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.

This is a guest essay by Jay Gurden. Want to write for us? Visit www.dogstodaymagazine.co.uk/essay-submission or email editorial@dogstodaymagazine.co.uk

50 COMMENTS

  1. I have a reactive dog who is about to turn 5 in April. Not only is he reactive he is a chihuahua cross so highly vocal with it! The bond between us is like I’ve had with no other dog… But because of this I can’t go on holiday without him or leave him with family overnight etc. He’s OK when I leave him to do my part time job but he has the company of my yorkie. I fear what happens when she goes. It is exhausting, sometimes you think you can’t cope but he’s my world!

    • My dog is also a reactive chihuahua mix. Thankfully he’s good with people, but he’s a holy terror around dogs. And he has a very loud bark. It can be hard and exhausting, but I also adore him more than any other dog I’ve had. He is my heart.

  2. Finn just sounds like mine! Shes so jumpy and hates all living things that come up to her however since doing a new program shes turning a corner. The last 2 days shes been brilliant actually. I do a lot of calming signals from Fawndog121dogtraining.co.uk as their natural language its so effective! Good luck with Finn!

  3. Have lived for years with two dogs one that loves everyone and one who can but is highly reactive to any new dogs , he can learn to meet and get along with other dogs and has his pocket of friends, that being said he is not a dog park dog , now he is feeble and cant go anywhere but I have felt all the emotions in this article and the nasty looks are compounded because he is an a staffy, he is a rescue and has been a lot of hell in his life , that being said I have learned a lot through owning him , thanks for this article

  4. Loved the read. I have a question. My dog dorsnt seem to have a fear. In fact she let someone pet her then nipped them.
    Do you really think its fear? If so i want to focus more on hiw this happened to my pup. Shes now 3 years old .. always been dog reactive. As a pup singletin. Rough play. Paw on head. Bully type behaviour.

    • Look out for body language ques. They can be so subtle, especially if they’ve been told off for showing fear in other forms first in the past. People say but she’s wagging her tail, that doesn’t necessarily mean she likes it.

  5. Hi I had a bull terrier cross cattle cross kelpie who we had to put down last year due to her badly hurting a small dog and then 12 Months later broke the horse lunging lead we had on her and she killed a dog. Please lookup Thomas Davis from upstate canine academy. You will be blown away with his methods.

    • Had a look and one of the first things I found was a video on how to use a prong collar and e-collar ‘properly’ – not on my dogs thanks.

      • Agreed, JayG. Aversives can teach the dog to be even more fearful! Trying to help my girl by building a deep, deep trust relationship.

  6. It all comes back to the breeders in the end. Don’ breed from nervous dogs. Rear litters so that they have some resilience. Give new owners the tools to continue the work you have st.

  7. If you have a reactive dog or a dog with unreasonable fears (scared of a bin?), please have their thyroid tested. My two year old rescue was this way and I had him tested. His results came back that he has autoimmune thyroiditis and he has made great improvements since starting medication to treat it.

    • He’s had full health checks and tests. He’s very suspicious of anything that is new – it wasn’t the bin, it was the fact it wasn’t where it always is.

  8. Thank you for pretty much summing up my life with Poppy (Pops I call her) for the past 5 years, with the exception of walks as I’m at work during the week so we have short walks and much more playtime during the week and long walks as far away from people as possible at weekends. I don’t go on holiday or away without taking her with me and everyone I know has a pet she isn’t very good with. She is the sweetest, most loving, smart and amazing dog I have ever known and if she knows she can trust you, she trusts you implicitly and loves you with all her heart. She can’t cope with loud noises, she’s very wary of men and some women (and has nipped a couple), she barks and lunges at dogs she doesn’t know and chases any animal smaller than her. Apart from ducks and birds. On the flipside, she has a love of cows which is cute. It really has been a learning curve for her and me but I love her more than anything and nothing would make me give her up. She is my best friend, my baby, my partner in crime and my world. We’ve been through deaths, divorce, love, loss, several house moves, changing jobs, having no money, having a bit of money, and generally everything life throws at us as a pair and apart from when I go to work, we’re inseparable. We have good days and bad days with her issues and I’ve got used to the funny looks and people diving out of the way with her muzzle on. What really annoys me is people seeing her on a lead with her muzzle on and allowing their dog off lead near her. I’ve had to push a fair few away with my foot while holding on to her and trying to calm her down. I love it when people ask about her muzzle as it means I can educate people about her, muzzles and shelter dogs and how animal cruelty should not be tolerated (she was abused as a puppy). Reactive dogs deserve as much of a life as non reactive dogs, and as their caregivers, I applaud anyone not giving up when the going gets tough. You’re right, there will be tears, frustration and a lot of hard work but the breakthroughs, no matter how small, are absolutely the best reward. Pops plays sometimes with a friend’s dog (still with her muzzle on but no reaction) and the first time they played chase in a field together, tails wagging, I cried. A small thing but for both her and me, it was immense. My advice- celebrate the small victories and ignore the few haters. In the grand scheme of things, their opinion means nothing!! Sorry for such a long comment!!

