How a Walking Club Is Slowly Helping My Reactive Dog

Resting up after a tough walk.

We talk a lot about reactive dogs here on Dogster: “There Is a Difference Between a Reactive Dog and an Aggressive One,” “The Hardest Part About Having a Reactive Dog Is Other Pet Parents” and “How to Stop Your Dog From Lunging at Other Dogs on Walks,”  just to name a few articles.  So recently, after Maybelle’s harness broke and she headed off after a dog straining at the leash and barking at us (no one was hurt), I decided it was time to redouble my training efforts. No longer convinced a regular obedience class was the answer (we’ve taken at least four), I joined a “walking club.”

Maybelle’s reactivity has never been about fear or aggression. She’s able to go to doggy daycare and has several puppy friends. But Maybelle is a frustrated greeter. Before moving into our suburban neighborhood with me, she lived in rural Georgia where, I’m pretty sure, she was allowed to roam freely. She’s never totally adjusted to a world where she can’t run up to every dog she sees. Add to that the illegally off-leash dogs who seem to be multiplying every day, and the problem has only gotten worse.

Maybelle likes the baseball diamond better than the dog park.
Maybelle likes the baseball diamond better than the dog park. (Photo by Theresa Cramer)

Obedience classes were great, but they just never translated to real life. I needed a solution to help Maybelle learn to walk in the presence of dogs she’s never met and not throw a tantrum every time. So walking club seemed like the perfect solution. Every Sunday for eight weeks, we head out to a new park or trail and meet up with a group of dogs for a walk. Some of them are dog reactive. Some don’t like cars. Others can be a bit fearful of people. Some aren’t bothered by much of anything. Together, we make our way through a gauntlet of people, dogs, strollers, runners, bikes, and even the occasional farm animal.

We’re halfway through the eight weeks, and it’s been a bit of a roller coaster.

Week one: Our first walk was rough

I did not anticipate how cold it would be, and my teeth chattered the whole time. Maybelle, true to her cattle dog heritage, did not appreciate any time a dog dared step out of single file. At times, she seemed to pop off for no real reason other than out of sheer frustration. Frankly, she was a troublemaker. But for much of the class, she was able to walk within 10 feet or so of the other dogs for considerable stretches of time.

A moment of calm during walking club.
A moment of calm during walking club. (Photo by Theresa Cramer)

Week two: falling into a rhythm

By the time our second walk rolled around, the weather had improved, and the walking club was growing. We had new dogs in class, but other people were starting to venture out to walk their dogs as well. Maybelle did much better that week. A Cocker Spaniel who was new to class seemed to tick her off, but she fell into a rhythm with the more familiar dogs — and even a couple of new, completely happy-go-lucky Bassett Hounds. And much to my surprise, she didn’t even seem bothered by the other dogs at the park — except for one Beagle who bellowed at our whole group.

As we drew closer to the end of the walk, and the parking lot was in sight, she began to act up a bit — and the trainers leading the club pointed out that she had done the same thing the week before. One thing was clear: Maybelle did not want to end this walk without having gotten to sniff a few butts, but that was strictly against walking club rules.

Maybelle looks so attentive, doesn't she?
Maybelle looks so attentive, doesn’t she? (Photo by Theresa Cramer)

Week three: the biggest challenge yet

Not only did we go to a busy park with lots of other dogs, but there were sheep, mules, and plenty of other animals as distractions. We had just gotten out of the car and started approaching the group when someone’s well-meaning old Lab escaped a backseat and came heading straight for Maybelle and me. She bucked against her head collar like a rodeo horse, and the dog’s owner rushed up apologetically and took his pooch back to the car.

With that out of the way, the rest of class went totally smoothly. It was hot enough that I wondered if she was just too tired to care about the other dogs. But then again, as we approached the parking lot, she took one last shot at getting to meet a — thankfully non-reactive — Shetland Sheepdog. She lunged and strained at the leash, but quickly calmed down. After that class, I was sure we were well on our way to getting Maybelle’s reactivity under control.

She dislikes the head collar even more than dogs who bark at her.
Maybelle dislikes the head collar even more than dogs who bark at her. (Photo by Theresa Cramer)

Week four: A different story altogether

For the first time, my boyfriend was able to tag along. We were running late and barely made it in time to catch the group, which also meant we didn’t have time to acclimate before setting off on our walk. This time, instead of a park, we were on a rail trail, lined by trees. It made it harder to give room to oncoming dogs. We also had an equipment malfunction when Maybelle’s constant protests against her Gentle Leader finally worked, and she managed to get it off her snout. We had switched from a front-clasping harness to the Gentle Leader because the harness just turns her into a whirling dervish when she gets excited, and the leader makes it much easier for me to control her — when she keeps it on, that is.

We took a few steps back that day. A feisty little terrier who didn’t belong to our group got Maybelle riled up, and it only got worse from there. I haven’t lost hope, though. We all have bad days, and I clearly hadn’t set her up for success on this particular afternoon. Next week, I’m sure, will be better!

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