The emotional toll of a reactive dog
Article courtesy of Dogs Today Magazine.
Get a dog, they said. It’ll be fun, they said. Think of all those great, social dog walks, they said. So why am I stumbling around a field at 4.30 in the morning?
I’ve had a number of dogs over the years. All have had their distinct personalities, but all were fairly easy-going, and liked meeting people and going to places. Owning a dog meant that people would sometimes smile as we walked past them in the street, children would come up and ask if they could fuss them, and our dogs loved all of the attention.
And then along came Finn.
Finn is the most adorable goofball of a dog at home with the people he knows and trusts. That extends to a grand total of 5 people. I had never heard the term ‘reactive dog’ when we picked up the little ball of fluff at eight weeks old and brought him home. I knew that some people had ‘aggressive’ dogs but I would never have one of those. Surely aggressive dogs must have been abused, or poorly raised, right?
THERE ARE FAR, FAR FEWER [ARTICLES] THAT IN ANY WAY PREPARE YOU FOR THE EMOTIONAL ROLLERCOASTER THAT IS BEING THE OWNER OR HANDLER OF A REACTIVE DOG
Finn is somewhat of a perfect storm of what can cause reactivity. His mother is a very nervous dog, and he himself has definitely inherited that. He’s very jumpy around strange noises and the unfamiliar. He missed out on socialisation during the critical learning period through illness. When we were then later playing catch up, I will admit I pushed him a bit hard to meet new things, having never had a dog quite as nervous in nature as him and not knowing what I was risking. And lastly, just to really put the nail in things, he was bitten by another dog out on a walk.
I had no idea what I was looking at as he started to shy away from things. I tried my best to reassure and encourage him to check out the new things but nothing seemed to work. And then, finally, it happened. He full on reacted, lunging and barking at some other people walking their dogs. I will never, ever forget the look they gave me.
There are any number of articles that you can find about how to reassure and help your reactive dog. There are far, far fewer that in any way prepare you for the emotional rollercoaster that is being the owner or handler of a reactive dog.
BECAUSE OF FINN, I HAVE BEEN PATRONISED, PITIED, SWORN AT AND DESPISED
I’m going to be brutally honest here. I love the very bones of Finn, he is the most beautiful dog to look at. He sleeps on my bed, keeps me company wherever I go in the house and is always up for a game in the garden or an ear rub. As I’m typing this, he’s using my foot as a pillow while he snoozes. I will never pass this dog on to someone else because of his issues.
He is reactive to all dogs, and all people with the exception of a very small circle which consists of me, my husband, my mum, my sister and one of my brothers. Everyone else is told to go away loudly. He’s utterly terrified of children. So no, I would never pass him on. There have been times, however, when I will admit that I wished I’d never set eyes on him. I have cried more tears over this one dog than over any other animal I’ve ever had, even the ones that I’ve had to say that permanent goodbye to. Because of Finn, I have been patronised, pitied, sworn at and despised.
So we walk at 4.30 in the morning. It’s a lovely time of day in summer, light and cool but with no one else around to worry about as we ramble over the field. Less so now as we leave and get home in the dark. It does mean though that we just have to dodge a couple of people out on their way to work early or for an early morning jog. We’re all largely used to each other, so I just move out of their way, and use the encounter as a little training session.
THERE IS A GOOD CHANCE YOU WILL CRY AT SOME POINT. IT HAPPENS. NOBODY SETS OUT TO HAVE A DOG AND NOT BE ABLE TO HAVE THOSE LOVELY SOCIABLE WALKS WITH YOUR DOG PLAYING HAPPILY WITH FRIENDS
We’ve gone from massive handfuls of food being sprinkled on the ground to one treat at a time, looking calmly at the moving torch of the other person between each treat. When the weather gets worse, we will start going out mid-morning, once the school run is finished, and start letting him see a few more people. Will he react? There’s a chance it will happen at some point, but there are some things I have learned to help me cope since first discovering that I have a reactive dog.