  9. I wonder does this dog have hearing problems, as blue marl colouring dogs often do. He will then tell anyone & everyone, keep away a s I don’t understand you & that’s scary

  10. Can relate to so much of what you’ve written! Is the photo above of Finn? He looks a lot like my Callum, who was also reactive though mostly just on leash.
    He was my first dog, my heart dog, and while I understand how exhausting it can be to manage day-to-day life with a dog whose fear makes them reactive, I’d give anything to have my boy back.
    Hope there are more good moments with Finn than difficult ones.

  11. Totally relate to this. Really want to foster children but sadly think this won’t be possible with poppy around. She’s 2 in May but I adopted her for life so this is where she will stay.
    Also completely understand the bin thing. A bin bag in the road was the worst thing ever last week and don’t even mention the motorbike helmet dumped in the park, even though daddy had several at home!

  12. Thank you for sharing.. my boy is almost 2 yrs… we seen 3 trainers and two behaviour specialist… one wants to try antidepressants… nope…. my dog is fine with other dogs .. it’s people he’s afraid of.. loves his family and anyone he enjoyed as a pup.., he’s bitten a few people.. I mussel him in public, my greatest fear is the stranger that shows up at our house… I certainly didn’t expect such tough love.,, and yes, have shed tears….. pure Aussie mom…. ❤️

  13. Wow this is exactly what myself and my husband have lived with for at least 13 years and now just lost our beautiful labrador. I cant believe we don’t have him any more, as the bond I had with him was so strong after doing so much with him. Its been so difficult over the years but its made me so knowlegable about reactive dogs and Ive been through a range of so called behaviourists. Most people do not know how lucky they are not to have any issues with their dogs. Our other dog is also reactive but in different ways-but over the years Ive been trying different courses and classes for both of them and have recently found a trainer who also has reactive dogs-this makes a massive difference as you can also find that lots of other trainers and dog professionals also have reactive dogs. I used to feel so alone but now feel part of a wider community who know exactly what you’re on about! Try to stay positive even though it can be difficult.

  14. I had my people and dog reactive collie for 7 and a half years and the bond was unbelievable which is why I’m crying as I write this. We did the 5am walks and he introduced me to the joy of remote moorland walks whatever the weather. He died a month ago and I’m left with my two easy sociable pooches. Be careful what you wish for. Love you forever Rebel.

  15. This is a wonderful summation of what it’s like to have a reactive pup. Mine is a foster fail that my husband fell in love with, but guess who does all the training? 🙂 That said, I love her as well, and she is the sweetest dog we have ever owned. My husband has a chronic illness and when he has problems she will not leave his side. We have been working a new relaxation-based reactivity protocol for about eight months and we starting to see some progress, thank goodness. This past weekend she was actually able to manage seeing four dogs (one of them barking at her) without exploding, which is huge progress. I know we will have setbacks along the way but I’m delighted to see something positive. It’s taken me two classes, three trainers, and an extremely expensive visit to a certified pet behavioral vet to get here. Good luck to all of us, and blessings on all for taking on these challenging pups.

  16. This is life with our terrier mix, Reggie. Although we got him as a puppy and he had been in a seemingly normal foster home prior to adoption, he quite suddenly went after a friend who had come to our front door. We hired a guy who was advertised as a behavior expert and he had no luck with him, finally told we may want to consider putting him down. Another trainer had some luck with him but it never went very far and we all assumed that he was wired differently. He is now 8 and is such a wonderful pet – in his home. He too has a small circle of humans he tolerates. He co-exists quite well with us and his 4 cats! We are blessed to have a boarding situation with our vet where they know and understand his ways – thank goodness! It is a tough commitment but we love our Reginald and that is just how it is….not going to quit on my buddy.

