Sure, I like a cute dog video as much as anyone. I enjoy following the agility competitions of doggy athletes. And who doesn’t love a funny dog poop story?
But many of my favorite dog blogs share the joys and trials of living with reactive dogs.
Where’s the fun in reading about the terror, humiliation, and frustration that goes along with walking a dog who becomes the Tasmanian devil on a leash on first spotting a stranger, dog, or bicycle?
Maybe it’s because it reminds me of my beloved reactive dogs, now passed. And because I realize that adopting a reactive dog was the best thing I ever did.
What My Reactive Dog Did For Me
Two things made me a dog geek:
- the internet
- adopting Shadow, who became a barking, snarling mess when a dog walked by.
And becoming a dog geek is one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’ve met many cool people and their dogs. I’ve become a better friend to my own dogs. And I’ve learned so much, even as I have tons more to learn.
Yep, adopting a reactive dog taught me more about dogs, and about myself, than years of college ever could. Here’s some of the random knowledge I learned from living with a reactive dog.
Lessons From A Reactive Dog
In no particular order, here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned from living with reactive dogs. Maybe you’ve learned them too?
Context is everything – Some people don’t realize their dogs are reactive. Until they find themselves in a place where the dog feels compelled to react.
In our Philadelphia neighborhood, most of the dogs were kept for protection. We didn’t have to worry about our dogs, Agatha and Christie, reacting to them because their people never brought them close enough to ours for it to be an issue.
Once we moved to Ithaca, where every third person walked their dog by our house it became a problem.
I sometimes wonder how many people discover their dog’s reactivity in PetSmart after months or years of life on an isolated house with few visitors?
Socialization – I didn’t know about socialization when I adopted my first puppies. And my third dog, Shadow, was eight years old when we adopted her—well past the puppy socialization window.
But it was my happy dog Honey who taught me how important it is to introduce a puppy to other dogs, safely and comfortably. Not every dog will be a social butterfly like Honey. But a properly socialized puppy will learn how to feel calm around strange objects, people, or dogs.
One dog can create a reaction in another – One of Honey’s tutors in getting along with strange dogs was Toshi, a happy goldendoodle. His person invited me to bring Honey to her house for play dates so we could get her used to meeting new dogs.
Toshi was a gentle boy and a great teacher. But the play dates ended when Toshi’s people adopted a small dog who did not like strange dogs.
Recently, I saw Toshi with his human and dog brother at a local sandwich shop. As we approached to say hello, the little dog started barking and pulling on his leash. And within moments Toshi, Honey’s first friend, was barking and growling too.
Although Toshi started out glad to see Honey, his brother’s reaction to Honey triggered one of his own.
Sometimes I start the reaction – I’ve read the same story on other blogs. And it has happened to me.
After months of alert management to avoid our dog’s reactions and hours of training, someone else walks our dog who has no reactions at all.
It’s joyful and demoralizing at the same time.
What’s going on?
I think that our constant vigilance to avoid stressors and do training in the face of triggers, we start to telegraph fear down the leash to our dogs. We see another dog or whatever causes our dog to react and we tense up. We tighten our hold on the leash in preparation. Our heart rate even rises.
Two days later, the vet tech takes our dog past dozens of strange dogs and cats to give blood and he doesn’t react at all. Or our partner who is less interested in training reports no problems at all.
The good news is that our efforts to teach our dog to behave calmly in stressful situations have worked. The bad news is that if we’re always expecting a reaction, we’ll never get to see our dog’s calm response.
Sometimes the leash is the problem – Not only can we telegraph our fear to our dogs through a leash, it also prevents them from doing what they need to do to avoid problems.
Dogs who spend most of their lives off leash, learn how to resolve problems before they start. And they have the freedom to leave instead of making friends.
We force our dogs into interactions with dogs and their leashes restrict their ability to communicate or leave if they wish.
Shadow joined a supervised, off-leash play group at the SPCA where we adopted her. I would never have taken her to a dog park. She was too unpredictable.
But this play group was supervised by trained volunteers. Everyone focused on the dogs. And if tensions between dogs started to escalate, a volunteer would step in and break up the interaction before it went too far.
As I look back at early pictures of Shadow at the play group, she’s not comfortable. Her tail is held high and stiff the first few times we went. But she was able to follow behind dogs and sniff their leavings without having to interact if she didn’t want to.
Without the leash, she didn’t feel the need to bark or growl. She could just walk away.
Eventually Shadow learned to relax. She even played chase with one or two dogs.
And when she was back on leash, she was able to pass strange dogs without going nuts. I believe that supervised, off-leash exposure to other dogs, along with other training we did, helped Shadow learn new tools for dealing with other dogs.
Clicker power – I discovered clicker training shortly after adopting Shadow. I was amazed to see how effective it was at teaching dogs tricks and polite behaviors. But it was even more valuable in teaching Shadow to pay attention to me instead of to that dog walking by the house.
We started in the house, free of distractions. I taught Shadow that a treat always followed a click. Then I started clicking and treating her every time she looked at me. Eventually we tied it to the cue “watch me.”
Once Shadow had the behavior down, we took it outside to the world of strange, scary dogs.
When we spotted a dog a block away, I’d tell Shadow to watch me and clicked and treat when she did so. We slowly decreased the distance until Shadow was choosing to look at me when a dog passed beside us instead of barking and lunging.
I’ve been a major clicker fan ever since. But another trainer I discovered online gave me another tool.
BAT – It stands for Behavioral Adjustment Training. At it’s simplest level, BAT encourages calm reactions to the trigger and rewards them by allowing the dog to move away from what frightens her, before she reacts.
BAT blew my mind. It gave me a new way of thinking about rewards. It’s not just food or toys. We can reward our dogs by allowing them to go away from what frightens them.
It’s a wonderful tool. And one that every person with a reactive dog who’s not food-motivated should learn.
Friendly dog training partners – If you check out some of the BAT videos, you’ll notice decoy dogs whose job it is to hang out calmly while the reactive dog works with his trainer. If you know someone with a calm dog to help you with your training, you’re very lucky.
We didn’t know anyone with an appropriate dog so we could practice with Shadow. Instead, we’d do set ups around the neighborhood. And that let to unpredictable training sessions.
I learned how helpful a dog training partner could be when we were preparing Honey to pass her Canine Good Citizen test. Our trainer brought his gentle lab along so Honey could practice ignoring him.
Yes, Honey was reactive too. It’s just that her reaction was to frolic, jump, and play at the sight of a strange dog.
Since then, Honey and I have volunteered to help other people with their training.
If you can provide transportation and a glass of wine (for me) and liver treats (for Honey) afterward, we’re happy to show up at your doorstep to help you practice calm reactions to strange dogs and people with your reactive pup.
Adopting A Reactive Dog Was The Best Thing I Ever Did
I loved Shadow. But I also love other dogs more because of what I learned from living with her.
Although it took a while, I no longer look well into the distance for the next four-legged trigger that might make my dog explode in a whirl of barks and growls.
But I do look for other dogs whose people are working to contain their reactions. And I try to help—by crossing the street, ducking behind a car, or insisting Honey walk quietly by my side so she doesn’t create more stress in a dog already on edge.
I’m thankful to get a break from the daily vigilance it takes to help a reactive dog. And I’m also appreciative of the efforts my fellow dog lovers are making to teach their dogs calm reactions to stressful things, people, or dogs.
Because even though adopting a reactive dog was the best thing I ever did, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Your Turn: Are you now or have you lived with reactive dogs? What did you learn from the experience?