Am I More Reactive Than My Dog?
Updated: May 24
Dealing with your dog's reactivity is a difficult process involving a lot of hard work and patience (and running across the street or into bushes). When your dog has a trigger such as strange people or dogs, it can make tasks such as a walk around the block a stressful experience, one that you may avoid, or plan for late at night when no one else is around.
No matter where you are at in your journey with your reactive dog(s), I applaud you, you're doing your best, keep going!
Rey and I have come so so far, though we still have set backs and bad days. For the most part we can get through a day without reactivity and are able to manage any run-ins with dogs on our daily walks and adventures. I know what she can and cannot handle and work with her accordingly. There have been many tears of frustration on our way to this point and I know we still have quite a ways to go!
One thing that I really had to work on to get to this point, which I started practicing four years ago when I was working with Reese and his reactivity, was MY reactivity. I'm talking about me scanning every which way while on a walk looking for other people and dogs, gripping the leash when I see another dog coming towards us, heart pounding and anticipating an explosion. It has been hard to break these habits and for the most part I'm still just faking it 'til I make it. Deep breaths, loose leash, cheerful thoughts.
But then there's another reaction that I'm working on, not trying to get rid of completely, but change the behaviour. It follows the "He's friendly!" when an off leash dog is barreling toward you in an on-leash area. I know, your blood pressure just went up a little. Take a deep breath and carry on when you're ready.
Pick your battles
When you are working so hard on your training, and your dog has come so far, we all know how completely unfair it is to be put in this position. You try to advocate for your dog, you take them places that should be safe, you follow the rules. The last thing that you want is to be in this situation that you can't control and risk taking steps back in your progress, mental or heaven-forbid, physical pain being caused to either parties involved.
I used to be so (understandably) high-strung in these situations. I'd be in full panic mode, screaming at the owner to grab their dog out of fear of what my dog might do, and also complete anger and frustration at the owner for being irresponsible and inconsiderate. As much as I wanted to have the owner recall their dog I also wanted to give them a piece of my mind, buuuuuut, the latter is not helpful for my dog.
First, I will say that I have a lot more grace for the owners of these dogs who more times than not are completely (and frustratingly) oblivious to the fact that there are dogs out there who are reactive/fearful and trying so hard to overcome it. This is likely due to the fact that for a lot of us we simply don't go to public spaces with our dogs so they usually only see or hear of dogs being friendly and care free. But that grace only extends so far, if you're begging the owner to call their dog back, sometimes you're met with such ignorant responses such as "Why don't you train your dog!" "that dog shouldn't be allowed in public!" or just saying "well MY dog is friendly" as if that exempts them from on-leash rules.
When we come across these off leash dogs where they aren't supposed to be, I have to decide between expressing my frustrations or continuing to work with Rey to be calm and do everything in my power to create space between the other dog - which is sometimes easier said then done. However, screaming at the other owner is not going to help Rey to remain calm or to help her to trust that I will get her through this.
Off-leash and entitled
I was away for the long weekend with my friend Courtney and her dog, Susie, and the girls get along very well so there were no issues or reactivity there. These two are able to run freely together, be in the same space (even alone) and are very tolerant of the other (not perfect - but very very good). We had an absolutely lovely time the whole weekend and it was almost completely a relaxing, care-free vacation. What was that one issue, you ask? Yea, you already know. An off leash dog. OH wait, no. It was two off leash dogs and one super rude and entitled owner :) *sarcastic smile*
While enjoying a beautiful, leashed walk on a quiet trail, we had turned around and were headed back to where we parked. Off in the distance (like way off...) we see a person and two dogs and it's easy to tell that both are off leash. We prepare ourselves for what will likely be a stressful encounter, but still hopeful that this person will be kind enough to call the dogs and leash them up. While we do hear her make a poor attempt to recall the dogs, they are now running towards us, while their owner maintains their relaxed pace so far away without any effort to get to the dogs.
One of them looks to be a senior Malamute and the other was a younger German Shepherd. He was very bouncy but also seemed timid and his hackles were raised, which made us nervous. We called out asking if they were at least friendly, but we got no response.
