My dog is the best.
He’s sweet. He loves to cuddle. He adores cats. He skitters with his dog friends.
He’s incredible with our two-year-old daughter, even falling in line when she waggles her fingers at him and says, “Cooper coming,” in her little voice.
He’s my running partner and my sidekick in this balancing-work-and-mom-life craziness.
And, at night, when I settle in bed with my book to unwind after the usually-long day, he climbs under the covers (yes, all the way) and rests his chin on my ankles… a solid, reliable pressure that marks the end of the day.
He’s the absolute best.
He’s also the absolute worst.
He barks at every noise, real or imagined. He lurches and lunges at the end of the leash when we spot a dog at the end of the block. He cowers in the corner, shaking like a leaf, whenever we go somewhere, anywhere. He keeps his head on a swivel at the park, his body tense, his tail tucked. When we spot a dog–or, depending on his mood, even just a kindly stranger–we step off the trail or off the sidewalk and dole out treats, or if for whatever reason we think/know the treats won’t work this time, we cross the street, U-turn, duck between houses, or sprint off in the opposite direction–whatever keeps him calm(er) and feeling safe(er).
But it’s also rewarding beyond anything I could imagine. When he makes a good decision or when he looks at me for direction, my heart soars.
And then he goes ballistic at a passing bicycle and I plummet back down to earth. You guys should’ve seen the day a hot air balloon went overhead…
I’ve sustained back and shoulder injuries managing him on leash. And, yet, at the end of the day, when he places his chin on my ankle, all’s right with the world.
I only wish other people could understand this about him, this dichotomy of being the absolute best dog in the entire world and his fear. It makes me sad that people don’t know the real him, the sweet, patient, pupper to a toddler and my best friend. So, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about loving a reactive dog.
5 things I wish you knew about my reactive dog:
We are always on high alert.
Which can get exhausting. Every time I read anything about time management or productivity or burnout or whatever, one piece of oft-repeated advice is this: Take your dog for a nice stroll to clear your head! And I laugh and I laugh and I laugh. Because here’s the thing: When you have a reactive dog, there is literally no such thing as a nice stroll. Unless you go in the pouring rain. Or at midnight. You are constantly surveying your surroundings, watching for people or dogs or bikes or whatever triggers your dog has. You are constantly rerouting when you spot one of those on the horizon. Even when you’re in flow–you’re walking in a quiet spot without any other foot traffic–there’s always in the back of your mind the possibility of something happening, so you remain vigilant. Which brings me to…
Your “friendly” off-leash dog is our worst nightmare.
Responsibility is a two-way street. End of story. Those of us with reactive dogs choose to take our dogs to parks and trails that require leashes. We pick places carefully, places without too many blind corners or places with a clear escape route. Why? An approaching off-leash dog truly is our worst nightmare, especially if the dog’s owner is waaayyyyyy off in the distance. You yelling, “He’s friendly!” from a mile away is literally the. worst. Put your dog on leash or go somewhere that allows off-leash dogs.
We’re doing our best.
Your judgement doesn’t help. It’s like the parent with the trantruming toddler in the supermarket… We don’t want to be dealing with this either, Sir. Your glares don’t help the situation. Really, though, with a reactive dog, we are all doing our best. Sometimes our best isn’t good enough. Sometimes all the training and management and planning just falls apart. Your dog is having a bad day. You encounter a scenario way scarier than your dog can handle. Or, you’ve just passed too many dogs/bikes/strollers/strangers for your dog to be able to withstand one more and that’s when he loses it. I can assure you, a smidge of compassion goes a long way here. A smile or a nod. Moving your dog/bike/stroller/yourself away. Whatever. Compassion over judgement, always.
Yes, he’s “trained.”
Speaking of compassion over judgement… it’s likely your suggestion of, “You need a dog trainer,” will fall on deaf ears. Why? Reactive dogs are generally far more trained than “typical” dogs. We take every class under the sun. Cooper probably knows more than most dogs, and he’s certainly spent more hours in training than the usual basic-obedience-for-puppies class that most owners take. He’s taken two obedience classes, agility classes, 1:1 agility, trick training, and two reactive dog classes, plus many hours with a trainer we really liked doing 1:1 sessions. Our dearly departed Lucas took about 5x that number of classes–he was just a bigger liability than Coop, tbh–and was impeccably trained. Training can’t mitigate fear or a fear-based reaction. It can help. Big-time. With Lucas, especially, it took about five years, but he eventually was able to “watch me” to walk past a scary scenario. In a familiar park. When we had a clearly-defined escape route. And the other dog was on leash. But he could do it. Reactive dogs tend to be super-well-trained dogs because of those liability issues, but training won’t always solve fear.
We love our dogs, quirks and all.
Someone once told me, “I would never have two dogs I couldn’t walk together,” referring to Lucas and Cooper. It broke my heart. I couldn’t have ever imagined not having either one of them. Yes, it took tons of extra effort to do two walks per day (Emmett, of course, could always go with either one of them, and if if they were acting like crazed maniacs, he’s just be happily sniffing the ground in seach of errant chicken bones or sandwiches). I love Cooper to pieces. He’s my little baby. He’s my friend. He’s Violet’s bestie. He loves wholeheartedly. When people come over, he can’t get close enough, usually planting his 50 pounds securely in his friends’ laps. We reactive dog people love our dogs because we see them. We see them for who they really, despite and because of their unique struggles. We love our relationship, and we love the deep, heartfelt returns we get from working with a struggling dog.
It’s certainly not easy to love a reactive dog, but it’s so worthwhile and brings unparalleled levels of pride and joy as you get to watch them overcome life’s hurdles. I always think of the responsibility of having, loving,and working with a reactive dog when I hear the quote:
“Saving one dog will not change the world, but surely for that one dog, the world will change forever.” ?
It’s my goal with my reactive dog to change his world forever, for the better.
If you love a reactive dog, what do you wish people understood about you and your pup? What do you wish you could share about your reactive pup?
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