Life with a reactive dog: what are the priorities?

Let’s be real: life with a reactive dog isn’t always a walk in the park. In fact, walks in the park are often terrible with a reactive dog. There are small details you have to pay attention to all the time and it’s hard to pick out what matters and what doesn’t. Training, having visitors, your family criticizing what you do, setbacks…and much more.

So where do you start? I’ll give you my answer, the one I give my clients, and I encourage you to use it as a starting point. Obviously, each person and family eventually figures out what works best for them, but the main points are usually the same for everyone. It is important to note that we aren’t talking about how to train reactivity here, as that should be done with the help of a qualified trainer, with a plan tailored to your specific issue.

Fair warning: this blog post covers topics that can be a bit rough: fatigue, frustration, hopelessness, grief. If these topics can be triggers for you, it might be best to skip this blog post to preserve your own mental health. If you have questions, you can always get in touch with us.

First, before we get into the topic, let me tell you what made me reflect on all of this, and where the priority list comes from.

I actually started this career thanks to my first dog, or because of him depending on which way you look at it! I was 20 years old when I got this 2 month old Border Collie. In picking my dog, I did every mistake you can think of. This led him to become one of the most reactive dogs I’ve ever met. I do mean every mistake: he came from an inapropriate place, I picked him out of the litter based on bad criteria, I ignored 750 red flags in his and his parent’s behavior. The check-list for likely issues down the road was complete.

Once his fears were pretty well settled in and my denial phase over, we finally started training.

There were ups and downs, we hired good and (very) bad trainers. I then became a dog trainer and that’s when we actually started making progress on his fear of strangers. I kept working on that issue for the rest of his life. His name was Nanaki.

Throughout all this, I adopted a 5 year old German Shepherd. She was reactive to dogs at first. A frustrated and vocal dog makes for some loud expressions, often. That issue quickly got resolved, though. She became calmer and more adjusted. Her name was Shelby.

Where am I going with this? Unfortunately, both of those dogs are now gone. Looking back, the only question I find important today isn’t “How far did the training go?” or “Did we do good in the sport I picked for my dog?”. Excuse my French, but who gives a damn? The real question is: “How was our life together?”. Had I known that, I would have made different choices.

So that’s my goal: help you skip this process and the mistakes I’ve made, so that you can enjoy life with your dog. Reactive or not, at the end of the day what you want is to have a good life with them.

Priority #1 with a reactive dog : safety

There are three things I think about when I talk about safety.

Safety of the general public

First, whether our dog is reactive to strangers, other dogs, bikes, or anything else, it’s our responsibility to not put others in danger. The sentence that worries me most is “Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll never bite!” Guess what? Most families with reactive dogs that have bitten now say “I would have never thought he would bite, he usually only barks!”. So here’s my advice: even if it sucks to think about, remember that all dogs can bite if they are pushed to their limits.

If you think your dog is potentially dangerous for the people or dogs around it, you should muzzle train your dog. Having your dog muzzled also has a wonderful side effect: people will give you some space.

Safety of the family

Training a reactive dog can sometimes put you in risky situations. Try as we may to stay under threshold, accidents can always happen. When you get ready to train, there are two things to think of:

  • Does the dog have a tendency to redirect (bite whatever is closest, even if that’s not the trigger)? If yes, that’s another great reason to train and use a muzzle.
  • Can the dog injure you by pulling or charging towards the trigger? If that is the case, equip yourself appropriately: good shoes (spiked in the winter!), harness and leash with two clips, a padded sports belt on your hips, etc. There are many options to help protect you from the yanks, the pulls and the slippery ground. You don’t need to, and in fact really shouldn’t, use aversive tools to try and control your dog’s reactions. You’ll just risk injuring your dog and make the already poor association they have with the trigger worse.

Safety of the dog itself

Reactive dogs can often injure themselves when they react. Once again, you’ll want to adapt the equipment you use to make everything as safe as possible. We generally recommend using an ergonomic harness. My favorite is the Momentum from RC Pet. I look for two things in a harness: my dog won’t get hurt if it reacts, and it can’t get out of it if it panics. Safety is also about not losing your dog downtown because it heard a loud noise.

Priority #2 with a reactive dog: quality of life

Now that everyone is safe, let’s move on to our second goal: a good life for the family, and for the dog.

