Loving a reactive dog means grieving the dog you thought you would have

Guest post by Emma Heasman

Among all the experiences of grief that come from caring for a pet, I’ve come to realise that there is one that thousands of people struggle with even though the pet is still alive and well.

This is the grief that comes from living with and loving a reactive dog.

If you’ve recently lost a pet, you may find it callous to talk about grieving when a dog is in good health. However, anyone with a reactive dog who’s reading this article will know the grief all too well. I’m personally living it. For this reason, Shailen has kindly agreed to let me talk about it here on The Ralph Site.

What do we mean by dog reactivity?

When a dog is described as ‘reactive’ what it generally means is that the dog overreacts to certain things or situations.

Signs of this overreaction can include barking, lunging and pulling (especially if on the lead) towards the trigger, growling, signs of anxiety, hiding, snapping, and many other behaviours, some more subtle than others.

Common triggers include other dogs, men, people wearing hats or sunglasses, children, scooters, bikes, traffic and more.

You’ve probably seen the scenario, even if you haven’t lived through it personally. A dog sees the trigger – perhaps a child whizzing past on a scooter on the pavement – and goes ballistic, barking, lunging and pulling in a frenzy. Occasionally, this reactivity comes from excitement but, more often than not, it’s rooted in fear.

Taking away the ‘flight’ option

Many people with reactive dogs find that their dogs exhibit more reactive behaviours when they’re on the lead.

There’s a good reason for this.

When a dog is on the lead, we’ve effectively taken away the choice to run away from the scary thing coming towards them.

The dog can try usual ‘calming’ signals like lip licking, looking away, yawning, sudden scratching or sniffing. However, if they feel this won’t work for whatever reason, they may turn to their ‘fight’ repertoire of responses to make the scary thing go away.

This could be anything from making themselves look bigger by standing on their hind legs or lunging to barking, growling, showing its teeth, air snapping or, as the very last resort, a nip or bite.

In reality, the last thing the dog wants to do is interact with the frightening thing. They don’t want to hurt anyone or get in a fight. They just doesn’t know how else to get away.

Thanks to their impressive and sometimes loud display, people usually hurry away from the dog, taking the source of their fear away too.

In the dog’s mind, they were able to chase the scary thing away. A neural pathway is formed. See scary thing and bark.

The next time they see a trigger, they default to the behaviour that worked before. And so a pattern of reactivity begins.

And, of course, a vicious circle begins too. The more frequently the dog reacts, the less freedom they are allowed ‘just in case’ and the more time they spend on the lead. Their human companion becomes an expert at scanning the horizon for triggers but their growing anxiety reinforces the dog’s belief that scary things are around every corner.

Reactivity vs. aggression

People often believe that reactive dogs are ‘bad’, aggressive dogs. This comes with a huge amount of stigma and is largely untrue.

In reality, very few dogs are aggressive by nature. Most often, reactive dogs make a lot of noise but, given the choice, would run a mile from the object of their fear.

That big display of barking from the other side of the road is the equivalent of the dog shouting “Go away!” (or something less polite) at the top of their voice.

Sometimes, dogs give warning after warning that they’re uncomfortable with a situation but their warnings aren’t noticed, especially the more subtle signs. This leaves dogs feeling that they have to escalate their behaviour to be heard.

There’s also a phenomenon known as ‘trigger stacking’, which is when the dog copes well with the first, second or even third trigger they see but completely flips out towards a subsequent trigger. To other people, it looks like it’s an overreaction out of the blue but to the dog, their stress levels have reached saturation point. They’re telling us ‘enough is enough’.

Dogs and the modern world

Dogs and humankind are believed to have co-existed for approximately 32,000 years, developing a symbiotic relationship that has served both species beautifully.

During this time, different qualities and traits were encouraged within the various breeds. This worked brilliantly, creating working dogs who could herd livestock, help fisherman, hunt and much more.

Of course, the modern world is very different, and not as dog friendly.

Let’s take the Border Collie as an example (I have a lab/collie cross, which is why I know a bit about this).