  17. This is life with our terrier mix, Reggie. Although we got him as a puppy and he had been in a seemingly normal foster home prior to adoption, he quite suddenly went after a friend who had come to our front door. We hired a guy who was advertised as a behavior expert and he had no luck with him, finally told us we may want to consider putting him down. Another trainer had some luck with him but it never went very far and we all assumed that he was wired differently. He is now 8 and is such a wonderful pet – in his home. He too has a small circle of humans he tolerates. He co-exists quite well with us and his 4 cats! We are blessed to have a boarding situation with our vet where they know and understand his ways – thank goodness! It is a tough commitment but we love our Reginald and that is just how it is….not going to quit on my buddy.

  18. I am struggling so hard as I often have to walk our dogs separately and am exhausted. Also, I worry about how we will travel or go camping or whether I will be able to go camping with my dogs by myself… I have a small trailer and was looking forward to DIY writing retreats on the beach. What now? 6-8 years of being tied to the house? I’ll be 62! We can’t ask a dog-walker or pet-sitter to deal with this, esp if we leave her behind and take our well-behaved dog. That sort of thing makes her so furious.

  19. I relate to this article so much, thank you for writing it. Apart from the obvious daily struggles, the one that makes me feel the most guilt is how hard it is to love him sometimes and find that bond. It’s getting better as he starts to trust us more, it took him about a year to ‘snuggle’ and even that isn’t what I am used to from a dog, his snuggles are somewhat limited, but on the flip they are kind of awkward, like he wants to but doesn’t quite know how which is endearing. I hope he continues to gain trust in us, I wish we lived in the suburbs with a bug yard for him to run in, but we don’t, we live in a bug City, probably his worst nightmare, but who knew this was who he was going to be.

  20. I have Simon. A beautiful amazing hard headed and extremely fearful Staffie. Simon is petrified of anything not his normal. Walks must be conducted on his prescribed path, dont detour, dont walk counterclockwise, dont meet any humans, dont have any items change anywhere along the walk. Simon does bark but his main reaction is flight. Extreme shutdown followed by flight. He must be very securely leashed as he will run until his body drops. He shuts down to the extent he cannot recognize me. Nothing pulls him out of shutdown. We have had to sedate him to allow his body a chance to rest. Yet in these 8 years the Si man of mine adores any dog we ever come across. They can do what they want to him, he just loves dogs. He has two canine ladies at home who he worships and follows around. Thankfully I have found a pet sitter who not only understands his fear but also subscribes to the Force Free Method.

  21. Finn sounds exactly like our Calvin, who turned 7 last month. The first year was extremely hard, and I often wondered if he’d “get better” or if someday he’d slip out of my hands and bite someone, and they’d sue us, and we’d be ruined and heartbroken. We worked with behaviorists, and put him on anti-anxiety meds (I didn’t like the idea, but a very caring and knowledgeable behavioral vet helped me see it was for his quality of life), and I worked with him daily, and still do, on every walk (treats are a reward for focusing on me and staying calm when there are triggers). Over time, we learned to accept him for who he is. And who he is is incredibly special. Truly the most loving creature I have ever known. We have had to devise many strategies, and he has to have an in-home sitter if we travel, who takes the time to get to know him (from a distance for a while, of course), and eventually be accepted into his small circle. But once you’re in the club, you’re a member for life, and everyone who has been so fortunate to join his club falls in love with him. Is it still stressful sometimes? Yep. But I wouldn’t trade him for anything. He has taught me so much, and I can’t imagine life without him. He is truly the best friend one dreams a dog could be, and I’m a better human for knowing him.

  22. Fabulous article. If you’ve never been there you could never understand! My Murph’s ‘quirks’ have pretty much governed our life for the last 10 years. Lots of tears in the early days when we struggled to try and mould him to what society expects a dog to be. Then we stopped, reassessed and eventually me and my old boy understood each other much better. I’ve lost out on years of home visitors (apart from those who’ve taken the much needed time to get to know and accept him), foreign holidays and our social life changed completely as we couldn’t trust leaving him with dog walkers or pet sitters. Also, as he is a big boy and not a breed, people tend to make judgements before even trying to understand. I now also have another dog who just loves everything and everybody they are so different but the best of friends and that makes me smile. He is a pain but he’s also the most gorgeous, loving and faithful friend.