This is where it becomes important to “choose your battles” when it comes to training. A good quality of life represents a completely different routine from one person to the next, and from one dog to the next. For instance: someone that generally goes to bed late won’t mind walking their reactive dog at midnight and therefore won’t need to train until they can walk in the 7:30 am “dog rush hour”. In the same vein, we won’t need to change anything for dogs that don’t mind a tiny walk in the morning and then going back to sleep until noon. If it works for you, don’t mess with it! Think of what is important for you, not of “what should a dog normally do”.

Quality of life for the family

The question I ask myself is simple, but it can hurt to think about: is your every-day life better because of your dog’s presence? Now of course, it’s not perfect every day, that’s normal. But let’s ask ourselves: on any average week, with all the good and the more complicated moments averaged out, is having a dog a good thing? If having this dog is way more complicated moments than it is good, fun moments, something needs to change.

The notion of happiness in humans is not really my cup of tea, so I’ll simply give you this advice. Make a list of all the bad times you go through with your dog, then put this list into perspective with what we’re discussing here: is it a safety issue, or a quality of life issue? Can we find an alternative to turn these troublesome situations into pleasant ones? Keep that list around, we’ll use it later.

Little by little, favor activities that are fun rather than trying to conquer problematic situations. Try and re-establish some reasonable balance between working on the problem and enjoying life with your dog. You might feel selfish doing that. After all, your dog isn’t doing any of this intentionally, and avoiding the problem isn’t fixing it, right? Yes and no. Trust me, you’ll be far more apt to train your dog if most of your life with it feels pleasant.

Quality of the reactive dog’s life

In the dog’s basic needs, we have the obvious: eat, be healthy, access to water, etc. When it comes to mental health, there are four primary needs I aim to fulfill:

Physical exercise:

That’s a sensitive topic for me. I have seen, hundreds of time, in person or online, people being accused of not allowing their dogs to move enough. People being told that their only issue is that they have to take the dog out more, that they don’t deserve their dog, that they caused global warming…that kind of thing. It bothers me for two reasons:

  1. 90% of the time, the lack of exercise isn’t the cause of their undesirable behavior, at all.
  2. 90% of the time, the family would love to do more with their dog, but they can’t BECAUSE THE DOG IS REACTIVE. Forcing yourself to walk for an extra hour every day with a dog that tears your arm off every time a car passes by is just not sustainable, no matter how much you care.

So what do we do with this? We find alternatives that take care of the physical needs while protecting our training (and shoulders)! There are so many sports that are physically demanding and that are easier to manage for a reactive dog than a walk in the city.

With your reactive dog, you can:
  • Do Caniross: a traction sport that uses the dog’s entire body. I know many people who run in the local park at night rather than walk around the neighborhood. If you’re not sure how to get started on that, don’t hesitate to ask!
  • Canine Fitness: the dog equivalent of going to the gym. You need to do things right to avoid injuries, but online classes are very easy to find and you can also do online consultations in this discipline, so no need to put your dog in a problematic group setting!
  • Add play sessions to your routine. Tugging with your dog is my favorite game. It tires out the dog while working on impulse control and improves engagement!
  • For those who have access to such environments, you can replace a 30 minute walk with 10 minutes of swimming, running after a lure or a ball in the yard or walking off leash (or on a long one) in the woods. When it is allowed and safe, of course.

One last thing to mention: walks are not a great source of physical activity, when you think about it. If our goal during walks was really to make our dogs move, we’d all have treadmills to avoid needing to go out during winter. What walks actually are, is a great source of mental enrichment, most notably because of all the smells. This brings us to our second need.

Mental exercise:

For the classic and easy to implement options, I’ll point you to our mental stimulation blog post. For dogs that can’t be outside a lot, there are many online courses to pick up dog sports: scent work, obedience, trick training, freestyle, etc. You can do all of this from your living room!

Chewing:

The act of chewing and using jaw muscles is an essential thing for dogs in general. For our reactive dogs, there’s an undeniable advantage: chewing has a calming effect, and helps stress management (on a hormonal level). That is why I always recommend 30 to 60 minutes of chewing every day for reactive dogs. Now let me be clear: I’m not saying your dog became reactive because it wasn’t chewing enough! However, chewing is related to endorphin release in the brain : your dog literally self-medicates when it uses its teeth. It self-relaxes. We can’t ignore such a great tool.

