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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?