Why Adopting A Reactive Dog Was The Best Thing I Ever Did

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.

Why?

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.

Honey the golden retriever nuzzles a stuffed toy.

Are you telling me I’m too good to be decent blog fodder? It’s not my fault I’m Little Miss Perfect.

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.

Dog in Bike Trailer.

Except for becoming a fiend at the sight of another dog, Shadow was perfect. She even rode in my bike cart.

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?

Honey the golden retriever puppy meets another golden.

Riley was the first friendly dog Honey met in the neighborhood. She’s still in love with him.

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.

Toshi teaches Honey.

Thanks for showing me the ropes, Toshi.

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.

Honey the golden retriever puts her paws on a log.

I don’t know what you’re telegraphing down my leash but I’m sending back happiness in puppy morse code.

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 plays with Sally.

The closest Shadow ever got to having a dog friend. I never expected to see her so calm, and so close, to another dog.

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.

Shadow the mixed breed dog enjoys a canoe ride.

Canoeing is a great activity with a reactive dog. Unless she reacts to ducks.

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.

Shadow, our dog, liked to lay down on Mike.

This pictures does absolutely nothing to illustrate my point. I just happen to like it.

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.

Golden Retriever and Hound Mix wrestling

My first reaction to meeting a new dog is to ask if she wants to play.

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.

Shadow the mixed breed dog has a pretty smile.

Shadow’s reactivity was her only fault. And adopting her was the best thing I ever did.

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?

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Jack can be slightly reactive although he’s kind of grown out of it if that’ possible for a 10 year old dog. I think a lot of his stemmed from being in the shelter for so long. His option is always to move away first and then to give a low growl, so he doesn’t go full ballistic – thank god. I’ve certainly learned to watch his behavior and other dogs to read when things are getting our of his comfort zone.

  2. I have learned a lot from reading your blog, particularly when it comes to reactive dogs. For example, as we walked along a trail with Oliver off leash, I saw a man with two dogs approaching. When he saw Oliver, he stopped and gathered his dogs to the side and directed their attention into the woods. Recognizing this may be a reactive situation, I called Oliver to me and leashed him for the pass. As we did, I heard the man talking gently to them. Hard as it was to pass without a friendly greeting, I did so not wanting to interrupt what seemed to be successful intervention.

  3. Despite ENDLESS socialization as a puppy, Jimmy is a reactive dog, especially to larger male dogs. And it’s a 50/50 thing so I never know when he will snark. As a result, he’s not allowed to greet any dogs. Fortunately, in an agility environment it is very manageable. He knows what he’s there for and ignores all the other dogs. I just have to make sure no one sniffs his butt ( a huge trigger) or jostles him. It gets tiring having to keep my guard up all the time, but it’s just a fact of life with Jimmy. I’ve probably learned to read canine body language better, but I’ve also learned I’d rather not deal with a reactive dog. Wilson is an angel. All dogs seem to love him and while he tends to be aloof to other dogs, he would never, ever snark at another dog.

  4. I need to work on my observation skills. I don’t know when Theo will react to dogs and people on our walks and when he won’t. I suspect it has to do with how closely he is walking to me, a short leash seems to deter him.

    I know someone with the cutest little dog. She bought him as a puppy (from a reputable breeder) and took him to puppy classes. His older brother is fine, but he is completely bonkers when he sees other dogs. She has tried everything, but no success yet. I know she has learned a ton and would never trade a moment with him.

  5. Rita’s puppyhood was mostly out of our hands (she was 7 months when we got her and had been rescued from the beach). She’s definitely reactive but has come a long way since we got her. She can now walk calmly past things she couldn’t before – gardeners, cyclists, mopeds, loud cars, *most* dogs. We’re still working on crows and the handful of dogs that she HATES with a purple passion. I too have learned that it can sometimes be me. I try very hard now to stay calm and keep the leash relaxed when we see another dog. Problem is when I see one of her 5 or 6 “nemesis” dogs, I still stiffen up, because I know she will turn into Cujo just at the sight of them – or even at the sight of their parents. We’re continuing to work on it and trying new things – like even higher value treats (turkey dogs!) and at the moment we’ve gone back to “look” at the “threat” and then turn the other way and avoid it. Unfortunately, sometimes we’re in a spot where we can’t avoid it. It’s a long slow process. Since I’m not a super patient person, she is definitely working on teaching me that!

    • BTW… Need to see if I can find a supervised small play option like you found for Shadow. That’s one reason I liked having Rita signed up for training. At the end of each class, the trainer would pair up the dogs for one-on-one off leash play, and together we’d hand pick a good dog for Rita to play with. (She does fine as long as the dog is not TOO big and pushy or, at the other end of the spectrum, not too fearful/submissive.) The training schedule just hasn’t worked lately w/ my calendar, but hopefully we’ll eventually be able to get back into some classes.

  6. Elka can be reactive. My HUGE mistake with her was not finding good, safe dogs for her to socialize with. The people in our town who walk their dogs don’t seem to know much about dogs. Not even their own!

    So, Elka has had few “good” dog encounters. One is with a sweet mix breed boy who’s also super shy, and was adopted from the shelter with a big question mark for his history. He’s a good match because he absolutely does not get in her face, and they can play bow and run next to each other a bit with no untoward contact. Another one was a Doberman puppy (we only saw him once), and they seemed to perhaps understand they were the same sort of dog and were non confrontational and again, did some running next to each other (Elka likes running in a big huge circle. It is evidently the height of fun.)

  7. I always thought that after BD I would go on to adopt another reactive dog, but now that I only see BD once a week or so it is harder than I remember and the other day I couldn’t help but think it would be so nice if he was more like Mity and thought I can’t do this again. My problem isn’t BD, I can manage him, I know his triggers and I know how to avoid them. My problem is the other idiot dog owners. Hint: if someone is walking their dog and changes directions as soon as they see you with your dog, do not encourage your dog to go and play with this persons dog. Do not throw your dogs ball or toy near the other dog. Do not walk towards that person when you have an entire god damn field to walk around and can keep away with relative ease.

  8. Very interesting to me today, I’m noticing now that he’s a solo Doodle, Harley is becoming a bit reactive from time to time. He will sometimes bark when first meeting another dog as if he’s trying to convey that he wants to be in charge. When Leo was around he never did that. he’d just sniff and play. Now we’ve added this bark before the sniff. I wonder if this will eventually fade.

  9. YO!! Seriously, you don’t live that far from me. I could really use a training partner. Part of my issue is the two different reactions my dogs have. Sampson wants to greet, jump and play, Delilah, well I’m never really sure with her.

    And sadly, in my area I’ve only seen one person who was working on getting her dog to behave around other dogs and she’d been given the wrong advice.

  10. This post is just amazing – I’ve had many of these thoughts myself but haven’t been able to put it into words so eloquently. I really do believe that having my reactive dog Laika has made me a much better dog owner. I’ve never been so “in tune” with a dog before – we work together all the time on training and it’s the best feeling in the world when we make progress. I’m doing the best I can to make her a more relaxed and confident dog, which in turn has made me more self aware and thoughtful of dog behavior.

  11. Thanks for writing this. They have such an impact on our lives. I would do it all over again.