Social interactions:

The dog is a social animal, and it’s important to keep that in mind. If your dog has friends, you should set-up regular play-dates. If your dog is afraid of other dogs, you have to become its “best friend”. This sounds obvious, but hang on a second. Right now, you’re the legal guardian, the walker and the trainer of your dog. Are you giving as much importance to playing just for the sake of playing, without the need for performance or improvement, just to be silly together? If you are, great, keep it up! Unfortunately, when we start training, the “friend” part of the equation tends to be put aside. We go “it’s fun, but I have more important things to do with my dog”. It is, in fact, essential for your dog.

To learn how to play with your dog properly, or to start/stop play with a more sensitive dog, I recommend the Play Way by Amy Cook, Ph.D online class. Dog is man’s best friend, let’s make sure we stay dog’s best friend too, in spite of everything going on.

Priority #… stop. Wait a minute.

At this point, I want you to stop and think. Have you set up a management/training structure that fill the first two priorities? Yes? Good news, you can stop here. Yup. If everyone is safe, you and your dog are happy, you can stop. Can you aim higher? Of course. Do you need to? Absolutely not.

Go back to the undesirable behavior list from earlier. Place a check-mark next to things that are under control: these things aren’t a safety concern anymore and it doesn’t ruin your or your dog’s daily life anymore.

If there are items left on the list, I recommend you keep working. Everything else is under control. The rest is going well. Don’t persist just because you want to fit the ideal image of “what a dog should be able to do”. Your dog is safe, you are safe, you are happy with your dog? You’ve won.

Priority #3 with a reactive dog: ideal goals

Once everything is set, you can push further. You can start to think about what you dream of being able to do with your dog. My advice is to approach these goals with a “if we make it that’s great. If not, oh well”. For instance, I really wanted to do agility with my Border. We did a group introduction class, he was good but clearly wasn’t comfortable enough to have fun. Oh well, it wasn’t for us in the end. We moved on to the next thing.

If you want that kind of challenge, these criteria are non-negotiable:

  • The safety of all must be respected.
  • Everyone involved needs to be aware of your dog’s challenges. They have to agree to respect its limits during the activity and to stop at your request.
  • The people involved are welcoming. They want to understand your dog and do things right. They don’t act high and mighty, pretending to know everything about reactive dogs, shaming you or forcing you to do things you don’t think your dog is capable of.

A positive example of this is my Canicross club.

In this club, my Border was able to train in a group setting because everyone immediately respected my request to keep a distance when we talk. My German Shepherd made leaps and bounds because of training in this club, because we were allowed the time and space to calm her big feelings down. To this day, my “reactive but not from afar” dog gets the respect he needs even though he doesn’t show his discomfort or any signs of stress. I am given the space I ask for and people believe me when I say I need it. No matter what you want to do with your dog, your job is to demand this level of respect towards your its limits.

A negative example, for me, is family gatherings.
My decisions were not respected, my dog was put over-threshold. Despite the fact that nothing terrible happened, I made the decision that there would no longer be family gatherings in my home unless my dog was being boarded elsewhere. As for the comments and opinions of people: I chose to never engage in any of those conversations and simply talk about something else until people changed topics. It’s important to protect ourselves.

Crédit photo : Daniel T photo

Finally, how do we organise all of this?

In the end, it’s much simpler than you thought! First, make everything safe: Your dog is reactive, but never dangerous. Changes in routine and gear usually do the trick. Then, make life pleasant for the dog and its family. For this, we use a mix of routine adaptation, situational management and training. Finally, and only if we have the energy to do so, we work towards ideal goals. The dog and family are happy enough as it is, so it’s not that bad if these goals aren’t met. It’s just a bonus.

Please remember this: put all of your energy on the first two priorities. Our dogs’ lives are way too short to aim for goals that don’t make anyone happy! One day, your dog will be gone just like mine, and you’ll miss them. It sucks to think about, but you’ll feel much better if you have fond memories to look back upon. Complex training plans for reactivity won’t do that for you. Reading your old training summaries from the dog trainer won’t do that.

What I do is look at pictures of our weekends gone camping. I look at footage of the tricks we learned in the living room, of all the times they didn’t understand and just goofed around. I remember the hundreds of fries shared, the cuddles, the days off road-tripping to get just one calm walk. The only thing that makes me smile is that, in these moments, we were happy together. This is how I define my priorities now.

written by Nina Esmery, CTC

Mis à jour le January 1, 2024

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