A Border Collie is a highly intelligent breed that excels at herding and protecting sheep. They are hardwired to notice potential threats on the horizon or spot a solitary sheep straying away from the herd. For millennia, their ancestors have been honed to chase and round up livestock by stalking, staring and even nipping ankles, if necessary.

But all the qualities that make a Border Collie excel on a farm can make their life much harder in a town or city.

Now, instead of moving livestock, the dog notices bikes, scooters, joggers, cars, other dogs, children – all potentially things to be rounded up, herded or chased away.

And let’s not forget that every new sight, sound or smell might be a potential threat, which the dog’s instincts tell them to notice.

In this example, the collie does exactly what they were designed to do and barks at the stranger in the distance or tries to herd the children in the park but instead of being rewarded for their behaviour, people get angry.

This must be scary and confusing for the dog, increasing their stress levels and the chances of reactive behaviour.

Of course, not all dogs struggle with the modern world. Even taking the Border Collies from our example, many of them manage just fine with modern life.

But the point is that, for some dogs, the modern, urban environment is a struggle.

Our expectations are impossibly high. Many people believe that dogs should be seen and not heard or kept on lead in all public settings. People tend to forgive behaviours in small dog breeds that they won’t forgive in larger dogs.

Legislation like the Dangerous Dogs Act means that people can report a dog for barking at them if they argue that they were afraid the dog might try and bite them. And yet barking is such an important part of canine communication; it’s the dog’s voice but many people don’t want it to be used in public. This makes reactive dogs and their human companions particularly vulnerable to judgement.

Why are some dogs reactive?

Reactivity in dogs can come about for a vast number of reasons:

  • Genetics
  • Temperament
  • Lack of socialisation with other dogs, humans or new experiences in the first 14-16 weeks of life
  • Living in a rescue centre/being rehomed
  • Puppy farming
  • Bad experiences with people and/or dogs, e.g. a dog has been attacked by another dog
  • Injury or illness, especially if the dog is in pain
  • Food intolerances (again, if the dog feels physically uncomfortable)
  • Aversive training methods

Sometimes, several of these factors come together, stacking one on top of the other until the dog shows reactivity.

To use the example of my own dog, Willow, she was found on the street at 10 weeks old having been born and so-far raised by a stressed-out street dog. She was then put in a communal compound in a rescue centre with multiple dogs but little human contact, spayed at 12 weeks, transported by land over a four-day journey to a foster home at 16 weeks before she was finally rehomed to us in her forever home at eight months old.

Every day after she was rehomed presented her with new sights and sounds that she hadn’t been exposed to in her early months. She has always seemed nervous and timid, even though we took things at her pace. These traits and experiences were compounded by being attacked by other dogs on a walk and then hit by a man in the local park who was shouting angrily about how much he hates dogs.

Willow may have been able to easily bounce back from one of these experiences but, taken together, it was just too much for her – the last two incidents, in particular – and a cycle of reactivity began.

Of course, that’s just Willow’s case and not to say that it’s just rescue dogs – or even all rescue dogs – that are reactive. Many dogs with secure, happy puppyhoods and home lives develop reactivity too. Sometimes, it’s because of a bad experience on a walk. Sometimes, it’s because of illness or injury. Sometimes, there isn’t an obvious cause. All that is true, whatever the background, is that the dog isn’t giving anyone a hard time deliberately; they are having a hard time and deserve love and compassion.

How people see reactive dogs

Anyone with a reactive dog will have a depressingly long list of stories about the times when they have been judged, criticised and even threatened.

They may also have come into contact with so-called ‘expert’ dog trainers who subscribe to old-school ‘dominance’ training methods that are now widely frowned upon. Instead of helping, this may have exacerbated the problem.

People tend to see a reactive dog and believe one or more of the following statements:

  • The dog is ‘bad’
  • The dog’s human is bad/lazy/uncaring
  • The dog lacks training
  • The dog has been given the wrong type of training
  • The human needs to be the ‘Alpha’
  • The dog has been or is still being abused

It’s surprisingly common for people to shout out things like, “That dog shouldn’t be out in public”, “That thing should be muzzled” (if it isn’t already), “You need to show it who’s boss” and so on.

