Jess Adam - Your Dog Is Your Greatest Teacher: Lessons From a Reactive Dog

Welcome to the Soul Touched by Dogs
Podcast, the show for dog lovers who

see dogs not as toys or tools, but
wise souls worth our respect and care.

I'm an Herrmann, and I'm your host.

I talk to poor some humans, people who
do great work for dogs and their people.

So come and join us for
today's conversation.

Anke: Hello and welcome, Jess.

I'm super excited to have you here.

Jess: Thanks for having me.

I really appreciate it.


Anke: before we go anywhere, let's
just start with, you know, the

two minute bird's eye overview.

Where are you based?

What's the business?

And well, kind of, how did you get there?

If that can all fit into

Jess: it.

It's a long story, but
we will condense it.

Yeah, so I am based in the U.


I am in Pennsylvania.

I am a licensed professional
counselor, so I have a master's

degree in, um, counseling psychology.

Um, so I've worked in private practice.

Um, I am a professor of
counseling, so sort of the mental

health world is, is my world.

Um, And I have a reactive dog.

He will be 10 soon, actually, uh,
in January, and he has really just

changed my life in so many ways, and
I'm really grateful for that now, but

it wasn't always very easy, and I did
not always feel very grateful for his

challenges and his behaviors and the
things that sort of came along with that.

Um, and so the business really evolved,
um, to me doing coaching and mental

health support for dog owners and for
dog professionals, dog trainers, who

are interested in addressing their
mental health for the betterment of

their life with their dogs, um, and
their life in this industry, right?


I am not a dog trainer and,
um, I know how to train my dog.

I always say I have a PhD
in my dog and that's it.

Like, that's as far as I go, um,
but I do have a lot of awareness

of the parallels that occur.

When you're struggling with your own
mental health and you're struggling with

a dog who has some challenges or the
parallels between what dog trainers go

through and what therapists go through in
working with people, but therapists are

trained how to deal with some of those
challenges and dog trainers are not right.

So dog trainers are really, you
know, the experts on the dog behavior

stuff, but not necessarily on how to.

address the human element, so to speak.

So I've kind of brought together my
lived experience in being a reactive

dog owner and doing all the training,
all of it, so much training for so many

years, um, with him and just really
immersing myself in the dog world more

in order to help him with my mental
health background and passion and kind

of the intersection of those two things.

So that is What Handles
in Humans is all about.

So I offer coaching and support
and programs and groups and

all the, all kinds of things.

Anke: I love that.

I love it.

Because it feels to me as if, you know,
we're sort of slowly catching on to

the fact that quite often, you know,
the, the solution and or the problem is

sort of on the other end of the leash.

Jess: Yeah, exactly.

Yep, a little bit.

And not to say that like, I always
want to put the caveat there that,

you know, I think a lot of people
can take that to mean that, Their

dog's behavior is their fault, right?

That, that's out there so much.

The whole, like, if you would
just be less anxious, then your

dog won't be anxious anymore.


And I will tell you that I have come
a very long way in my own emotional

experiences when, when Dio struggles, my
dog Dio struggles, um, to the point where

I can pretty confidently say I am not.

super anxious walking him anymore like
it used to be, and yet he still sometimes

has some reactive behaviors, right?

So it's not totally gone just
because I've worked on my own stuff.

So I always want to like, you know,
remind people that we are a part of it.

We're, we're, you know, we are an
element of it, we're a piece of the

puzzle and we're probably a big piece
of the puzzle, you know, like we have

a lot to do with things, but it's
not all on us, um, but addressing

our stuff is going to help us show up
better for our docs or our clients.

Anke: I mean, I couldn't agree more.

And I mean, there is that, you know,
like, I don't know, I remember the

book, Your Docs, Your Mirror, and
there's a lot of that narrative.

It's like, yeah, and I have.

Well, three dogs and then I had two and I
had three again, but like the second one,

you know, he was like Very traumatized.

He came super traumatized and he was
like on edge all the time, you know,

and there Me consciously calming down
slowing down really hurt him But I

found actually having the other two dogs
helped me see that it wasn't just me.


Oh, I love that Yeah, it's a great because
if I if it had been if he was if he'd been

only Anxious and nervous and pulling like
crazy because of me being in a state, then

why are the other two dogs calmer, right?

So it's like you can see it there
that it's not just on me, right?