  23. This is exactly what we have with our 9 year old Border terrier, Bess. She was very bouncy and confident as a small puppy and quickly dominated our much older and soppy retriever. We went to puppy training, but when I look back she never really like other small dogs coming to close or sniffing near her. However as a young dog she walked to school with other people, children and their dogs, but over her first three years she had two ‘run ins’ with a couple of other dogs and she then became more anxious and nervous with unknown dogs walking towards her. Luckily she is fine with people and children. But dogs she doesn’t know terrify her. We have worked so hard over the last five years to improve her confidence, keeping her calm and safe. But unless someone else plays ball – ie waits, puts their dog on the lead, gives us at least 25 meters space, she goes crazy. If I had a penny for every own who said ‘is she better off the lead’ no, she is not. She does go off the lead when I’m sure there are no dogs around and luckily we have a large garden. But twice right out of the blue, she has gone straight for anoter dog she didn’t know when off the lead. She has never done any real damage, but has been very aggressive and frightened the owners. I have sworn, cried and generally ‘lost it’ about her behaviour. I cant leave her with anyone I don’t trust to cope with her, and we can never have a relaxing dog walk, unless its in the middle of the night! We used to love camping and general holidaying with our other dog, but it is much harder work with her. Lastly the impact other peoples comments have on you and how you manage your dog is so demoralising, very difficult to ignore/get over. It’s a viscous circle as the more people who lack any understating, the more anxious she and I become and the more likely she is to ‘ be a bit hysterical,growling, barking etc. Thank you for this article and the links, I’m going to check them out and it does help to know that other people have the same problems.

    • Oh I feel your pain! We are onto our second border terrier and I feel as though we made a big mistake getting another one, but we’re committed to him now. Our previous border we got as a 4-5 year old and he was terrible with other dogs – bit 3 at obedience class and two of our friends’ dogs also. So, we thought that if we got a pup this time, we could avoid this. So far (Arthur is 2 now) we haven’t actually had him bite another dog, but he’s growling, snarling, lunging when he’s on lead. He is mostly good off-lead, but will absolutely defend himself if he feels another dog isn’t behaving properly. I find walking him extremely stressful because he goes into a frenzy if he so much as sees another dog and the distance can be quite large. It’s awful when you have to turn a corner and don’t know if there’s going to be another dog nearby. I’d say that this is our last border terrier. It seems true that smaller dogs are a lot more feisty than the larger more laid back breeds.

  24. This! I have two dog/leash reactive dogs…..one predictable and easy to manage, redirect, etc. He was attached twice when he was young (once by a lab and once by a golden retriever). He has made great strides over the years.

    The other one (a rescue, lived on the streets, sat in a shelter, almost euthanized) – unpredictable. He is the sweetest, most gentle dog I have ever known…….to people.
    It is a daily struggle.

    I, too, have been shamed, sworn at, had daggers shot at me…you name it. Even one of my closest friends thinks it’s ridiculous. It’s hard. It’s the only thing I would change. But what a difference it would make in my world.

  25. Very good article, thank you. Our Collie x staff rescue is highly strung, he has been with us for 5 years now, we love the bones of him, such a lovely boy. He has improved loads and now doesn’t lunge when out for walks. We have so far been unable to help him remain calm when a stranger knocks the door, he lunges and ‘pretend nibbles’ their calves if allowed near them, which we do not, but we hate having to shut him away to answer the door as this stresses him terribly but it’s is the safest option for everyone just now.

