, in so many ways. I have always felt that some of her reactivity would just go away on its own...maybe a little when she turned three, and a little bit more every year. I think I see that happening in her already.
Age though, means something more than getting older (and slower, hopefully? ha!). I think I'm seeing her body catch up with her brain. When Rocket has a reactive "fit" or "attack" or whatever you want to call it...you can watch her go through a tumultuous battle with herself. She knows what she's supposed to do in the presence of a strange dog: its her cue to look at me and follow my direction. Eye contact is really the strongest default behavior she has for this situation, and she knows she can rely on it for stress relief, comfort, and "something to do" in the face of what makes her freak out. As she's gotten older, I can see her now work much harder against her body's reaction - by this I mean the heavy breathing, the excitement, the border collie stare, and at a higher level of arousal, barking and lunging.
Today, for example, she saw a small dog on our walk, and she started to breath heavy and "lock on" visually. I told her to leave it, and she started working her routine, she actually came around and worked very hard to look at me and watch me as we walked by. I encouraged her, giving her the "yes!" cue for looking at me, and talking calmly. She responded so well to this - the encouragement seemed to help her focus, and she seemed to get a boost from being told, "Yes, you are doing the right thing". She almost looked like she might "lose it", but she got more and more focused with the encouragement. She gave me the best eye contact and the most beautiful heel right in those crazy moments! She worked through it and we were able to enjoy the rest of our walk without incident.
Reactivity, at least from what I have experienced with my dog, is really a physical thing, a brain/chemical type reaction, and I think that as we give our dogs the "tools" to manage stress and behaviors they can use instead of a "reactive explosion", they learn that that is what they actually prefer. I don't think Rocket enjoys freaking out...and I think I am seeing her work against her brain chemistry to overcome the physical/body reaction toward the unknown. This is choice making on an incredible level in an animal. She also seems to need and love the encouragement...it helped her to get a handle on her excitement. She went from a somewhat glassy eye-d look of reactivity with heavy breathing to focused, happy, and on point. When she was watching me and moving forward today...she was the most focused that she would be all day.
Keep working with your dog - what they learn and what they are able to learn from reactivity training will give you a relationship with your dog that will surprise you. It surprises me every day - I have gotten to see the amazing ability of a dog...she is smarter way beyond what I ever have imagined, and we have a working and sport relationship that is so exciting. I am constantly amazed by how rewarding it is to work with this dog. I have never seen a dog so willing and happy to work...a dog so motivated to work well and "get it right". If I would have given up on her when the going got tough, I would have missed out on the coolest dog I know.