In 2015 I headed to a local rescue shelter in hopes of finding a new puppy to add to my life. As I walked into the puppy room I was immediately drawn to a small ball snoozing away in his cage. I walked over and there he was, a tiny mountain dog.
I was told he was a 12 week old Bernese mountain dog that was rescued just two days before. I was sure he was not 12 weeks old but he sure did look like a mountain dog. I spent time with him to check his temperament and make sure he was the right pup for me. He would wake up occasionally give me a few kisses and would fall back asleep.
After filling out the paperwork he was all mine. We headed to the vet where she confirmed he was not 12 weeks old but more like 8 weeks old at most weighing just 2.75lbs.
For the most part Milo was a great puppy. He was easily crate trained and house broken. Don’t get me wrong, his dinosaur claws and shark teeth were a nightmare and I definitely experienced those puppy blues. I cried, I laughed and I hoped for the puppy stage to be over.
At around 1.5 years old, I started noticing a shift in Milo. He was becoming reactive on walks and feared everything we came across. Statues, plastic bags, sometimes people and always dogs. Milo’s reactivity consisted of him biting his leash, spinning in circles and lunging. Being a mountain dog/hound mix he had a bark and howl that sounded worse than fingernails scratching a chalkboard.
That’s when our journey together started to go off the rails. My vision of what my life would be with my puppy drastically changed.
Walking a Reactive Dog
In 2020 one of my best friends and I moved into a building in the busy part of Forest Hills, Queens. The building was part of a three building complex that housed many dogs and sat in between two busy intersections. What could go wrong with my reactive dog?
I don’t like elevators in general but it caused even more stress never knowing what would be on the other side of the doors when they opened. To avoid additional stress for me and Milo we took the stairs to avoid any interactions. Living on the eighth floor meant we would both pant the entire way up and down those flights. I wish I could say that by the end of the year I wasn’t winded from the stairs, but alas, my lungs still hated me every time.
We would finally make it to the basement and look out the tiny windows on the doors to make sure no dog was nearby. Then we would RUN into garage. That’s right the dark, creepy garage. We would walk to the ramp to the outside world. Then we would slowly go up the ramp looking left and right and if we saw a dog we retreated. Finally we would make it onto the sidewalk and go for our walk. Hiding between cars if I noticed a dog and typically just hoping Milo would pee quickly and we could make our way back home.
See, when you are walking a reactive dog people look and notice you. They question whether or not your dog should be on the streets. They question your ability as a dog owner. They only see what is in front of them and when Milo is being reactive they see a monster.
The hardest part of it all is what that I saw it too. Outside, Milo was a different dog. He would pull, lunge, thrash and bite his leash. He barked and howled, which sounded like he was killing something or he was being killed.
However, back home he was the complete opposite dog. All he wanted was to cuddle with you. He was the perfect dog inside. Everyone would say how sweet and well behaved he was. How he listened so well and was adorable.
At night, I would think about why this is happening to me. I was so conflicted with my feelings and questioned if I was the right owner for him. I questioned what I did wrong in raising him.
After that year I made the hard decision to move back into my family home where Milo would be able to use a backyard and wouldn’t see dogs every time we left the house.
Reactive Dog Training
In five years I had gone through four different trainers and spent well over $8,000. I had two certified trainers and one uncertified trainer. One trainer said to yank on Milo’s leash anytime he left my side and not to do it lightly. I hated myself on the one walk I tried this. It felt so wrong and Milo only got more frustrated. After telling the trainer I wasn’t comfortable with that he switched to doing agility training with Milo. At this point you may be wondering how agility helped his reactivity…I was wondering the same thing. After that I stopped using him. I had another trainer who after a few sessions said to just duck between cars for the rest of my life. Womp Womp. We stopped that training too. Then we had a certified behavioral trainer who said she wouldn’t meet Milo up close until he didn’t show signs of reactivity. So for many sessions in the dead of winter she would stand down the block and hide between cars and pop back out. Milo LOVED this game he very quickly understood when she pops out he gets food. So that was that. I was done hiring trainers and I figured this is our life now.
At that point in my life I was working a job that was effecting my mental health. I had moved back to my family home at the ripe age of 29 and I was dealing with a reactive dog. At the end of 2021 I left that job and started Sprouting Minds. I was in a depressive state and taking Milo for walks was not on the agenda. It made me hate him and myself. It made me feel like a complete failure as a dog owner and it effected my relationship with him. So I figured this is our life now and so be it.
