What It’s Like Having a Reactive Dog

I remember the 5 a.m. walks. Scanning the distant horizon for other dogs. And the panic I felt when an off-leash dog ran up to us while his person yelled, “Don’t worry. He’s friendly.” I experienced those things with three different dogs.

My current companion, Honey, is not a reactive dog. Or at least her reaction is a cheerful smile and a softly wagging tail.

But the stress of having a reactive dog remains with me. I understand it well. Why?

Because I live without a car in America. And believe it or not, it’s a lot like having a reactive dog. Let me tell you how.

Honey the golden retriever and Ginny the foster dog walk in the snow.

Glad you don’t make me walk at crazy times when normal dogs should be sleeping.

People Misunderstand Car-Free Like They Do Reactive Dogs

I wouldn’t have this problem in Manhattan. It’s harder to own a car there than to get around on foot or by public transit. And pedestrians, in their sheer numbers, are a force of nature.

It’s different in my tiny town of less than 60,000 people. There are no traffic jams. Day-long parking in a downtown garage is $7. So almost everyone, despite their progressive leanings and concern for the environment, owns a car.

People don’t understand what it means to be car free.

They say things like, “I’ll call you when I’m ready to go so you can meet us there.” Um, no.

It takes me at least 20 minutes to walk downtown. Or to go somewhere not walkable, I need to see the bus schedule. Sometimes it just takes a while to put on my rain gear and get the bike headed up the hill.

It takes me back to having my reactive dogs.

Someone would tell me, “Just bring the dog with you to the outdoor concert. Then you don’t have to worry about getting home on time.”

Okay. Just let me think of whether I can find a place to put my picnic blanket behind a bunch of shrubs so the dog stays calm in the crowd. I’ve got to attach the head halter to the leash, stuff my bag with treats, and get out the Rescue Remedy.

No, that’s all right. You just go without me. It’s too hard.

No one understood that things were just a little bit harder. And a little bit scarier.

My dog rides in a canoe.

Canoeing is a great activity with a reactive dog. As long as she doesn’t react to ducks.

Walking a Reactive Dog is Scary

Shortly after I moved to my town, there was a tragic accident. A woman was crossing the street in the crosswalk when she dropped a folder. She bent down to pick it up and someone hit her with his car. She died.

The car owner had no idea he had hit the woman until the police tracked him down in the nearby Home Depot. He was in a big SUV and didn’t feel a thing.

It’s been years. But I still think of that woman every time I cross the street.

Just like I feel panic when I’m walking Honey and a strange dog comes running up to us out of nowhere. When that happened with my former dog, Agatha, it resulted in two dogs snarling and biting each other.

Honey the golden retriever is tired of the attention.

Get out of my face, mister.
There, how was that reaction?

Once you’ve been responsible for protecting a reactive dog, you never lose that sense of fear.

But you do get smarter.

Reactive Dog People are Smart

I walked Shadow at 5 a.m. I knew which houses had unleashed dogs hanging out on the porch. I could tell from their gait which strangers off in the distance were attached to a dog and who was just walking.

I got very smart at planning for trouble and avoiding it.

Eventually I learned how to click and treat Shadow for watching me. I knew the perfect distance to start clicking and when it was too late and I needed to manage instead of train.

Now I apply my brains to getting around without a car.

It’s harder to make a special trip if I forget something at the grocery store so I make a list. I take my shopping cart to the bus stop and use a bike lock to attach it to a sign. Although I still have to lift heavy groceries on and off the bus, I can wheel them the few blocks home and up my stairs.

The bus drivers think I’m pretty clever. I’m just thankful I can get my groceries home at all. Not all things are available to me without a car.

Honey the Golden Retriever rides in her bike cart.

Y’know, I think you should save the bike cart for hauling groceries. I don’t mind.

Some Things are Impossible

With a reactive dog, the list of impossibilities is long—dog parks, outdoor concerts, dining on the restaurant patio, the dog beach.

We did vacation with our reactive dogs. But it was often camping in isolated spots.

Some things are impossible without a car. Or so difficult as to not be worth doing.

A friend told me about a new thrift shop in town and was surprised I hadn’t been there. I said it was too hard to get to by bike. She replied, “It’s right across from the Salvation Army. You go there by bike.”

Both the Salvation Army and the new thrift shop are on the state road where Arby’s, McDonald’s, Applebees, and Walmart hang out with each other. The speed limit is only 30 mph and it’s not illegal for bikes to travel on it. But no one ever does.

I can ride to the Salvation Army by taking a back road. But to get to the new thrift shop I need to ride on the busy, commercial highway, signal with my hand (the same hand that holds the handlebar and controls the brakes; most car drivers forget that about bicyclists) to get into the left hand suicide lane until the traffic gives me a big enough gap to pedal through.

Not technically impossible. But the equivalent trip by car would be crossing a NASCAR track mid-race. So definitely not fun.

To cope being car-free, I need to do the same thing reactive dog owners do.

woman riding bike with Christmas tree on cart behind

You’d think Christmas spirit would make people more patient with someone bringing a tree home on her bike. Nope.