Jess: Right, right, right.

And so it's like when we are struggling
with this stuff, like, cause you know,

you know how emotional it makes you to
go through The behavioral stuff with

your dog, the shame that comes with
it, the stress that comes with it.

I mean, there's so much there, right?

Um, but what we want to focus
on is What can we control?


And so we get very caught up in trying
to control or wishing we could control

a lot of external things, um, that
are not within ourselves and that

actually are not within our control.

So like at the end of the day,
your dog is their own being, right?

They're there.

I would say, I'm like, they're their
own person, which makes me laugh.

Um, but they really are.

And so you cannot control a dog a
hundred percent, nor should you.

Should you, I guess, right?

Like, be looking to do that, um,
because that's a whole other sort

of can of worms to talk about.

But what can I control
in this dynamic, right?

I can control my level of education
and understanding of what my dog needs.

I can, I can educate myself.

I can see what resources are out there.

I can control my own responses, my
own reactions, how I show up in this.

relationship dynamic with my dog,
because it's really what it is.

It's a relationship just like
any other relationship, right?

So what pieces of that
dynamic can you influence?

And I think sometimes our own mental
health stuff really shows up and kind

of gets in the way of that because like.

Our dogs just like spotlight our stuff.

They just like shine a light on
whatever it is that we struggle

with in other areas of our life.

And they bring that to the
forefront and they amplify it.

I have yet, I've been doing
this for over two years now.

Um, wow.

I can't believe that actually.

It's just so wild to think about.

And I've talked with hundreds of dog
owners at this point, and I have yet to

find a situation where the things that
they struggle with the most, when it

comes to the emotions with their dogs,
don't show up elsewhere in their life.

Like, I've yet to see that there's
no parallel or connection to other

things that come up for them in like
other relationships or in other areas.

So, that I feel like is where the
mirror piece maybe comes in, right,

where that idea, um, I don't really
look at it as much as a mirror as

like a spotlight on certain things.

Right, that we could heal, that
they're inviting us to heal from.


Anke: so true, that is so true, right?

And I always say it's because, you know,
you can maybe put your little mask on

and get away with it at work, right?

Sure, oh sure.

Even with your partner, but you
can't trick your dog, can you?

Jess: Yeah, right, no, and it's like, that
is the, that's the frustrating part and

the best part at the same time, right?

So like, when I said earlier, like
My, like, I'm in a place now, right?

I'm like nine and a half years
into this journey with him.

I'm in a place now where looking back,
like, I'm really grateful for what I've

gone through with him and I completely
validate that not everyone will feel

that way or needs to feel that way.

Like, it's just where
I currently am with it.

Um, that doesn't have to be the goal for
everyone, but you know, if he had not

highlighted that stuff, there's a lot of
things that I wouldn't have addressed.

Or worked on because I feel like we
get more motivated sometimes to work

on that stuff for the sake of something
or someone we care about, you know,

and when we care about our dogs so
much, we really want to work on stuff

that we You know, then we'll do it.

Then we'll do the work.

So at

Anke: what point did you recognize that,
you know, when the dog does something

that you kind of like, you know, where you
now, looking in hindsight, you can see,

ooh, he was highlighting something there.

But I wonder, like, at what point
did you discover that that's

what it was, and it wasn't just
something with him you needed to

Jess: fix?


Well, that's a, I love that question
because I, this is a story I really

do like to tell because I like to.

Normalize this for people.

Um, so obviously we, we
had many incidents, right?

We had many moments that were challenging
or upsetting or scary or, you know, like

we had a lot of Rough moments in our,
in our time together, but there is one

moment that really stands out to me.

And it may not have, I don't even
know that it was the worst moment.

Like, I wouldn't even call it the
worst thing that ever happened.

It's just the one that
hit me the most, right?

So it's, we were walking with
some other people and dogs.

It was, there was like, the context isn't
as important, but really what ended up

happening, um, was he, Um, like he was
on a long line and he, I was holding

his long line as he was like lunging
to try to get towards some other dogs

and he got away from me because he
pulled that long line through my hands.

Like he cut my palms, um, because it was,
I, I remember standing there feeling it,

feeling that burn like through, and I was
like, I have to let go or else I'm like,

this is going to be way worse for, right.

So I just like.

opened this, you know, and
let him go because I couldn't

hold it physically anymore.

