Life with a Reactive Dog

By Stephanie Challand

For those of you, like me, living with a Reactive dog even life’s simplest tasks can be difficult at times. I cannot pinpoint the day when my life with a Reactive Dog started but every day since then has brought new challenges and joys to it.

We had Lacey about 5 weeks when we decided she needed a friend so we started looking for another dog. We found Logan online and had him flown to us something I would NEVER do again. We picked him up at the airport on August 31, 2006. When we first saw him he was huddled in the back of the airline carrier trembling and would not come out. We eventually managed to coax out and began our journey with him home. When we arrived at home he was very unsure of everything even Lacey. By the end of the first day he and Lacey were best buds and even fell asleep cuddled together in the same little doggie bed. Over the next few days he started to warm up to things a little so we just assumed this behavior was because of the flight and his new environment and that he would eventually grow out of it. Looking back now, I know we should have done something about this immediately. I just didn’t realize at the time how much this would affect his life and ours in the future. If only we had known about Loving Paws then maybe our life with a Reactive Dog never would have started.

By Logan’s second birthday we really started to notice a change in his behavior. Around this time our family situation also changed. My husband started a new job where he was away all week and only home on the weekends. This really took a toll on Logan. He would lay by our back door at night waiting for ‘Daddy’ to come home. Around this time he began barking more at noises outside and people walking by. On our walks he was at a point where he would hop on his back feet instead of walking and whine the entire way.

In October 2008, Steve quit this job so he would be home more and we adopted Lance from Safe Harbor. I realize now that adding another dog to the family was not the wisest decision we could have made. At the time I didn’t realize just how deep Logan’s issues were or how long they would take to get under control. Even though things seemed fine at the initial introduction, when we got Lance home, Logan’s behavior around him changed. He would lunge at Lance when he became stressed. Loud noises, dogs barking, kids playing outside, vacuuming, etc. would set him off. If Lance picked up a toy Logan would run clear across the room bite Lance’s cheek and take it from him. We almost took Lance back to the shelter, and maybe that would have been best for him, but we decided not to. I vowed from that point forward to do everything I could for all of my dogs.

I had already been working some with Logan but really had no clue what I was doing. I saw an episode of “It’s Me or the Dog” with an extremely stressed-out Jack Russell Terrier who reminded me so much of Logan it was scary. Victoria used a few techniques that proved very helpful in working with Logan. She would hold a piece of food in front of the dog letting him nibble on it while passing by something that caused the dog to react. This coupled with eye contact and sit became the staples of my training with Logan. I began walking Lacey and Logan individually so I could work with them one-on-one. Lacey had also been reacting to things while walking with Logan but as soon as I started walking them independently she became much better.

Logan was a different story however. Our first few months consisted of walks where we would go a couple of steps and I would ask for a sit and eye contact. At first, he could not even pay attention to me. He was throwing me tons of calming signals (head turns, body turns, yawning, paw lifting, shaking, etc) which of course I didn’t know anything about at the time. I got some higher value rewards (chicken works wonders) and continued working with him. Eventually, he began responding to me and the hopping/whining began to slowly decrease. It was then that I really started to notice him reacting to everything (people, dogs, garbage cans, garage doors opening, etc).

It wasn’t long before Lance began to show some of the same issues Logan had as a puppy. As soon as we noticed this we promptly got him into a puppy class at Petco where he wasn’t the friendliest with other dogs. Luckily, before he finished this class we had found Loving Paws. Both Lance and Logan have been through the Loving Paws Reactive Dog class which along with the Hiking Club has made a world of difference for them both. They still react to other dogs but it is a far cry from where they were and because of this class I now know how to handle him in these situations.

I now realize the extent of both dog’s issues and the fact that a Reactive Dog can never be ‘cured’. No matter how much I work with them they will always have reactive tendencies. Counter-conditioning and desensitization can drastically help but I will always have to be aware of their surroundings. The key is to keep them under their threshold and from reacting at all costs while gradually increasing that threshold. The time it will take for each dog to ‘recover’ depends on the individual dog and the handler. If you find yourself with a dog like this, contact Loving Paws Today!

Helpful Hints

Here are some things I have learned and done along the way that have helped my dogs. They may be worth a try.

1.       Walk your dogs individually if you have any behavioral issues and be sure they get plenty of physical and mental stimulation.

2.       Pay close attention to what your dog is telling you through their body language and calming signals. Work on anything that they appear afraid or uncertain of immediately.

3.       Work on reducing your dog’s overall stress level. No raising your voices in the house, etc. Give them a day off every few days by allowing them to just be a dog.

4.       Play relaxing music (I recommend Through a Dog’s Ear) and massage your dog at least a few times each week.

5.       Consider using a D.A.P collar, diffuser or spray or other calming aids which Laura can recommend.

6.       Carry treats with you at all times even in the house and work on their reactions to everything inside and out.

7.       Check out the Recommended Reading list on the Loving Paws Website!

These things take time so don’t be discouraged if you don’t see progress immediately.  Just be patient and consistent and things will gradually improve. It has been close to year and a half since I started working with Logan he is doing much better. In the past few months he and Lance have actually begun playing together which is amazing to see. He is sleeping better and no longer jumping up barking at every sound he hears. His walking has improved immensely. He now walks on all four feet and no longer whines. Lance is doing much better as well. We still have a long road ahead of us but we just take it one day at a time and try to enjoy every minute of it.