Find Your Tribe

Dog blogs are salvation for reactive dog owners. If you can’t join your local adventure dog walking club, at least you can learn from other people online dealing with the same issues.

Maybe a friend will point you to Canine Nosework (usually done without other dogs in the room) or Agility for Reactive Dogs.

Other reactive dog people will share your frustration and your victories. And you’ll feel just a little bit better about having a dog that doesn’t fit the profile on your favorite dog food commercial.

I’ve wanted to join the local bike repair groups. But they meet on nights that I teach.

But my tribe is out there.

One particularly cold day, a young man pedaled up to me at the intersection where I was waiting for the light to change. He fist bumped me for being one of the rare bicyclists out in single digit weather. And then he turned left and cranked up the kind of hill most of us only see bikes on in the Tour de France.

I was flattered he considered me part of his tribe. Especially since I never plan to bicycle up Buffalo Street.

So they next time you’re dealing with a dog who goes berserk every time school lets out, a truck drives by, or a neighbor walks his puppy, remember you’re not alone.

And when you find yourself behind a bicycle on the road, be patient while you’re waiting to pass, give her a three-foot cushion, and smile because she probably understands, just a little bit, what having a reactive dog is like.

I’ve wanted to write about being car-free for more than two years. I didn’t want to go off topic and couldn’t figure out how to relate my experience to dogs. Thanks for your patience with my mental wanderings. And maybe you’ll understand pedestrians and bicyclists just a little bit better.
Your Turn: When do you feel most like an oddball in your culture? Does it have to do with your dog? Or something else?



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  1. I relate to your ‘reactive dog behaviors’ and know the feeling of watching the horizon for off leash dogs, avoiding certain areas, etc. Living in California, just north of the car capital of LA, I don’t relate to not having a car…I’m not even sure they have buses out where I live :(

  2. Bailey isn’t reactive but having her has opened my eyes to reactive dogs and the particular challenge that they pose for their humans. My friend has a reactive dog and she manages her by not going to the dog park, getting the first or last appointment at the vet’s office and going to the groomer’s before they officially open. Prior to Bailey, I would have thought this was all crazy and that her dog just needed some training or discipline. But now I know that she’s doing everything right and being a great dog mom. I give owners of reactive dogs a lot of credit.

    I also give people who live car free a lot of credit. We live out in the sticks so car free isn’t really an option, but many of my friends live in or near downtown Raleigh. They ride or walk everywhere. Many of them have cars for when they need it (public transit in this area isn’t so so), but get around mostly by using their legs.

  3. I am definitely an oddball in my culture as far as the dog reactivity goes. Few people understood what I was doing with Viva, and couldn’t understand why I not let such a “dangerous” dog sleep in. Today I can say, and are proud of it, she never bit a single dog in her life.
    On the travel part, I am your opposite, being scorned for driving a SUV in a bicycle friendly city. To my own defense, I have the SUV to travel with two big dogs and we do a lot of tracking, that brings us to “off-road” places, and do have, and use, a bicycle!

  4. I’ve got a reactive 9 month old dog in therapy (people and trucks, not dogs so much), a car-free friend with a kid, and another friend who bikes up Buffalo on his commute 5 days a week! I also lived in Denmark for a bit where the biking infrastructure is so good I was car-free myself. I will definitely think of you the next time (today?) a cyclist is cranking up a hill at 10 mph in front of me. Thank you for the extra effort, and the encouraging blog.

  5. I loved reading about your car-free lifestyle and how it relates to having a reactive dog…great way to tie it all together. I applaud you for your responsible choices on all counts. I have dealt with many a reactive dog both on my side of the leash and across the street, and it is one of the most stressful things in the world.

    I feel like an oddball just about every time I walk a client’s dog. My policy when walking clients is that we don’t interact with others. It’s too much responsibility/liability for me, so I just let people know “I’m sorry, this isn’t my dog, and I’m not certain how she’ll react, so please don’t pet her,” even though I probably know the dog well. You just never know, and it’s not a risk I’m willing to take with a dog that isn’t mine. More often than not, people look at me like I’m terribly mean. Oh, well. I’ll continue to be an oddball in the name of safety for all.

    Thanks for a great post!

    • I’m always shocked by people who come to the dog park with friends’ dogs they’re watching for a few days. I think a “this isn’t my dog, and I’m not certain how she’ll react, so please don’t pet her” policy makes a lot more sense — and I would prefer to encounter you on the sidewalk than them.

  6. This is interesting as Bailie and I started nose work the other night. We expected a bunch of hounds that want to use their noses but it is four reactive dogs and us wanting to be hounds. We never in a million years thought of it being for reactive dogs and we are going to be posting about that on Monday. Actually, Mom is a bit frightened by some of the dogs in the class and their behavior. Luckily we are all kenneled unless it is our turn. I can be reactive if a dog is really big or sniffs me the wrong way, but it isn’t something that keeps us from going places. Hopefully the reactive dogs will get what they need, Bailie and I want to be hounds and move on to the next level and also tracking and maybe compete some day.

  7. While I truly admire your rugged individualism, going without a car is outside of the realm of possibility for me. I would rather do without electricity. My life has always revolved around having a car which I always equate with independence since I first got my license.