Maddie Guy from myboyrudder
Over the summer I was scrolling on TikTok and Maddie from myboyrudder popped up with a video talking about tips for recalling your dog. I watched it, liked it and kept scrolling. Well the algorithm apparently thought I needed more of Maddie’s content and BAM she jut kept popping up on my feed. From her videos I learned that the dog food I was feeding Milo wasn’t the best, that he needed more enrichment in his life and that maybe working on recall would benefit him. It took everything I had but we started in the backyard practicing recall for just 10 minutes everyday. I started noticing that it was working. I was starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel. Doing these activities allowed Milo and me to have more fun together and our relationship started together better.
Dog Boarding for Reactive Dogs
An account with the name Beyond the Walk would comment on Maddie’s videos and join her lives and something about the account drew me in. In typical TikTok algorithm it knew I needed more of Beyond the Walk’s content. After two months I was in a better mindset and I finally really took a look into this account. I found out it was run by Diane and she owned a boarding facility in Jersey. Oh and she specialized in reactive dogs. For a second I got excited, but then I remembered all the other failed training experiences. It took another two months of watching Diane’s videos and reading her website over and over until I finally took the plunge and messaged her.
Diane and I spoke on the phone later that day and I told her what was going on with Milo. We set up an overnight stay at her boarding facility so she could evaluate him. That’s right, she wanted to spend 24 hours in order to actually meet Milo and see what he was like. That was the first time a trainer did that prior to coming up with a plan. A month later I pulled up to Beyond the Walk and handed Milo over. Like a lunatic I dropped him off and went to a local coffee shop and waited for a phone call saying “dang this boy is a wacko.” Luckily that didn’t happen so I drove home. Diane called me that night and we spent an hour and half talking about what she noticed and it all aligned with what I had experienced. Still there was no plan, because she had the entire next day to evaluate him.
The next day I drove the 1.5 hours to Diane’s to see my pup. I entered the house and Diane and I sat down and spoke for an hour about everything she observed. She made sure to go over every experience he had and what it meant. She told me the different training options we could take and told me to think about them before telling her what I wanted. I felt relieved for the first time that someone actually saw both the crazy and sweet side of Milo. However, I would be lying if I didn’t cry part of the way home because I knew we had so much work cut out for us.
Two weeks later I drove the 1.5 hours back to Beyond the Walk to drop Milo off for a week of boarding. We talked about the training options again and after I told her what my goals were we were ready to go. As I drove away I felt a relief I hadn’t felt dropping him off at our former boarding facility. There was something about knowing someone who was an expert in reactivity was taking care of my dog.
During the week long stay Diane would communicate when she tried different methods, what was working and what wasn’t. One day we wound up talking on the phone for two hours about Milo’s progress and different options to help create a better lifestyle. I hung up and once again felt relieved. Someone was taking care of my dog and actually cared about his well being. He wasn’t just another dog in a boarding facility, he was a dog that was getting his needs met in every way.
Diane has been our boarder and trainer since then. People think I’m crazy for schlepping all the way to Jersey, but I don’t care. Milo isn’t a normal dog and because of that he can’t go to a regular boarding facility. He needs an above average, specialized and enriching boarding facility.
At Beyond the Walk, Milo has his own room and a sound machine to help drown out the outside sounds. He gets 1:1 walks, outside time and cuddle time. I don’t worry while he’s there because the staff understands each dog’s needs and makes sure that they are tended to appropriately.
While Milo stays at Diane’s he also gets 1:1 training, which is always transferable to our normal walks at home. If Diane implements something new I pay for a training session where she carefully explains the ins and outs of whatever Milo has learned. She demonstrates and then I practice in front of her until we are both comfortable.
I thank Maddie and her videos from her social media accounts for helping me re-learn how to play and enjoy spending time with my dog. Through her videos and free advice I slowly came back to life and started finding ways for Milo and me to have fun together again. Through Diane’s help Milo is learning to be less reactive and I am learning how to be a better dog owner. Diane has taught me so much and has even helped me outside of her work with Milo. I owe a lot to these two women and am beyond grateful that they popped up on my TikTok.
Grateful for Milo
It can be a very lonely experience raising a reactive dog. I used to dread taking Milo outside of the house, but now I don’t. We have come a long way and I owe a lot of that to Diane who has helped us every step of the way. Milo is a different dog from when we started back in March and I am a different person and dog owner too. Milo still has reactive moments, but now I can face whatever challenges comes my way because we are both being taught the proper strategies and tools to face our fears.
For many years I hated having a reactive dog and I was furious that I wanted a puppy and this is what I wound up with. Now, my outlook has completely shifted. Thanks to Milo I have learned so many lessons about myself. I learned how to be more resilient and how to navigate stressful situations. I have learned that a set back isn’t the end of the world and it’s okay to feel my feelings and then take a deep breathe and reflect and move on. I have learned that I am capable and strong enough to handle challenges.
Milo and I continue to learn and grow and for that I’m grateful.