And I had like, oh, it was my
goosebumps thinking about it.

And like I said, that actually,
and he didn't get in a fight.

Like it didn't, it didn't end terribly.

I mean, he did like kind of go after
the other dog and whatever, but

that moment, for many reasons, One
being really, I felt a lot of shame.

I was with friends.

I was a bear.

Like it was, you know, there was so much.

I was in bed for like 24 hours after
that, like inconsolable about it.

Like again, I don't even think it
was the worst issue or incident

we even had, but it was the one
that just, I hit the wall there.

And at that point, I was a couple
years into training with him.

Like I had had him for, I think he was.

I think I was like, three
or four at that point.

Um, and I was like, wow, something really
needs to change here and I have done

every, I am doing all the things for him.

I'm addressing his diet.

I'm addressing his enrichment.

I am, I'm creating an environment for him.

That's the best that I can do.

I'm going to.

Socialization and, and, and
private classes and group

classes and all the things.

Like what else is there to do?

Nothing, right?

There's nothing else.

I could just have to
stay the course with him.


I wasn't addressing anything with
me and I was like, whoa, okay.

Like what's the common denominator here?

That's me, first of all.

And second of all, in order for me to stay
in the work with him, I need to create

sustainability in this relationship.

Like I can't keep doing what I'm
doing with him long term and feel

the way I'm feeling about it.


Like I hit that wall and I
was like, I want to quit.

I got to rehome him.

I can't like.


I was just, so really my goal in
my work is to help people cope

better with the emotional stuff that
comes up because that is how you

stick with them long term, right?

We're going to have our dogs for
their lifetime unless we make a

different decision that they're not
the right fit for us, which is, you

know, also a valid decision sometimes.

But if we're not doing that, if
we're saying I'm committing to

this dog for its lifetime, that's.

A solid amount of time for you
to experience the amount of

emotion that comes with this and
the stress that comes with it.

So creating support, sustainable
practices, coping skills, and addressing

your own mental health in that process
is going to make that decade, give

or take, that you have with them, you
know, more sustainable, more enjoyable.

And, um, you know, you're going to be able
to learn to like, love the life that you

do have with your dog more effectively
and be in it for the long haul.

Anke: It's so easy also to, to focus on,
to sort of get sucked into this, like, oh,

you know, like focusing on all the things
that are wrong or that aren't, you know,

where you think it's easy to forget, like
how, you know, I mean, I don't know about

your dog, but like, You know, my first
one, he got bitten when he was like 11

months old and he was kind of reactive to
other male dogs in confined spaces, like

pretty much for the rest of his life.

He got a lot better over the
years, but you know, the first

few years it wasn't funny.


And, and, and, and, you know, and,
you know, I really resonate with that

shame, you know, and I'm like, You know,
all I wanted was to be able to go for

chilled walks with my dog and now the
walk thing turns into this stressful

experience and you're constantly on
the lookout and it's almost like, like,

but I mean, where is the problem here?

The only problem is me worrying about.

What some old woman behind some
window will think of me, right?

Right, right.

And if I can let go of that, the
whole experience shifts without

the dog having to change at

Jess: all.



And so that's a perfect example
of working towards being able to

let go of that, um, more easily.

Because it, you know, it's still going to
bother us a little bit and that's okay.

Like we're, you know, we, we
also can't like expect ourself

to not feel things, you know?

So like you might feel that shame
a little bit, but the bounce back.


From that needs to be quicker and
we need to work through it, you

know, more effectively each time.

And so getting to that point where you
don't care about like the stranger on

the street and the side eye that they
give you when your dog is reacting.

The more enjoyable that walk will
be and, um, again, that has a ripple

effect long term, long term in
your relationship with your dog.


Anke: and I mean the thing is, like,
the more chilled I am, the less I

worry about what some people think.

The more calm I am, and the
less he'll react, right?

I think it is that, like, you know,
there is an element of that, you

know, when you actually by you being,
okay, yeah, whatever, you know, just

like relax into the situation, right?

Like that does help you
a lot, quite practically.

Jess: Sure.

And that, that I think is
the piece that we can really

look at ourselves for, right?

So we, we don't want to take it so
far as to say like, this will get

better if I'm just not anxious,
because that's not necessarily true.

Um, but it will improve,
it will help, right?

