Imagine this, you are walking down the street with your best friend. Her tongue lolling out of her mouth and her tail wagging back and forth in happiness. It is a beautiful day and you couldn’t imagine spending it any other way with your pup. You can see the joy radiating off of her in waves as she spends the afternoon enjoying her favorite activity-a walk with her favorite and most trusted human.
You reach down to stroke her back and she glances back at you happily just as you round a corner and…
You both freeze.
Standing before you is another dog and his owner. They are out enjoying the beautiful day in the same fashion as you and your pup. Your heart sinks, heavy in your chest as your watch the hairs quickly stand on your baby’s back and you cringe as low growls begin to escape her throat. They grow in volume and strength until they reach a crescendo and before you can stop it your pup is barking and lunging at your feet, a massive ball of energy you can barely contain.
You tug back on the leash, quickly backing up and disappearing back around the corner, all the while muttering “sorry, sorry, sorry.” The other dog’s parent eyes you with either deep sympathy or trepidation.
You have entered the world of owning a reactive dog.
A world where you spend the rest of your once peaceful walk home trying to calm your dog. She can’t seem to quiet down though. Once she has been triggered, everything makes her jump. The man who was sitting on his porch, he didn’t bother her before, but she can’t help but bark now. She has been set off, a match to her fuse.
All the way home, the neighbors eye you and your dog wearily. They can’t seem to understand what is wrong with her or why you can’t bother to control her. They see her as a risk. They see her as dangerous. That dog is going to bite someone, they think.
It can be an unkind and lonely world when you own a reactive dog. Often times people will incorrectly label your dog as aggressive and dangerous. They will give you and your dog dirty looks or mutter nasty comments under their breath. I try to remind myself when their comments sting that these people are not intentionally trying to be cruel. Instead they are simply ignorant of the differences in the dog world, that fragile line that exists between reactivity and aggression.
So what is the difference?
According to the American humane society aggression is defined as a threat to harm an individual.
Any dog is capable of aggression and aggressive behaviors if pushed far enough.
So what is reactivity?
Reactivity is defined as an overreaction to certain types of stimulation. Reactivity is usually driven by fear.
My dog Bean is the poster child for reactivity in dogs. Ever since she was a puppy Bean has been a fearful, anxious dog. She would spook at loud noises, raised voices, or strangers. When she is afraid, she likes to hide under this ugly green chair in our family room. As a result, I HATE that chair because I know that means she is uncomfortable or afraid when she is sitting under it.
Bean’s reactivity also means that she is not a fan of meeting new dogs. I cannot take her to dog parks and I cannot bring new puppy friends around for her to meet.
Bringing new people over to the house is always a chore. Sometimes I am able to calm Bean down enough to keep her on a leash for the night. Other times she falls in love enough with her new human friend and there’s no problem at all. Most of the time, Bean spends the night in the crate to avoid any incidents.
As her mom, I know that Bean’s world will always be small. This was something that used to bring me a lot of pain and heartache. Over time as my bond with Bean and my knowledge of dogs grew, I began to accept this fact. It is not something to mourn. As her guardian, it is my job to keep her safe and happy. Bean will never miss what she does not know. Her world may be small, but her small world makes her happy and her small world is full of those who love her.
However, this does not mean I will ever stop trying to make Bean’s world bigger. From the moment I realized Bean was different, I have tried to find what makes her life easier. Bean has been on Prozac and we found that did not work for her. However, I now know that CBD oil helps her anxiety. Training is also a big part of owning a reactive dog. Bean has been enrolled in several training classes including puppy preschool, Fearful dog school, and she just recently graduated from an adult obedience class.
Every day with a reactive dog is a learning process. Some times are filled with heartache and others are filled with so much progress and joy that it makes it all worth it in the end. Owning a reactive dog is not easy. It certainly is not for the faint of heart. But if you open your heart to a reactive dog I swear they will love you more than you will ever deserve.