If you are like me, when you add a dog to your family, you also add dreams about what your future with your dog will look like. Images of a well-trained, social, and laid-back pup joining you on hikes, on trips to dog-friendly breweries and stores, and at dog-friendly events are conjured up as you stare at your new pup.
Those dreams may feel like they are all crashing down around you when your dog barks and lunges at a passing dog. Or snarls at the stranger who reaches out to pet him. Or just can’t quiet down one the trail and screams with pent-up energy every time wildlife crosses the path.
Soon every walk turns into a challenge of avoiding all of your dog’s triggers. You avoid joining friends at outings or you leave your dog behind. Traveling is tough because who can you trust to dog sit? And managing your reactive dog on a road trip feels like such a big task.
Trust me, you are not alone in this. But there is also hope. With the right combination of management, behavior modification/training, and possibly some behavior medication/supplements, many of you can live an active life with your reactive dog.
But be kind to yourself as you enter into the journey of living with a reactive dog. Your dog is worthy of love and has a lot of love to give in return. But you still may need some time to grieve the dog you imagined and accept the dog you live with.
In the fall of 2011, I started making the rounds at the local animal shelter and humane societies. I was looking for a young dog to adopt. This was going to be my first dog of my own and I was so excited to choose her.
At this point in my life, I was starting my second year of veterinary school. So I needed a dog around 3 months or older, as the puppy/dog would have to be able to go up to 4 hours between potty breaks. (General rule of thumb is months of age + 1 = the hours a puppy can hold her bladder.)
I looked at a lot of dogs before I found her, an adorable 8-month-old cattle dog mix. She was so sweet and cuddled with me at the shelter.
I tried to pick the perfect name. I had originally wanted to name my dog, Glia. Since I was in vet school, I thought it would be fun to name her from my anatomy terms list. One of the only feminine-sounding names I could find was glial cells/microglia. Hence Glia. But the name just didn’t fit this cute little cattle-dog mix. So I waited for a couple of days to name her, finally settling on Astrid.
I brought her home and couldn’t wait to share her with friends and family. I introduced her to my roommates and she did great.
Then my parents came to meet her and brought along my childhood dog. A sweet, mellow, and submissive yellow lab named Kitsa.
Astrid started barking as soon as she saw Kitsa. Kitsa being the submissive dog she was just turned away. But Astrid remained on high alert and kept barking. So we kept the two dogs separate during my parents’ visit.
Astrid was seemed timid and scared around my dad, but did okay as long as he didn’t startle her.
Kitsa stayed for a few hours and Astrid didn’t get used to her. I was worried at this point, as my roommate also was adopting a new dog and many of my friends had dogs. They would go to dog parks together and I wanted to be part of that. How was this going to work?
A few days later, my roommate’s dog arrived. And Astrid was reactive again, barking and growling, to the point that we couldn’t get the dogs closer than 6 feet together safely.
It is at this part of the story that I begin to feel guilt and shame. I didn’t have time to work with a reactive dog. I was in my second year of vet school. I needed/wanted a dog that could live with a second dog, that I could bring to my parents’ house and leave with their dog, and that I could bring to the dog park with friends. And at this point in my life I had minimal training in dog behavior and no experience working with a reactive dog.
I made the heartbreaking decision that Astrid wasn’t the right fit for me and brought her back to the humane society. And let me be honest, I still feel so guilty about this. I feel like I failed her and that I gave up too soon. I worry about her and hate that I don’t know what the end of her story was. She was a sweet wonderful dog in so many ways and bringing her back was one of the hardest things I have done.
So when you feel like you can’t do it, I understand.
It took me a few weeks before I was ready to look again. And when I did, I found a bouncy little 3-month-old black lab mix puppy.
The shelter called her Tweety, but she seemed like a Glia right away to me.
I remember visiting her two days after she was spayed. I sat in a small visitation room with her and one of my good friends. Glia spent her time running between us and leaping up for attention.
I returned the next day to bring her home.
And it was good for a while. She got along with my roommate’s dog, although she did resource guard some items. We started puppy classes. She only played a little rough with one puppy. We advanced to basic obedience. She was smart and caught on quickly, even though she did have a little bit of a hard time with impulse control. She went to the dog park and loved being chased by other dogs.
Then came the first dog “fight.” She was playing with a stick with another dog at the dog park before they started growling and snapping at each other. We pulled them apart and I thought it was a one-time thing.
But then she pinned an exuberant younger dog running to greet her on the ground and growled and snapped at her. I had to pull her off of that dog. And that’s when I knew our dog park days were over.
Around this same time at about 9 to 18 months of age, she began to get more reactive on walks as well. Barking and pulling on the leash when other dogs approached.
And that was when I knew Glia was a dog who was struggling with reactivity and aggression towards strange dogs.
In hindsight, there were many warning signs. But Glia was the first dog in my life who fit into the label of a “reactive dog.” In many ways, I missed warning signs and waited too long to begin behavior modification training for her. But I hope that my experience with Glia will help me with my next dog and maybe be of benefit to you and other readers of this blog.