  26. I own a large breed reactive dog. She isn’t reactive from fear but yes, I’ve certainly cried the tears and tried everything u see the sun. But she is as she is and she is my heart. I wouldn’t be without her but I adapted my life to accommodate her reactivity. I started Secure Dog Walking Field Surrey for others in my situation. A private secure field where you can learn to enjoy a stress free walk again and where your dog can enjoy offload time without the fear of encountering other people or dogs. There are a few around the country. We welcome dogs of al sizes and for all reasons but I have a special place in my heart for owners who are living and loving a reactive dog. ❤️

  27. I tried to live with a reactive dog and failed at it for two and half years. I gave up and returned her to.her breeder when the toll her aggressive behavior took on my other two dogs reached it’s limit: one boy would not enter the room when she was present; the other boy hugged the perimeter of the room with head and tail down. I never knew when she would lunge and growl and the three of them would end up nashing their teeth at one another and in one instance by accident biting me. I also knew she was suffering with terrible anxiety, no doubt caused by a hormone imbalance that could not be controlled with thyroid medication. The little girl also had multiple false pregnancies. Broke my heart to do it but I carried her with me on a plane and flewv with her in cabin from California to Iowa and handed her back to her first mama, a gifted and skilled breeder who I trusted to do what is best for her.

    • It sounds like you did everything you possibly could to help her; when your other two were suffering, it was time to make that decision. I am blessed that my girl is amazing with other dogs ONCE SHE CAN MEET THEM. Otherwise it’s a bark-and-lunge-fest. But she is making (slow) progress. Her outbursts are much shorter and she recovers more quickly. Saturday we were out walking and a man came by with two boxers. She did react, but I got her to look at me, take a treat, and then calm down. We were actually able to follow them down the street without her yanking my arm out of the socket. I thank you for reminding me that I don’t have it so bad! 🙂 Blessings to you and your pups.

  28. Thank you for this article. I have a reactive two-year old Border Collie/Jack Russell who has taken me on a roller coaster ride since the day I got him. He has given me the gift of knowledge. He has made me a better person. And, the most important, heart wrenching thing that I’ve discovered is that he trusts me to make this confusing world OK for him. Once I realized (after working with a Veterinary Behaviorist who saved our lives) what was going on in his little head, I took up this mantle with ferocious determination. Our successes are huge, and I try to take our setbacks in stride. He is on two supplements that seem to help him — Huperzine A and Zylkene — as well as the ongoing training. I love this dog and I realize that being the hero in his story comes with great responsibility, and now that I know what this means it is something I am taking pride in. Thank you for sharing your story; I don’t feel so alone.

  29. I have a 5 month old New Zealand Huntaway X Border Collie. She is reactive on lead, but you can tell she’s torn on what to do, because she LOVES people. Any people. So much so curbing her jumping is becoming a real challenge. But she’s not too sure on other dogs for some reason so does sometimes suddenly shy away, so there’s a lot of too and fro with her on a lead! And then when I DO manage to get her to walk on, she then goes in for biting my ankles (????). Confused as to what to do over here in Hampshire!

    • Hi Dannii, I’d recommend you have a look on FB for Reactive Dogs UK as they will be able to help guide you through this tricky period in your pup’s life. They’ve been a complete lifeline for me. Jay (article writer)

    • This sounds like typical herding behaviour in your pup. This is instinctive – biting your ankles is redirected aggression because she sees you as getting in her way when she is trying to control other animals. She believes this is her job as she is wired to do this inherited behaviour. You need a behaviourist with experience in herding breeds who will help you give her other things to do. Dogs with brains as big as cathedrals need a job to do – not aimless running after a ball – but using their nose to search, learning new exercises, and lots and lots of time. You need to teach her the benefits of co-operating with you.

  30. This is a fantastic article and ever so relatable. We have Holly who is a 5 year old GSD who is very reactive. She has been socialised well since we got her at 8 weeks as she goes daily to my partner’s work where she meets other people and dogs all day long. But her mother was nervous and a professional GSD trainer told us this is what has caused her behaviour – it’s almost innate. She’s the kindest dog with those she knows and is so wonderful with our boys – one of whom is severely disabled – she fusses him a lot – maybe the wolf instinct to protect weaker members of the pack is at work! But being a GSD means she’s big with a loud bark which people don’t tolerate. She runs away barking with her tail between her legs from strangers (some not all – we haven’t sussed what it is she doesn’t like about certain people) and has never hurt anyone. So glad to read that we are not alone.

  31. Omgosh thank you so much for writing this article. Our Lucy (mini Aussie) is a reactive dog. We have had the best trainer and there are those days when it is tough. Walks more often then not are for me stressful because I get nervous for her. She is out soon to be 8 year old beauty and we love every bit of her reactive self. Is it hard at times absolutely but in the end we chose her and she chose us. We aren’t perfect by any means….and we never expect Lucy to be either.