    On our walks I rely on Misty the alpha Poodle to explain to the dogs what lies ahead and keep them grounded. There are very strict leash laws in our town. We have only run into an unleashed dog once and he was just very eager to join our pack.

  8. Hah, it’s neat that a random cyclist fist bumped you. Kind of like people in Jeep Wranglers waving to each other (my Aunt told me this happening).

    However, I cannot believe the person in the SUV didn’t feel striking a pedestrian. Cannot. I have an (inherited) SUV (Toyota Highlander) and I feel it driving over rocks. I’ve never struck anything with my bumper, for crying out loud. So scary, and so sad.

    I find writers to be a tribe, ish. The problem is, we’re each kind of a tribe of one, with our own proclivities and just a bit of overlap. Sometimes there’s only so involved the kinship can go, though other times, it’s the divisions that bring us together. (or something)

  9. I’m not car free but I will often choose to walk to the store rather than drive, even in cold weather. I lost almost 20 pounds last year, December 2012 – March 2013, because I chose to walk rather than drive. I also have to do more walking because of my reactive dogs (I noticed how well you tied the two themes together). Pierson is dog aggressive and Maya gets overly excited when she sees another dog. If the two are walking together, they feed off one another and I am struggling to handle two big dogs. So how does this make me walk more? I have to walk them one at a time. I first take Pierson for a walk. Then I come back and take Maya. Two trips. :)

  10. I thrive on being a bit of an oddball at ALL times, with dog (or dogs) in tow or not.

    I TRY to be more patient with folks on bicycles or motorized scooters. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t. Maybe now with your analogy to having a reactive dog, I’ll be successful more often.

  11. I live in a city that is notoriously bad for those wishing to be car-free. I lived downtown when I first moved here, and I could walk to work and take the bus to University, and it was conceivable. But then we left the apartment and bought a house in the ‘burbs where I now rely on my car. But I know there’s a big biking community here working to get more bike lanes and improve non-car commuting in our city, which I totally support! Though those who bike to work when it’s -20 (-4 Fahrenheit) are just crazy to me.

  12. I can’t imagine being car-free (I live in the suburbs of a city that has a very weak public transportation system), but I’m so in awe of you for being able to do it.

    I feel your pain about reactive dogs. My Nike is horrible, even after professional training. Before we even take her out into the yard to potty (let alone a walk somewhere other than our own property), we have to go out and case the neighborhood to make sure no one else is out with their dogs. She wouldn’t hurt a fly but the fact that she becomes so excited at the sight of another person or dog makes her really hard for me to handle. It’s a bit easier for my husband, but still a challenge.

  13. What an interesting analogy! And AMEN. This: “No, that’s all right. You just go without me. It’s too hard.” It sums it all up. There are so many events missed, invitations declined, just so you can protect your dog. You captured the stress so perfectly. I think finding your tribe is THE most important point. I only wish I discovered this community when I started out with my Lucas. Having a reactive dog is isolating. Connecting online alleviates a lot of the stress that comes from struggling in isolation. Thanks for writing such a true post.

  14. I have a “reactive” dog, but her reactions are not aggressive but rather extreme fear (of all sorts of things – some dogs and some other stuff). So, I understand the whole mindset that becomes 2nd nature with a reactive dog.

    Congrats on being car-free! Do you ever hitch hike or plan rides from your neighbors? We have car-free people who live near us (and we don’t live near *any* town), and people gladly give them rides when needed. Also, hitching is pretty safe here – it’s always someone you know who picks you up!

  15. I love this post, as I both bike (10 miles yesterday, go me!) and have a reactive dog. It is amazing the things I have learnt from BD and how I am now so much better at reading dogs and situations. I feel a little victory every time he ignores another dog and the few times I have watched him play with dogs is just so amazing!!

  16. Hi Miss Pamela! This was a great post and I love how you related leash reactivity to living car free. Biking is such a healthier lifestyle…if people don’t get it, then phooey on them. I just wrote a post about being leash reactive last week…I pulled that skeleton right out of the closet for the world to see and you know what? I feel so much better not having to hide it any more.
    *Cairn cuddles* for a Happy Monday,

  17. I really appreciate this post. Having two reactive dogs, but not doing much bicycling, I can really appreciate how difficult it is for you to get around. We lived without a car for 3.5 years in Philly, but it was more like Manhattan – most of the time it was easier to just walk or use public transit. When our bikes were stolen early on, we never bothered replacing them. I’ll be looking at the bikers I see in a whole different light now. BTW – you and Honey look great using the bike/trailer combo!

  18. I missed this post somehow the first time around…I’m so glad that you have your sweet, nonreactive Honey now!

    I envy the car-free lifestyle. On vacation I never like to rent a car. Here in Denver, our public transportation system is not great and it’s not a very feasible option. Someday I’d like to live somewhere where everything is more walkable/bikeable.


  1. […] I remember the 5 a.m. walks. Scanning the distant horizon for other dogs. And the panic I felt when an off-leash dog ran up to us while his person yelled, “Don’t worry. He’s friendly.” I experienced those things with three different dogs.  […]