What is a “reactive dog”?
A reactive dog is a dog who “over-reacts” to certain stimuli in his or her life. Reactivity includes a spectrum of behaviors that can include barking, lunging, poor impulse control, and sometimes, aggression. Dog’s can be reactive to other dogs, to people, to prey animals, or even to inanimate objects that correlate with over-arousal for that dog.
Some dogs are only reactive on a leash or in specific situations or environments. Some are only reactive to one stimulus, while others are reactive to multiple people, animals, and objects.
While dogs who exhibit these behaviors are often labeled as reactive or aggressive dogs, it is important to acknowledge that reactive behavior is triggered by a stimulus. These dogs are not always reactive. They can be wonderful dogs and a great member of the family, relaxing easily in situations when the trigger(s) is not present.
Calling these dogs “reactive dogs” is a bit akin to calling a person an “angry person.” That person may demonstrate more symptoms of anger than another person, but hopefully, that person is not angry all the time. And if they are angry a lot, some of that anger may be in response to very justifiable triggers. So for this and future blog posts, I will try not to use the label “reactive dog” and instead discuss dogs exhibiting reactive behaviors.
For many dogs, reactive behaviors are the result of anxiety or frustration. As a result, if you proceed through all the blog posts in this 15 foundational series, you will see that many tips and behavior modification goals center around helping your dog find calm, decreasing your dog’s frustration, and working on impulse control.
While mild reactive behaviors are simply annoying, embarrassing, or frustrating, more severe reactive behaviors can be dangerous to the dog and to those around the dog. Regardless of how severe your dog’s reactivity is, a dog who over-reacts to stimuli in his or her environment requires a higher level of training and management than the “average” dog. And just like in people, changing habits and instinctual responses to fears and frustrations takes time and consistency.
It is also important to understand that reactive behaviors can be part of anxiety disorders and (again just like people) sometimes medications can be very helpful in treating mental health problems like anxiety. Medications alone can’t fix behavior problems, but they can help relieve anxiety and make it easier to modify behavior.
Is Reactivity the same as Aggression?
While not all dogs with reactive behaviors are aggressive, aggression can be a type of reactivity. Aggressive behavior, like biting, shaping, snarling typically happen after more subtle signs of stress and attempts by a dog to increase the distance between them a perceived threat.
However, dogs can learn to “go on the offensive” and increase to more aggressive behavior faster through learning. For most dogs, whether showing offensive or defensive aggression, fear and making a stimulus go away are typically the primary motivation for aggressive behavior.
I discuss this in more detail in my blog post “Living an Active Life with a Reactive Dog: The Basics.”
A Success Story
If you have recently added a dog to your life and that dog is displaying reactive behaviors, reading the above information is probably just confirming what you already suspected. Your dog has problem behaviors and they are relying on you to help them succeed in modifying their behaviors so they can live a better life.
Luckily, while just like humans with behavior problems or mental health disorders there isn’t a cure for dogs with anxiety and reactivity, there are many success stories out there. And Glia is one of those.
Glia will always be more likely to exhibit reactive behaviors than a dog like my childhood dog, Kitsa. But through training, behavior modification training, and a few years on a behavior medication (fluoxetine), Glia can successfully adventure with me. Even areas with a high density of dogs, like Minnesota State Parks.
Glia has road-tripped to 43 national parks across the United States, participates in overnight backpacking trips, is working on hiking all 68 Minnesota Hiking Club Trails, and most impressively, can walk past most other dogs in the neighborhood without staring at them!
Interested in how we did it? Finish reading this blog post and then sign up for our email list to get all of my tips and tricks for living an active life with a “reactive” dog.
There will be plenty of posts about how to help your dog reduce their reactivity behaviors, many aimed at reducing the anxiety, fear, or frustration causing the behaviors in the first place. But today, in this post, I want to give us all space to grieve the dogs we imagined and accept the dogs that we have.
Grieving the Dog that You Imagined
Part of living with a reactive dog is understanding that there is a certain type of grief that comes along with the knowledge that your beloved pet is struggling with reactivity. You will likely experience all five stages of grief as you work with your reactive dog: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. You are not alone in this.
I can remember going through those stages with Glia. Remember above, when I said that the first time it happened I figured it was a “one-time thing”? That was probably a bit of denial of the early signs. And I have definitely experienced anger and depression along the journey of accepting Glia’s reactivity and being able to move forward and help both of us deal with and manage her symptoms.
I am assuming that most people reading this series of blog posts are in the acceptance phase as they are googling information about reactivity in dogs. But maybe you are still in a bit of denial and hoping to read something that will contradict your growing awareness that your dog has a problem with reactivity.
Either way, once we accept our dogs for who they are, we can start to work with them to improve their behaviors, decrease their frustration and anxiety, and plan adventures that they can enjoy with us.
