When you first take home your new dog, the possibilities are endless and the excitement is palpable. Those soulful eyes in that furry body are enough to make your heart melt and wash away any doubts.
When we begin our journey of getting a new dog, we have a certain vision in mind. You can look for a certain breed of dog, whether it’s for a companion, a sport dog, service dog, or other working dog, you will probably do your research and find an excellent breeder that has taken care to have healthy dogs (mentally and physically). Others might go the adoption route via a shelter, rescue organization or otherwise. With this option, you often don’t know what you are getting unless they’ve had the animal for awhile or they’ve done extensive testing. A lot of wonderful dogs can be found at shelters and there are a lot of fantastic shelters that do everything they can for the animals that come through their doors.
Sometimes We Get Something Different Than We Expected
There are times when we go to adopt a dog or purchase one from a breeder and things don’t turn out as we expected. There are so many variables in a dogs life before they find their furever homes. Even a well bred dog might experience a traumatizing event in their life and only time will tell if they are resilient enough to handle it. You may see a puppy in a shelter and think “oh that’s great, we’ll just raise him the right way”, but you have no idea what his background is because he was found on the streets. So, even with the best intentions, we can end up with a reactive dog.
Reactive dogs have their quirks. Their reactivity can come in the form of barking at something (or everything), lunging, growling, cowering, peeing, sensitivity to touch, pulling, jumping, and more. It may be a challenge and we have to be flexible, but being a reactive dog parent has its moments! Here are some signs that you’re on the Reactive Dog Parent Team:
1. You take your dog walk for at weird hours
When you’ve got a dog that barks or lunges, you take the effort to avoid those triggers. So you walk your dog at the park early in the morning or late at night to dodge park goers, you schedule vet appointments at opening, so you don’t run into other dogs on the way in, you go for your run before school starts to avoid the kids, and maybe you wait for crappy weather to go play fetch in the field.
We have a splash park near our house and in the warm weather there is always kids crawling all over it. So I wait for a cool, rainy day and I take my dog to the splash park. Guaranteed to be empty and we can have it to ourselves. And Mo has a blast chasing the water!
**A great book to read is Midnight Dog Walkers: Positive Training and Practical Advice for Living With Reactive and Aggressive Dogs by Annie Phenix (buy it here). She addresses the lengths we go to to make sure our dogs aren’t put in bad situations and she offers a lot of reactivity training and hope. It’s worth the read!**https://mostimproveddog.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/img_2659.mov
Rainy day in the neighborhood means Mo can play!
2. You have developed radar
I am not trained in the art of surveillance, strategy, or stealthy ninja moves, but I have developed radar since adopting my dog. I am constantly scanning while we are outside: is there a person coming around the corner, is that person and dog pair walking toward us, is that dog off leash? And then adjusting: that person is walking straight toward us, but I can’t turn around because there is a runner, so I’m going to cross the street. This dialogue is constant!
When you have a reactive dog, your spatial awareness is heightened, strategy becomes top priority, and you get to a point where you notice things before your dog does. So basically you are human radar and could complete any covert mission. With a reactive dog in tow. Pretty impressive.
3. You have tried a dozen calming methods
Right?! What haven’t you tried? I’ve tried adaptil (verdict is still out, just got it a couple weeks ago), supplements, lavender, a Thundershirt, Chinese herbs, classical music, massage, etc. Some of these methods and products will help your dog, but it can take some experimentation. It also depends on the dog and how severe the reactivity is. It may seem like nothing is helping, but you have to realize, none of these methods are meant to be a magic pill. They are often used in an overall plan that includes training. It’s ok to try new things, but it’s also ok to consult your vet and/or trainer about different options as part of the plan. Give it some time.
4. You are becoming a dog nerd
I know a lot of people who have gotten into dog training, including myself, because they had a reactive dog. These dogs offer up a unique set of challenges and it requires a certain level of knowledge to work through issues. As a result, we end up diving deeper and deeper into the dog world: studying training methods, reading behavior books, having conversations with experts, researching diets and supplements, and learning more about dogs than we ever thought was possible. We become experts in the process and your friends start asking for advice and you end up talking their ear off about everything dog. In the end though, you can make better, more informed decisions for your dog. Being a dog nerd is awesome!
5. You are a champ at self care
To be honest, having a reactive dog is hard. Blood, sweat, and tears hard. It can be heartbreaking and frustrating, so we have to take care of ourselves. Just in case, do you have a bottle of wine ready to go? Do you have a plethora of bath bombs and bubble bath on hand? Do you have a journal, or meditate, or exercise? Chances are you balance those hard days out with some self care and you do it so you can be awesome for your dog tomorrow. Keep it up!
6. You are one tough cookie
You have probably been through some difficult situations with your dog. Handling those situations and coming out alive on the other side builds a strong person. You rarely get embarrassed by your dog barking his fool head off at Christmas blow up decorations (it’s actually funny), you don’t blink an eye at the funny looks you get in the park, you keep trying, and you keep your head up.
7. You are a Mama or Papa Bear
We have done a few long car trips with our dogs. One time at a busy rest stop a gentleman told us we need to shut our dog up. He said this as he was getting in his car, but not before my husband and I told him not so politely to @$&* off while showing him our middle fingers.
First, dogs bark people! And second, it’s not your business! Our animals don’t have the human language at their disposal, so as their humans, we need to be advocating for them. If you think someone isn’t treating your dog appropriately, SPEAK UP!
I think we become overprotective because of their issues, but that’s ok. The Mama Bear in me allows no one to mess with my dogs. I’m protective because I know, not everyone would be as kind to my crazy dog as I am.
8. You have developed processes for everything
If you’ve got two dogs, you probably have a detailed system for feeding them. You may have a process for traveling with a reactive dog. I have a system for going through toll booths. I have a step by step plan on how to introduce my dog to new people. Maybe you have a process for getting ready to go for a walk.
They are our safety nets and keep us sane. These processes are fine to have, but make sure to add some variety in their to shake up the routine. It strengthens our flexibility and our dogs. It’s good to be ready for anything!
9. You have dog treats everywhere
I’m pretty sure I have dog treats in the pockets of the coat I’m currently wearing. I have dog treats in my car. I have dog treat in my training pouch, I have them in a drawer, and I have them coming out my ears.
Treats are an incredibly helpful tool with a reactive dog. If they can eat treats, they are still “with” you (when you’re in a situation where they are way over threshold, they often won’t take treats and then you know you’ve lost all their attention). Treats can help distract them from a trigger and can reward them for calm behavior. High value treats can also can help get you out of a sticky situation and treats can help teach a replacement behavior.
Find some treats your dog loves and keep them in easy to access spots so you can always reward good behavior (or in case of emergency!).
10. You have a huge heart
When we first got Mo when he was 3 months old, it probably took me another 3-5 months to really bond with him. Let me tell you, once we bonded, he stole a huge piece of my heart.
It takes a lot to work with a reactive dog, but it can pay off tenfold and I know that my capacity for love and kindness grew when we bonded. It’s hard not to have a huge heart when you are working with a being that is not entirely comfortable in this world. On the other side of all the frustration and heartache is empathy and compassion. I like to think that the soul of a reactive dog trusts you, finds comfort in you, and has gratitude for all that you do.
You are an incredible person for opening your heart and home to a pretty special dog.
Mo barking at our photographer. Typical response!