  32. This is an amazing article. I read so much about reactive dogs and the emotional toll is always overlooked and underestimated. Thank you so much for sharing Flynn’s story with us. I have a 2 year old reactive dog and an anxiety disorder of my own. What a pair we make! We only have 5 people in Dylan’s circle (including myself and an amazing dog walker) and the bad days take me weeks to get over and even then they leave an emotional scar. We’ve had the police at the door after a nip and some really scary moments where I have made mistakes. I have a dog I can’t walk on my own because I’ve lost my confidence and often regret taking him in but he reminds me everyday that if he can be excited about going outside where all his fears are then maybe so can I.

  33. I have just read this article sitting here with my reactive wonderful lab Monty next to me! What an emotional rollercoaster we are on especially as my husband and I got Monty to be an for our three adopted girls. The difference it is making to those who visit our house as well as where we walk is immense! He was such a confident puppy the wonderful behariousit we met felt that likely he was nuetered too soon and this has made him fearful……. certainly of men and people who come into the hosue -though not those in his cicle of trust.
    The stress and aniexty about managing people and thier behaviour towards him is huge. People dont want to listen to you if you tell them not to approach with hand outstretched. We are now aware of some of the body signs to alert us to issues. We now have a yound lab puppy who loves everyone and we want her to be confident and happy to meet and receive people.
    To know that there are others out there struggling with reactive dogs is supportive. thanks for sharing the emtional toll as it can at times feel overwhelming.

  34. I’m am so pleased and relieved to have come across this article and the support it offers. I have Yogi, a large breed Bullmastiff/GSD unneutered male cross who I took on from a family at 3 months old. Now almost a year old, he has grown into a formidable 40kg+ reactive dog; headstrong, powerful, constantly alert, increasingly aggressive on-lead (with other close-proximity male dogs who seem to trigger or start events themselves – no doubt they’re also reactive!). And yet he yearns to – and has had previously enjoyed – playing well with dogs of all shapes and sizes. However, because of his growing size and unknown reaction to other dogs (and their reaction to him), I too have had to limit ALL public walks to on-lead and the use of privately owned hireable fields. I use a 6ft rope and a Police-style collar lead for close control and heelwork. I have also had to reluctantly introduce a rubber-tipped prong collar (I researched well), to gain a better degree of control which he seems to have responded to very well, though will still pull heavily given half the chance. I know this because if I now walk without it, I am dangerously pulled into the path of other dogs, joggers, cars, and bikes as a result of lunging and rushing – I’m a 6ft, solidly-built gentleman and have incurred finger and arm damage as a result. Other dog owners in local dogwalking areas often do not help; invariably out of sight of the dog(s) and/or obliviously on their mobile phone, letting their dogs of all sizes roam free in all directions which for an on-lead reactive dog must be incredibly difficult to deal with. I have now purchased a Day-Glo ‘REACTIVE DOG’ flag cover for my dog lead to hopefully make other owners aware of my dog’s propensity to be reactive, and look forward to trying it soon. Home and garden-life are also challenging in terms of his reactiveness to sounds, birds, passing cars and pedestrians. Of course, his mixed breed behaviour traits will also be at play here. My wife has become increasingly less confident in his company, though he is relatively settled amongst family members and visiting friends. My biggest challenge is his reaction to other male dogs and unfortunately this has resulted in a few recent angry exchanges with visiting off-lead dogs, one who bit Yogi badly on the ear. Like others here, I find ownership of a reactive dog increasingly stressful. I consider myself a responsible dog owner and will do everything I can in my limited financial capacity (unemployed professional) to help manage the relationship; research; self-training; positive praise and reward through play, etc. Yogi is also socialised and regularly walked with my daughter’s male Pug, and although initially boisterous at each meet, they get on extremely well. Yes, I too am proud to admit I’ve been brought to tears through the emotional toll, and have seriously considered taking him to a rescue centre during the low points. And yet I love this dog to pieces, despite the frustrations, and I’m prepared to do everything I can to work with his reactiveness, further understand it, minimise reactive opportunities and continue to give him a deserving life.

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