One huge issue for dog carers who have spent months working with fear-reactive dogs to reduce their anxiety is when a ‘friendly’ off-lead dog is allowed to bound over and get in the on-lead, nervous dog’s face. Then, when the reactive dog barks or lunges, the carer of the off-lead dog shouts, “You need to get your dog under control”.

What? The dog that is on a lead walking calmly at their human’s side and only reacted when their space was invaded?

What about the dog that had no recall?

While, for most dogs this might not be an issue, for a reactive dog, an interaction like this can set everyone’s progress back by months.

People are also determined to offer advice to reactive dog carers. I’d be very rich indeed if I had a pound for every time someone has said, “You should watch that TV programme with the dog trainer – he could fix your dog in an afternoon” (see here for a great article about Why TV dog trainers aren’t magicians) or “Squirt water in her face/yank the lead/tap her nose/shout ‘no’ every time she reacts and she’ll soon stop”.

The promise of quick fixes abound. But many of the suggestions just aim at stopping the behaviour without addressing the emotions causing it. If you teach a dog that they’re not allowed to bark or show signs of discomfort, you risk leaving them with no option but to bite.

Quick fixes will never work long-term. Our dogs deserve more compassion.

Often, people who have a lifetime of experience with dogs state confidently that “None of my dogs has ever been reactive because I know how to train them”. However, just a few minutes of research shows that years of canine experience are no insurance against reactivity. In fact, many of the world’s leading behaviourists only found their calling because they were faced with living with a reactive dog for the first time.

Living with a reactive dog

Most people who get a dog do so with a certain lifestyle in mind. They imagine long countryside walks or meeting up with friends and their dogs in the park. They dream about a furry best friend who loves everyone they meet and with whom they can share years of adventures.

Certainly, that was what we imagined as a family when we adopted Willow. And, to a certain extent, that was the life we had for the first 18 months together.

Sadly, reactivity can change everything.

Reactive dog carers suddenly find themselves unable to live out these dreams with their canine companion.

For their dog, a walk in a busy park is fraught with anxiety and triggers. Even a walk in the woods can go horribly wrong if their dog-reactive friend comes across an off-lead canine without enough distance between them.

Just a quick street walk can be like running a gauntlet of terror for the reactive dog – pedestrians, cyclists, bin lorries, postmen, scooters, loud noises, other dogs on leads barking from the other side of the road.

And, worse yet, it’s not unusual for a reactive dog carer to be verbally or even physically assaulted because their dog has barked at the wrong person or lunged at someone’s beloved dog (even if they were metres away and no physical harm was possible).

And each time this happens, the dog just learns that strange humans and dogs aren’t to be trusted and can be threatening.

Reactive dog carers are frequently isolated. They may not be able to visit friends and family because it’s too unsettling for their dog. They often walk alone late at night or early in the morning to avoid potential triggers. They can’t sit in dog-friendly cafes or leave their dog with a friend while they go on holiday.

Erroneous beliefs about reactivity mean that they’re regularly judged and berated for their dog’s behaviour.

And yet, in reality, a huge number of reactive dog carers are possibly more aware of their dog’s needs and more aware of dog behaviour than the carers of non-reactive dogs.

They have to be. Their dog’s life may depend on it.

Reactive dog carers have to learn a whole new vocabulary. Theirs is a world of Behaviour Adjustment Training (BAT), CARE protocol, TTouch, Zebra strokes, thresholds, triggers, buckets and spoons. They spend hours setting up scent work, enrichment, parkour and other ways of building their dog’s confidence. They spend their money on hiring secure fields just so their dog can safely have a run off-lead or working with behaviourists. They spend hours on training, games and trying to rewire their dog’s emotional response to their triggers.

A very real grief

And, as they do this, at least for a while and maybe longer, they experience the most soul-consuming grief. The life they dreamed of with their dog seems impossible. Even the shortest of walks are heavy with anxiety.

