Things I wish I could tell you, from the owner of a reactive dog

“Don’t worry, he’s friendly.”

“Mine is not!”

I wish I could tell you what is behind that response. The truth is, my dog is relatively mildly reactive to some other dogs, and occasionally, when he feels threatened, some people.

On the reactivity scale, he is not bad; he will bark and that is it. He did once flip and pin another dog who would not leave him alone. The barking is simply a method of putting space between him and the thing that he finds scary. He has has never bitten. He has chronic pain and is a nervous dog who does not enjoy the company of strangers.

My dog will send signals through his body language that he wants to be left alone, but to humans, unless you know what you are looking for, these signals will be subtle and most probably missed. Today's dog park culture means that a lot of owners believe that their dog must play with as many other dogs as possible to have a fulfilling life, so many dogs are often not taught to take notice of body language either and see every other dog as a potential playmate. My dog is not a potential playmate! So I have to react every time we see anther dog coming, usually by turning 180 degrees and walking the other way, simply because I do not know if the incoming dog is likely to bounce on my dog or just walk past.

I have been told that he needs training, that I must cause his reactivity or that I should give him a kick if he barks.

Many other dog owners often do not quite understand. I did not either until I got my dog – I did not realise how isolating or frustrating having a reactive dog could be. I thought all dogs could be fixed by basic training, structure and good walks. This is simply not the case. Just like humans, some dog have issues that can’t be cured – they can be improved and managed, but not totally fixed. I have been told that he needs training, that I must cause his reactivity or that I should give him a kick if he barks.

People love to make assumptions and judge but the truth is, you can not tell if a dog will be be reactive just by its breed or background. Some are rescues, while some have been in the same home all their lives. Any breed can be affected, some may be genetically predisposed, sometimes the dog has suffered a traumatic incident or abuse. But having a bad experience will not necessarily cause any issues either. Some dogs, like mine, may be in pain; it is impossible to generalise. I occasionally get comments that I should “just train him”. We work with a veterinary behaviourist, a dog trainer, have attended specialist classes, and a huge amount of my time is spent researching and implementing training methods. I spend far more time, money and resources on training than the average dog owner.

The behaviour modification methods I am using are modern and positive (punishing a terrified dog or one in pain will be counterproductive). It requires working with him while he is under his threshold – that is, at a safe enough distance from other dogs to not get a reaction. When we started, this was around 20 metres. He can now do a pass with an on lead, calm dog at around two metres. Occasionally he will now do a normal, friendly greeting with non-threatening dogs and he has a growing number of trusted canine "friends" who he is happy and relaxed around.. However, he will still react to unknown dogs, especially if they are bouncy, as the bouncy ones hurt the most!

The experts tell us that every time a dog has a reaction, his cortisol (stress hormone) level builds, meaning that he is more likely to have another larger reaction, then another, then another…. Cortisol will take a few days to reduce again which means that the reaction caused by a playful ambush from another dog that causes a surge of pain in my dog is not over when the barking stops, it still affects him and holds back his training for days.

This is why I turn and go the other way when your dog approaches. Sometimes I will ask you to call him. If your dog is approaching at speed, I will stand in front of mine and shout “NO”. Please do not take offence. I have been chased down the road by indignant owners telling me that their dog is friendly – I get that there is prejudice against some breeds but my reaction is the same whatever size or breed your dog is. There is usually not enough time to explain all this while I am trying to persuade you that however wonderful your dog is, mine does not need or want to meet him – so I have to be abrupt.

It is painful for me to have to portray my dog as some kind of devil dog to you to get my point across. He really is not; he is funny, intelligent, and the most loving dog I know. I do not think any less of him for his reactivity; in fact it has made our relationship even stronger than if he had been 'normal'. I have had to shift my expectations. I can’t just take him to to park and unclip his lead, our walks involve lots of training to keep them interesting and to teach him to be more engaged with me. Sometimes we have a day off walks altogether to allow his cortisol levels to go down, and during this time we play games do scent-work, trick training and general obedience. He is certainly much more trained than my previous 'normal' dog, who was naturally happy and sociable.

We have to plan with military precision, to avoid certain times when we know particular dogs will be out.

When the extent of his reactivity first became apparent, I had an awful period, almost like mourning the dog I had hoped I would get. We would not get to go to the fun dog shows, go to the popular dog walking areas or pop into a dog-friendly cafe. But I now know what he can and can’t do and have adapted his activities accordingly. He is making progress but will never be a social butterfly and I am okay with that.

It would be great if you could help us and our reactive dogs by doing just one simple thing – stop your dog running up to mine (we are usually the ones with an on-lead dog trying to make it clear by our body language that we do not want to meet!). If that means calling yours to heel or putting him on a lead for 30 seconds while we get out of the way, that would be great. I will not walk mine into an area with a lot of dogs, we keep away from parks with off lead dogs playing and we keep to areas with good visibility. I do my best to not impact on your walk, but it is increasingly difficult to find quiet areas, especially as the weather improves. So the chances are, we will meet at some point.

My dog has to be on lead if there is a chance that other dogs in the area and whilst it is annoying for you to have to put yours on lead for a minute or two, try to imagine what our walks are like – we have to plan with military precision, to avoid certain times when we know particular dogs will be out, many places are total no go areas, we frequently have to give up and go home as there are loose dogs in all of our quiet places, our walks are certainly not relaxing.

Having a reactive dog can be isolating and overwhelming. We would like nothing more than to chat with the other owners while our dogs join in with the fun, but for most of us, that is a rare occurrence...

I understand that dogs do blow their recall – that is okay, we do not expect perfection and the odd slip up is expected, but if you know that your dog constantly runs up to others, consider using a long line and work on their recall. Twice recently we have had dogs run through hedges to say hello to mine. If my dog reacts, yours may be scared into the road, I am concerned for their safety too.

I try to walk my dog in on lead only areas, like cemeteries and nature reserves, however, there always seems to be someone with their dog off-lead. Please, give us these few places by keeping yours on lead too – you have your pick of off-lead parks, fields and footpaths for your dogs to have a run, our dogs only have these few areas where we can truly relax and enjoy our walks.

Having a reactive dog can be isolating and overwhelming. We would like nothing more than to chat with the other owners while our dogs join in with the fun, but for most of us, that is a rare occurrence, for some it may never happen. I often feel like other owners are judging me and my dog and have overheard the occasional hurtful comment. If you see us out and about, a friendly smile to let us know that you acknowledge the work we are putting in to our dogs would make a huge difference too.

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