4 reasons you should stop blaming yourself for your dog's reactive or fearful behaviour
So your dog is reactive, fearful or anxious and you're wondering where you went wrong. Try not to beat yourself up - there are many factors influencing your progress that are completely out of your control.
If your dog is genetically predisposed toward being anxious, fearful, or reactive, all of the training in the world is only going to get you so far. Do bad genetics mean you should give up all hope? Not necessarily. You can make progress and many dogs are able to overcome their reactivity to the point that it's easily managed. However, if you're working with a qualified trainer, have consulted with your veterinarian, and are still not making as much progress as you hoped, your dog's genetics might be making it harder on both of you. This applies to dogs who have fearful, reactive or anxious parents or whose breed purpose dictates a more hypervigilant dog.
Epigenetics refers to how environmental factors can influence the expression of certain genetic traits. For example, if you adopted a shelter puppy whose mom was in distress on the street or in shelter during her pregnancy or while nursing her puppies, your puppy has a higher chance of being fearful. This is a good reason to adopt a puppy from a breeder who ensures a positive and safe environment for both mom and pups before you bring one home. Epigenetics that lend themselves to reactivity or fear could be part of the reason your dog is having trouble.
3. Early Socialization
It is well documented that early socialization (3-12 weeks of age) has a big impact on your dog's behaviour and response to the world around them as adults. Before the age of 8 weeks, this falls on your breeder and if you have a rescue dog, you may not have had them during this period at all. If your dog did not have adequate socialization during this period, or if they had bad experiences during this period, they are likely to have behaviour challenges later on.
In order to make the most progress with any type of fear, reactivity or separation anxiety training, we have to control the dog's environment so that they aren't experiencing their trigger at an intensity they can't yet handle in our training plan. Except, we live in the real world - not a laboratory. Unless you are in the country and can avoid triggers 100% of the time outside of training sessions, it's likely that your dog will be exposed to triggers and set themselves back throughout the course of the week. This is especially true if you live in an apartment building or a densely populated urban environment.
Moral of the story?
There are many reasons why your dog might behave the way they do and/or why they aren't making progress despite your diligent efforts. Remember to take it easy on yourself and love your dog for who they are, rather than who you expected them to be.
Tess Morgan is a certified trainer and dog behaviour consultant in London, Ontario. She sees clients in-person in London and virtually across the world.