Reactive Dog

10 Signs you are a Reactive Dog Parent

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!**

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.

Family picture with a reactive dog

Mo barking at our photographer. Typical response!

39 thoughts on “10 Signs you are a Reactive Dog Parent”

  1. Wow does this bring back so many memories! You are point on with all and I know, understand, and have done each and everyone of these – well I may not have $%^^&* at someone – maybe in my mind I did 😉 Whenever I talk to or run in to someone with a reactive dog I want to tell them “it’s ok, I understand totally what you are going through, you are a Great dog parent” Finding support and someone that truly understand what living with a reactive dog is like can be difficult. But when you find that one special person, that diamond in the rough who can help you through it, in my case a trainer that truly understood – hang on to them!

    1. Thank you for your kind words. We hang on tight to those people that love us and our dogs. I have met some incredibly kind strangers that are oblivious to my dog’s reactivity and it warms my soul! We appreciate our allies!

  2. Love this! The ninja moves and heightened spacial awareness had me cracking up! So so true. Being hyper-vigilant is key. Great post. As one of the many reactive dog parents out there, I will attest that you’re right. It sure is a whole lot of work sometimes and takes extra planning, but that bond and trust that you get from your special pup and seeing them make progress everyday is SO worth it.

  3. I definitely recognized me and my husband in some of these! We adopted our dog going on 15 years ago now and we’ve experienced a lot with him. We love every minute with our reactive dog. It can be hard sometimes, but you’ve touched on a lot of points here – especially that it’s all worth it!

    1. Wow, 15! That’s awesome! And just think all the time, effort, and love you put in gave him/her a happy, long life. I think their doggie souls know they found the best people.

  4. I haven’t owned a dog before however based on your post, you are definitely a caring loving protective dog mom. There is nothing you wouldn’t do to help your reactive dog the best way you see fit. Just take time, patience and growing trust over time to form that loving bond. what a blessing.

  5. My dog is only reactive around kids under 12 (he was very hurt by one as a pup and just…) …. that radar…? Oh yeah it’s there. I can almost sense small kids before I see or hear them. It’s weird given I don’t have any. LOL

    1. Oh no! That’s too bad. I think we need to do a better job at teaching kids kindness, not only for their fellow humans, but for animals as well! I don’t have any kids, but I work with 100 of them after school and they can be so mean! I love that you know they’re coming!

  6. I love love LOVE this post! It strikes so many chords not only with my own past dogs’ issues, but with clients I work with. What a terrific list — and applause to all the Poppa/Momma Bears out there that take on the challenge and do it so well.

  7. I love this post so much! It is definitely a spot-on summary of life with my boy Rico. He’s gotten to the point he’s perfectly content and happy at home, but if we take him on a ride, you’d think the world was ending! It definitely takes major planning and skill to handle life with a reactive dog, but every bit of progress they make is so sweet!

    1. Oh the progress is everything. But also knowing their limitations is good. Just like humans, we aren’t all extroverts. I’m perfectly content and happy at hole too!

  8. Guilty as charged! I’m all of those things truth be told. I’ve become completely involved with my dogs. I’m not complaining either. I could be a whole lot of worse things and this I’ll take any day!

    1. Dog nerds unite! It turns out dogs are really cool animals to learn about. And if you’re going to get involved in anything, might as well be cute and furry!

  9. When I adopted Layla I did not know what to expect but over time we now walk together and I have found LOL she is a little snob and it does not matter who walks by unless she knows them she just trots on not caring. I on the other hand am wary when a dog, especially a big one is off leash as she is small and it concerns me but there also if I know the owner it makes life easier. As for treats HA – I have done laundry with bags in my pockets also, they are just every where.

  10. Oh yes, we have this in common. Sophie is the reactive one on leash. It’s just so odd because she loves new people and isn’t afraid of anyone because she assumes they’re all going to love her. She lunges at other dogs during walks and barks at every delivery person in the neighborhood (Christmastime is a lot of fun) But she is a totally relaxed dog with new people and at the vet and in dog parks. Go figure.