I took a few steps in the opposite direction to put some space between Rey and Susie, because Rey can become protective of other dogs around her friends. Rey watched both strange dogs approach Courtney and Susie (who stayed very calm), the older dog sniffed and walked away but the GSD was bouncing with his hackles still raised. He looked playful, but nervous and Courtney tried so hard to walk away from him but he kept following.
We called out to this person again to call her dogs back, and we heard her quietly call out and of course neither dog paid her any attention. The older dog approached me with Rey and I kept the leash as loose as possible. Rey generally does not have an issue if a dog calmly approaches so I praised her tried to keep her moving. The dog sniffed Rey from head to toe and now the younger dog was bouncing towards us which made me nervous. Rey is not a fan of puppy energy, specifically when she is on leash and now she already is being greeted by one strange dog. In a slightly panicked tone I beg the owner to call her dogs. She didn't respond but at least she was getting closer.
Rey was honestly being such a calm girl despite this ordeal and her eyes were only on Susie and Courtney who were further up and had escaped the situation. I try to keep moving, the senior dog had moved on but the GSD was bouncing around us still. The woman was now about 30 feet away and I said to her "PLEASE call your dog." while trying to stay calm. She said absolutely nothing, while staring directly at me.
Still trying to keep cool, speaking calmly but firm, I asked again "Can you please call your dog?" She continues her leisurely pace and says to me "Well, I can call them, but they won't come." So I responded "Then can you train your dog?" (self high-five) I told her that Rey is afraid of strange dogs and her only response was "well mine aren't." I said back "But MINE is." This woman looks me dead in the eye and says "Well I've lived here longer than you."
Despite the anger that consumed me, the fear of this strange dog that continued to bounce around Rey, and my heart racing in my chest, I knew this was not a battle I was going to win with this lady so instead my focus went solely back to Rey. The poor girl at her tail between her legs, her ears pinned right back, but her hackles weren't up anymore, she wasn't making a peep and I do think her only goal was to catch up with Susie who was waiting up ahead.
At this point the woman and her Malamute were behind us but the GSD was now going between me and Courtney as we continue walking with no intent of leaving us alone, it seemed. We did our best to ignore it and take care of our dogs and finally it gave up and ran in the other direction.
Courtney and I were now able to let out all of our frustrations with the dogs out of sight and Rey and Susie having completely shaken off that experience. We counted that as a win because of how truly amazing our girls did in that uncomfortable situation that lasted way too long. Rey of the past would have simply been losing her mind and ya know... same. I'd have been screaming out of fear and anger and not having a clue how to properly handle that situation. But as we walked away with our hearts still beating so fast, we were flushed and heated and unable to shake it off as easily as our dogs. We joked, are we more reactive than our dogs?
We were lucky
I recognize that that situation could have gone completely differently if we were in a different place in our training process, if either of those dogs weren't as calm or friendly, or simply if Rey was having an off day, was absolutely terrified and made a bad decision.
I think it is totally reasonable that one would panic in this situation and be angry and react accordingly. No shame whatsoever. I have honestly been working so so so so so hard on how I behave when there is a reaction or a scuffle or an event that I simply didn't expect because I know that my over reactions have 100% made a situation much worse than it otherwise would have been, which I may explain in a different post.
The goal in all situations it to keep Rey calm, making sure she's safe and praise her for the good choices that she makes. When things like this happen that were completely unexpected and we have no control over, I fake it 'til I make it. I don't want Rey to feel me stress and to think that she can't trust me, or to become afraid because of how I'm acting. Rey had zero reactions to these dogs which is so completely amazing, so I will keep a calm and joyful tone and tell her how good of a girl she is so that this can be as much of a positive experience as possible.
I was absolutely, without a doubt, more reactive than my dog, though I still think that I handled it the best way that I could. It sure took me long time to get over it and my body was feeling all of the emotions! Still count it as a win :)
**Next day edit - it has come to our attention that these dogs are terrorizing others in the community and the husband/wife duo are equally as rude and ignorant. We were lucky that the other dogs didn't get aggressive with us, but apparently the young GSD with raised hackles was snapping at dogs on a beach and not recalling again to its owner.
We were so lucky and are so thankful that our experience was not a negative one.