Loving a Reactive Dog

Loving a reactive dog can test your patience and push your buttons. It forces you to take the long way round because you know that the dog is out that drives your dog crazy, and forcing him to pass by their house will set him up to be triggered for the remainder of your walk and maybe even day. It puts you on high alert when you have guests over, ever vigilant to watch for signs of stress and interrupt if necessary. It forces you to build 10 extra minutes into the walk just in case you see more triggers than usual on a given day, so you won’t be late for work if you have to take another route.

Loving a reactive dog will make you a dog body language detective. Did you know that piloerection AKA hackles isn’t necessarily a sign of pending aggression and that it’s an automatic response that the dog likely can’t control? Do you know how many seconds you can let your dog stare at THAT THING before he explodes into barking and lunging? (Hint: it’s usually 3 or less!) Do you know what your dog does RIGHT BEFORE he goes off, and how to help him out of it before he explodes? I do, and if you love a reactive dog you probably do to!


Loving a reactive dog can teach you things you never knew you needed. They will teach you patience, empathy, and compassion, far more than you realized you needed. They’ll teach you how to put their needs first, and how to act more selflessly. They’ll teach you how to stop caring so much what other people think, and how to set firmer boundaries. They’ll teach you to stop and literally smell the flowers. Just do it, who cares what the neighbors think! You’re already the crazy dog lady, what’s one more quirk?!


Loving a reactive dog is hard, sometimes heart breaking work. It’s acknowledging the dreams that you had for your dog, and realizing that their life is going to look different then you had planned it. It’s giving up dog park trips with your friends, and hikes at beautiful locations that simply won’t work for your pup logistically.

Loving a reactive dog is opening your heart completely, knowing full well that you may never 100% accomplish your goals, but trying your damndest to get there. It’s having this unbelievable bond with someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you, but who may as well be able to read your mind, and you his! It’s learning to trust your dog in situations you didn’t think possible. It’s a promise that you will always keep their safety your top priority, no matter what happens.


As I was driving home with Regis from our Rally Free class yesterday, a song from the musical Dear Evan Hansen came on my speakers. The lyrics go:


“All we see is sky for forever

We let the world pass by for forever

Feels like we could go on for forever this way, this way


All we see is light for forever

'Cause the sun shines bright for forever

Like we'll be alright for forever this way

Two friends on a perfect day”


I was struck (and I actually started to tear up a little bit) by how perfectly this song encapsulated that moment. Driving home with my reactive boy, after he had just worked off leash for almost a whole hour around 4 other dogs, with beautiful blue sky above us, the sun shining down on his greying muzzle as he rested his chin on my shoulder. It really felt like that moment could have gone on for forever, and I would have been perfectly happy with that. That is loving a reactive dog.


I have loved all of my dogs equally. And I’ll admit, having an ‘easy’ dog like Phoebe certainly has it’s perks. But there is something really, truly special about the love I have for my reactive boy. Loving a reactive dog isn’t easy. But it’s worth it.


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