    1. They can be so quirky! My dog is friendly with people and dogs when introduced properly off leash, so I think it’s frustrating/exciting him on leash because he wants to meet them!

  11. Walking a reactive dog can certainly be a challenge. It took some tricks and bending over backward when we lived down south too; particularly while I was trying to work on retraining her feelings. Up here, the only things to react to are squirrels. So that helps.

  12. Spot on! Lizzie has become reactive in the past few months, probably starting around six months. We’re working with those treats to visit as many places as possible to reward her for being quiet. I think she’s getting better, but I have developed Ninja moves to avoid people and other dogs when we’re trying to walk to the place for her to practice.

    1. Is she still under a year? They do go through a second fear period at that age, so it’s definitely good to stay on top of it and help her through it!

  13. What a great list! It’s obvious how much love you and your Mo share! We have treats in pockets of every jacket in the house! Maybe we’ll see you at BlogPaws! I have a feeling you would really enjoy it!

    1. Thanks, I think the time and effort spent to help him have a happy and long life deepens that bond to a whole different level. It’s been an interesting and inspiring adventure! And I hope to see you there! I need to go buy a ticket!

  14. As a vet tech and former shelter worker, can’t thank you enough for this post! Of my 4 dogs and 6 cats I have one dog who is a resource guarder. It presents most frequently with food, but occasionally with toys and water. We do spend a lot of time managing his behavior or the environment. to prevent an uproar.

    1. I’m glad you liked it! My reactive poochie is a resource guarder too (he’s all around sensitive) and we have recently discovered my mellow St. Bernard mix who was a stray, loses his mind over food. Baby gates have saved us!

  15. Your post made me laugh a little because it hits so close to home. Beau is the very definition of a reactive dog. I socialized him very early and the trainers taught me how to desensitize him and work with him to minimize his reactions and anxiety. But there are definitely situations we’ve learned to live with (like the Cujo effect when the doorbell rings). At least I don’t have to worry about home invasion or Jehovah’s Witness showing up.

    1. Haha, you are spot on with the “Cujo effect”! When my husband deploys, I know that I am perfectly safe because of the big, mean bark he has. He’s a sweetheart, but boy does he sound scary!

  16. The mama bear thing is so on point! Once a kid yelled at Babu, I scowled at him so hard and almost twisted his arm (couldn’t do the latter because even though nasty, kids get away with so much s$$t) but that kid will remember this angry face for a long time!

    1. I have kids stand outside my fence and bark at my dog to get him going. It’s almost like they are making fun of him. Ooo it’s gets me mad! I know Mo doesn’t see it like that, but they’re being a bully to a dog! Stop being so mean! I stand on my porch and tell them to get off my property.

  17. Yup. That’s me. I have three dogs, and one is always completely chill (though she was a scaredy dog when we first got her, and it took a lot of work to get her where she is now.) The other two are ok on their own, but when they’re together, they feed off each other’s energy and boom! Two reactive dogs. So, I never go anywhere without treats for them; they’re very treat motivated. We’re always learning, always practicing. And I’m always on the lookout for every dog, cat, deer, squirrel, human and mail carrier so I can help calm down my pups.
    Great article!
    —Wags (and purrs) from Life with Dogs and Cats

  18. Yep, sounds about right! Dog mum ninja over here. My Loki is a frustrated greeter and I find myself doing all the things you mention above. It’s just so nice to know we’re not alone and there’s so many others going through the same thing!

  19. Yes, I have indeed tried lots of calming tools and methods LOL Adaptil didn’t work for me 😛 But I know it works for some others, so I’ll say it’s down to the individual dog. 😉

  20. I’ve never had a reactive dog so I can’t really identity but I like how it’s clearly laid out. Seems like a really useful posts for those with reactive dogs. Thanks for sharing.

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