Because they are.

you know, reading our
nonverbal cues all the time.

So if my hand is a little more clenched
on the leash, like he does know that.

If my heart rate is a little
faster, he knows that, right?

So he can tell things that I don't
think I'm putting out there, but I am.

Um, so yeah, like that will affect
our, you know, his behavior, our

dynamic, those types of things.

Um, but again, like, Dio's still reactive,
you know, I'm pretty chill on walks.

I might get upset at a reaction, like,
I definitely will still have my moments

where I'm like, oh, like, that was
just, like, we had a really, we had

like a rough one on, um, on Thursday
when we were walking recently, so it's

like, it's, it happens still, sometimes
we have beautiful pass bys of other

dogs, and I'm like, yes, look at us,
we nailed it, and then other times I'm

like, oh, that was, Oh, that's not good.

Um, and so we had a rough one on
Thursday and it, it bothered me.

Right, but it didn't bother me for
like days and it didn't right because

they're but it used to it used to just
Stick with me for a really long time.

I mean, that's the

Anke: thing It's like yes, you said before
it's like you we are not controlling

because you don't know what signals the
other dog sent out Or the other owner.

It's like, yeah

Jess: Yeah, I mean they perceive the
world completely differently than we do.

How could we ever 100 percent
know what their trigger was.

We could, there are times where
we're going to be able to be like,

oh, that was That was this, right?

That was related to this.

But there are some times where
it's like, what was that?

Like, where did that come from?

You know, and so I know what
set him off on Thursday.

I know it was sort of a
weird, unique situation.

It bothered me.

I allowed space for that feeling.

I didn't try to push it away and be
like, I just need to get over it.

No, like I got over it in my own time.

And, um, you know, I kind of moved
forward from it from there, but

it's still It still gets to you.

It's just that I don't get so
stuck for such a long time.

And going into that situation, I wasn't
anxious and he still acted like that.

You know what I mean?

So I was like, Oh, I'm going to be
able to, I actually felt pretty good

about how I was going to handle.

Cause I saw the other dog coming
and I was like, Oh, I've got this.

Like, here's my management
strategy for this moment.

And then the other owner, like, didn't
go along with what I wanted in my head,

which, you know, happens sometimes.

And, uh, you know, me, it was, it was
rough, but it wasn't, I can pretty

confidently say that wasn't me, you know?



Anke: mean, that's the thing.

It's like, but I think that, that
kindness towards yourself and your

dog, I mean, that makes a huge, huge

Jess: difference, right?


Like own, own what you should own.



Like own the parts of it that you do.


You know, have a role in, but don't
over personalize it either to say

like this is all my fault and would
be completely better if I just would

do blah, blah, blah, because that's
just shaming yourself and it's

really, it's not even accurate anyway.


No, no, it's not even true.

Like it's not gonna, it's not going
to do what you imagine it will.


Anke: So if somebody goes,
Oh God, that sounds so nice.

You know, how can people
find you, get in touch

Jess: with you?

Yeah, sure.

So I'm, I'm most active on
Instagram, so, uh, at Handlers

and Humans is my Instagram handle.

Um, you can also look at my
services and um, book with me on my

website, handlers and

I offer a free consult call
to anybody just to see what

would be a good fit for you.

'cause I do have some different
kind of programs like.

One on one support and I have group
programs and things like that.

So, um, I always love to talk to
people to see like what would be the

most helpful thing for them and make
a recommendation, um, from there.

And there are times where I'm
going to recommend you go to

therapy instead of working with me.

So, you know, I do, you know, cause I am
at the end of the day, I'm a therapist.

And so there are going to be times
where I'm going to say, wow, like I

really feel like this would be better
served with this or yeah, I can

help you with this aspect of things.

Here's what I recommend.


Always feel free to reach out and book
like a free consult call with me because

I love, I love talking about this stuff.

So I could talk to anybody
about it all day and I'd be

Anke: happy.

I love it.

I love it.

So obviously if you're listening,
the link is in the show notes.

If you're seeing it, uh, on the
newsletter or blog, then it's going to

be obviously right below this video.

So thank you so much.


Thank you.

I hope we'll continue the conversation.

Thanks so much.

Thanks so much for listening.

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That's A N k E at Soul
touched by

Jess Adam - Your Dog Is Your Greatest Teacher: Lessons From a Reactive Dog
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