Acknowledge the Problem Behaviors
To help you process, you first need to acknowledge and accept your dog for where they are now. Accepting your dogs current level of reactivity will help you develop a successful management plan. It will also help guide your behavior modification plan. So I want each of you to name the behaviors that are currently frustrating you and making it difficult for you to live life with your dog that you imagined when you first brought your dog into your life.
I know that I have mostly talked about Glia in this post, but I also have a little cavalier mix named Sasha. I am going to do this exercise for both Sasha and Glia to give two examples.
- Has unpredictable reactions to new dogs: This could include barking and lunging while on leash and (when her reactive was at it’s most severe) pinning another dog to the ground while snarling and snapping.
- Has a high prey drive: Glia will run after squirrels, bunnies, deer, or other critters. If on leash or behind a barrier, she does a high pitched bark that is embarrassing.
- Hates skateboarders (and occasionally other fast moving wheeled objects): will bark and lunge
- Fear of strangers: especially bigger humans, those wearing a hat, and those carrying something large in their hands. She may bark or growl at them.
- Occasional reactivity (barking or lunging) towards other dogs while on leash, typically towards small dogs. Or dogs that are reacting to her.
- High prey drive: rabbits and deer are the biggest triggers of barking and pulling on leash for Sasha.
What what does your dog struggle with? What behaviors are you hoping to be able to help your dog change? I really recommend writing these down so you can set goals and track your dog’s growth.
Next, take the time to acknowledge and identify how those behaviors are preventing you from doing everything you would like to with your dog.
- I can’t hike with Glia off leash
- I can’t be oblivious to my surroundings while walking Glia. I need to scan for other dogs and for wildlife so that I can get Glia’s focus on me before passing dogs, bunnies, etc to prevent reactive behavior. I also need to ask people to recall their dogs or put them on leash while passing, as a lot of people will let their dogs run right up to strangers.
- I can’t join hiking groups that have off-leash dogs present that Glia hasn’t met before.
- I can’t hike without treats, as treats are an important part of Glias behavior modification training. We use treats to help work on counterconditioning/desensitizing and/or using treats as a distraction (management tool) to help her focus back on me when triggers approach.
- I can’t hike busy trails without pulling Glia over to the side of the trail every few minutes to let another dog pass.
- I can’t hike with Sasha off leash currently, as her recall is not at a good enough level to call her off of wildlife chasing.
- I can’t let other dogs or people approach Sasha without monitoring her body language for signs of fear/anxiety.
- I can’t relax at a campsite without treats, as Sasha’s excitement scream when she sees wildlife is loud and offering a high value treat for quieting down is the quickest way to end the scream.
You might never be able to do all the things on your can’t list above. But there may be some that you can significantly improve. For example, Glia is much better able to navigate crowded trails with lots of other dogs today than she was when her reactivity first started. And Sasha quiets down much faster after starting her excitement screams these days.
So although you may need to adjust your expectations, your dog can make significant improvements. Behavior modification is possible, although you may never have a dog that can run around off-leash and be friends with every person and dog that passes by.
So hang on to this list as you work with your dog and see how many of these problems you can improve with a lot of hard work and some good behavior modification.
Appreciate the Dog that You have Right Now
Acknowledging and accepting your dog’s behavior concerns is important, but I also think it is important to remember and appreciate the things you love about your dog. Dogs that struggle with reactivity aren’t always in a reactive state. So what are the things that you love about your dog? These are some of the reasons you are happy your dog is in your life. When things get hard, sometimes you have to celebrate current successes.
- Is an amazing snuggler
- Is willing to tackle any trail; seriously she would try to climb a cliff with me if I asked her to.
- Will hike all day and in just about any weather conditions (she slows down when it is hot and I respect that because dogs can over heat really easily. Also she does need winter boots and jackets to keep warm. But she will hike with me as long as I want to).
- She is super smart and easy to train
- She is a great travel companion. She is so calm and quiet in the car
- Is very willing to please and will do anything for a good treat
- Is a fantastic lap dog
- Is gentle with small kids
- Although small, she is still willing to hike as far as I can. She once completed over 20 miles on trail in one day.
- Is a very relaxed car traveller.
What do you love about your dog? I recommend writing this list down also. Gratitude lists can help you change your mindset from “why me” to “thank you.”
If you want to share any of your lists, feel free to go ahead and list your biggest struggle and your favorite thing about your dog in the comments section below. Remember you are not alone and there are so many dog owners who are working through reactive behaviors, frustration, and anxiety with their dogs.
Please be kind in the comments. Everyone is at a different place in their journey, but we are all trying to do our best for our dogs. And remember, as Glennon Doyle says: “We can do hard things.” And the same goes for your dog.
For more information and some resources for living with a dog who struggles with reactive behaviors, please visit my “Living an Active Life with a Reactive Dog: The Basics” post.
Or get signed up for our email list just for people who want to adventure with dogs that have been labeled “reactive.”
While I am actively working on expanding the resources on this website for people living with reactive dogs, there are already several great blog posts on the internet. I found this list of articles relevant to today’s blog post in an article titled “To Anyone That’s Had a Bad Day With Their Reactive Dog.“