Their thoughts are never quiet: Is it their fault? Would their dog have been happier elsewhere? Could they have stopped the reactivity from occurring?

They watch people play with their dogs in the distance and wonder how they will find the energy to keep moving forwards with their dog today, tomorrow, a week from now, next year.

Can they keep this up for another five, ten, even 15 years?

Because, of course, they don’t want to wish their beautiful dog’s life away.

But what are the alternatives?

According to the Dog’s Trust, reactivity and behaviour problems are the most common reasons that dogs are given up for rehoming. And the greater the scale of reactivity, the harder it is to find a new home.

Reactivity is sadly the most common reason for a dog under the age of two to be put to sleep.

Many people still believe a dog that shows aggression under stress will always be an aggressive, ‘bad’ dog when, in fact, they may just be so trigger-stacked with high cortisol levels that they weren’t able to make a good choice about their behaviour in a particular moment.

Of course, I also understand what a huge emotional undertaking it is to commit to rehabilitating a reactive dog.

Reactive dog carers clearly face some heart-breaking decisions. The grief of surrendering a healthy dog or having them put to sleep for behavioural reasons is weighed down with a staggering amount of guilt. Many people never have another dog after dealing with reactivity. Sadly, they often feel unseen and unsupported or, worse yet, actively judged whatever they decide. Mental health suffers, relationships are strained, and dogs’ lives sometimes hang in the balance.

Accepting the dog you have

If you’re a dog carer coping with reactivity, I believe that one of the most important steps forward is to begin accepting the dog you have rather than longing for the dog you wish you could have had.

Once you do that, you can start making a plan.

Even the most reactive of dogs has many amazing, beautiful qualities. Recognise them, write them down, remind yourself of them frequently. These sensitive dogs can be our greatest teachers.

My Willow, for example, is the gentlest, most patient and calm dog you could imagine at home and in a safe setting. All she wants is distance from things that scare her and time to get used to them at her own pace.

The bond between a frightened reactive dog and the people and dogs in their inner circle is one of real privilege and trust. Once you’re in, you’re in for life!

And with that trust, every party can begin to learn and grow. Your reactive dog may never be the happy-go-lucky pup playing in the park but they can learn skills to feel more resilient.

The more you learn about reactivity, the more you understand that it isn’t a sign of failure or poor care. Armed with this knowledge, you can begin a force-free behaviour adjustment programme (I highly recommend the CARE protocol as a starting point and some ‘boots on the ground’ support from a good force-free behaviourist). You can teach your dog that they never have to meet another dog or person again if they don’t want to. But, with support, they may well want to one day.

And the more we can talk about reactivity, perhaps the more we can make other people see reactive dogs in a better, more compassionate light. And maybe, too, we can see the human beside the dog and instead of judging them and making their grief and stress even heavier, we can say, “Well done. Your dog is lucky to have you in their corner”.

Resources

If you have a nervous or reactive dog, you might want to find out more about the Yellow Dog Scheme, which aims to raise awareness about dogs who need space while training, recovering from surgery or being rehabilitated.

Reactive Dogs UK is a wonderful community of 22,000+ reactive dog carers and is run by force-free behaviourists.

If you are grieving for a pet for any reason, The Ralph Site is here for you. You are not alone.

2 thoughts on “Loving a reactive dog means grieving the dog you thought you would have

  1. Catherine

    Thank you for such an insightful and beautifully written piece that totally hits the nail on the head. By owning a reactive dog you do greive for the life you imagined you would have together. It took me a while to accept that my dreams of train trips to the coast were never going to happen. Instead they take you on a different journey where you discover patience and resellience you never knew you had

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    1. Emma Heasman

      Thanks so much, Catherine. Gosh, you’re right about resilience! I didn’t realise I could keep bouncing back like this and just keep learning. I think our reactive dogs will turn out to be some of the best teachers we ever have in life. Still, I’m sorry that your dreams of train trips to the coast together aren’t possible. It’s tough but you’re doing a great job x

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