There is a good chance you will cry at some point. It happens. Nobody sets out to have a dog and not be able to have those lovely sociable walks with your dog playing happily with friends. I’ve been dealing with this for over a year now, and still have days where it all weighs me down and I crack. Don’t try and hold it in. Concentrate on the fact that you know what the issue is and can work on it. Let the emotions out so that the next time you take your reactive dog out, you can leave the negative emotions behind and focus on your dog and what you need to do to help them learn to cope.
DON’T LET THE ATTITUDES OF OTHERS GET YOU DOWN. CONCENTRATE ON YOU AND YOUR DOG
Get help. Whether it is a good trainer/behaviourist (and it does need to be a good, positive one for this issue), books written by said good trainers or behaviourists, or the help of a community of people that understand what you and your dog are going through (Reactive Dogs UK were an absolute lifeline for me), it is vital to find yourself advice and a support network. Living with a reactive dog is an emotional situation, and one that you cannot get through on your own and remain sane.
Educate yourself on reactivity, the causes and the things that you can do to help. There are courses that help you understand what is going on in your reactive dog’s brain and why they do the things that they do. Canine Principles have an amazingly detailed and informative course in Canine Reactive Behaviour that I would thoroughly recommend if you want to understand the science behind reactivity and fear aggression.
A couple of UK-based dog trainers that write knowledgeably and accessibly about reactivity are Janet Finlay, who runs the Canine Confidence Academy, and Beverley Courtney of Brilliant Family Dog. Another excellent read is written by Canine Principles founder and mentor to many (including me) Sally Gutteridge, titled ‘Inspiring Resilience in Fearful and Reactive Dogs’ and can be found on Amazon.
WHAT I THINK IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO REMEMBER: YOUR DOG BEHAVES THE WAY HE DOES BECAUSE HE’S SCARED. REACTIVITY STEMS FROM FEAR
Don’t let the attitudes of others get you down. Concentrate on you and your dog. Remember that everything you are doing is for the good of your dog, and what others think if you suddenly veer off and ‘ninja’ behind some bushes on seeing another dog approaching, cross the road or about turn and head home on seeing something that you know your dog is scared of really does not matter.
The most important thing is that you know your dog can trust you to keep them safe and keep them away from the things that scare them. The more you do that, the more your dog will come to know it and trust you to do so.
Finally, what I think is the most important thing to remember: your dog behaves the way he does because he’s scared. Reactivity stems from fear. It’s not being aggressive for the sake of it, it’s your dog trying to frighten off the scary thing before it can get close enough to hurt him. It doesn’t matter if it seems like a ridiculous thing to be scared of. We once had a situation where Finn reacted to something and I couldn’t for the life of me see what it was, as there were no dogs and no people in sight.
LIVING WITH A REACTIVE DOG IS NEVER GOING TO BE EASY. IT CAN BE REWARDING AS THEY COME TO TRUST YOU MORE, BUT IT CAN BE COMPLETELY DRAINING AS WELL. THERE ARE TIMES WHEN IT FEELS LIKE ONE STEP FORWARD THEN TWO STEPS BACK.
I watched and watched him as I tried to work out what he was scared of so that we could find a way past it. What was it? A bin on someone’s driveway that was six feet away from where it normally was. It was different, so it was wrong and going to get him. I admit, I laughed for a second as it seemed so ridiculous to me. But then I realised it didn’t matter what I thought, to Finn it was a monster because it had moved. The fear was very real to him.
Living with a reactive dog is never going to be easy. It can be rewarding as they come to trust you more, but it can be completely draining as well. There are times when it feels like one step forward then two steps back. Stick with it, accept the fact that it’s going to be tough but remember that when you do make progress, the feeling will be amazing and it will have happened because of the work that you have put in.
As a friend reminds me on the days I’m feeling down, it’s not the easy dogs that make us good handlers and trainers, but the difficult ones. The complicated ones. Finn has been the reason for many, many tears but he has also been the reason for some incredible highs. Because of Finn, I found some amazing groups of people that have supported me in my journey with him and with dogs in general. In my case, my reactive dog is the reason for a complete life change, for putting me on this new route in my life. I will always be grateful to him for that.
Photo by Jay Gurden.