January 20, 2014

Reactivity is Not a Four Letter Word

Ruby soon after adoption, looking concerned...

My first inspiration for starting this blog starring my reactive dog came from discovering blogs such as Rescued Insanity, Rollin' With Rubi and My Imperfect Dog.  The stories of Shiva, Rubi and Silas made me feel like I was not alone in this world where seemingly every other dog I saw could walk down the street with a happy grin and a wagging tail oblivious to everything that would send Ruby into a volatile blur of red and white.

Now several months in and I still haven't gone into a whole lot of detail about Ruby's various issues.  I don't even have a tag for it yet! I find that I'd much rather talk about her brilliant mastery of a new trick than her embarrassing freak-out at the cyclist/man walking briskly toward her/dog across the street on our most recent walk.  So, I'm here to say: I have a reactive dog.  Ruby spins, barks and lunges at dogs, pedestrians, cyclists, skateboards and sometimes cars if she's run out of spoons on-leash, from inside the car and from inside the house.

Ruby's reactive behavior did not become apparent until about a month after I adopted her, and early on I spent a lot of time blaming myself, thinking that I "ruined my dog" by overdoing it at the start with the dog park, doggie day care and group classes. Ruby was the youngest dog I've ever had and while I know we missed the critical socialization period by a long shot, I thought it would still do her good to be exposed to lots of different things.  Now that I know her better, I realize that she was probably extremely shut-down and stressed out during that first month, and did not begin to exhibit her true personality until later.  Her background is unknown, and coming from a high-kill shelter in Arkansas, it's not a stretch to guess that it probably wasn't good.  With herding breed and terrier in her make-up, both groups which can be prone to reactivity, and transitioning from puppy to adult, it is probably a complicated miasma of genetics and circumstance that make Ruby the dog she is.  Luckily, or unluckily, she is not my first reactive dog, although she is less discriminating in her triggers than my late Norwegian Elkhound, Freya.  After my initial panic, I buckled down to the work of management.  I had several sessions with a professional trainer whose philosophies were in line with my own, I gathered all of the information I could about positive reinforcement training and assembled an arsenal of tools: calming music, Thundershirt products, various harnesses and head-collars, and the magical peanut butter bottle.  It can all be overwhelming, but it's imperative to take things one day at a time.  It will most likely be work that is never done. 

We haven't had any drastic improvements, and there have been inevitable ups and downs.  No matter how careful you are to control the environment, the environment is not entirely within your control.  What I do notice are little changes in Ruby: how she wags her tail more, how she can watch people walk by outside from the living room window (but still not dogs), how her body language is loose and relaxed when we get close to home after a walk.  Ultimately, what has changed the most over the past five months are my own attitude and expectations.  I love this dog.  This dog is forever.  What I want most for her is for her to feel calm and confident and happy and I'm going to do my best to protect her from the things that make her feel otherwise, and nurture the behavior that will help her cope.  While I do wish we could have normal walks where I am not scanning the horizon for other dogs, suddenly changing direction to avoid a jogger or ducking behind cars in hopes that she won't notice the approaching cyclist, I've become more accepting of where we're at right now, and where our comfort zone is.  Most importantly, I have patience with Ruby and with myself.  If I'm not feeling up to high-caliber distraction tactics, we opt for a shorter walk in an area we are less likely to run into anyone.  If we have a bad day, I try to reevaluate everything that happened, and what can be improved upon. 

Many reactive-dog-blogs I follow are, for all intents and purposes, on the other side, or at least several years in to the journey.  They've successfully attended group classes or competed in agility.  Ruby and I are a long way from such things, but I like to think they are possible.

I wanted to tell the story of starting out, of looking our anxious, fearful, hyper-vigilant, sensitive dogs in the eyes and saying "we're in this together." I want this to be a place for hope, encouragement and commiseration.  A place to share ideas and victories large and small, be it gaining a Canine Good Citizen Title or passing a stranger without barking.  This is the beginning...the only logical place to start. Reactivity is not a dirty word, it's more common than you probably think, and our complicated dogs have so much to teach us.

Ruby today, a much happier girl already


  1. First, that peanut butter bottle is so smart! I am in love.

    Second, reactivity is a day-by-day issue; some days are encouraging, others are depressing. For instance, this afternoon I let Beatrix outside, attaching her long lead as always. Almost immediately she took off for the corner of the yard where the neighbors barking dog was freaking out. I literally picked her up off of the fence as she was scrambling to get over. Sigh.

    I also think there was quite an adjustment period for Bea when we adopted her. (I'll always adopt my dogs, but it is hard not knowing their backgrounds and possible triggers. Of course, that could be said for any dog!) I felt such guilt when all of her issues were coming to light... It was really hard, but I knew I couldn't give up on her. We adopted her when she was two years old and were her third home!

    Ruby is lucky to have you, a very dedicated owner, to help and protect her.

    1. It is always a mixed-bag when you adopt an older dog, or even a young puppy. There are no guarantees. One of the parts I'm finding most fascinating about that Patricia McConnell book is how formative the early days are for a dog, including how the mother is treated before the puppies are born!

      I find myself longing for a yard, but having neighboring dogs would be a whole new challenge, for sure.

      I'm delighted you've joined the dog-blogging ranks and look forward to bouncing ideas off one another and following your progress with Bea and the gang.

  2. Look at your girl and the flat-out blossoming that she has done these past few months with you! It's almost hard to believe it's the same dog.

    I love that you share your journey together with me, with us. You've both come a long way. <3

  3. Hi Lara. I'm so happy to have connected with you through WOOF and Twitter and Pinterest. Your Ruby is beautiful.

    I completely relate to all your feelings. I struggled a lot with my first dog, Isis. It took me a long time to understand what "reactive" meant, and I hadn't yet found fellow bloggers to help me through it.

    I also saw all the smiling happy dogs on walks and wished Isis didn't embarrass me with her barking and lunging. I realized, (too late, I think) that I would rather see her smiling and happy at home, and doing the things she loved, than drive both of us crazy trying to turn her into a dog who could walk past a bicycle or another dog on leash.

    I look forward to following along with your journey.

    1. Thank you, Kari. It is a learning process and also a matter of letting go of the things that "normal" dogs can do. Ruby does love going for walks, the quieter the better, but there is nothing she enjoys more than a rowdy game of tug, and the way her tail wags when we are working on tricks tells me that there is plenty we can do within her comfort zone.

      Thank you for visiting!

  4. We aren't "on the other side" in any possible way, except that I've learned how to manage the worst of Silas's problems. (Well, and his prozac helps immensely with the most pressing stuff, like his obsessive barking at every sound on the street.) The one huge benefit we had is, in a weird kind of hindsight, that I *did* have Silas from a puppy. I kick myself over a lot of things, because we had no idea what we were dealing with, but there are also things we did right that other people wouldn't have done. We put him through puppy kindergarten *and* an intensive puppy daycare program, for instance, when it was obvious that he was scared of other dogs. That alone is, I think, the only reason that he's not dog reactive.

    The best thing about the blog, and about starting now, is that you'll have the records. I look back sometimes when I'm feeling discouraged, and see that there really has been some progress. And feel free to drop me an e-mail any time.

    1. Thank you, I really admire your dedication to Silas and your thought-provoking posts.

      I know that reactivity isn't something that can be cured, necessarily, and there are varying degrees of success in terms of what each dog can handle. I'm planning for a lifetime of management - as you say, a great majority of the battle is learning what works.

  5. This was a tough weekend, because I took the dogs on a walk thinking we would be alone (everyone's watching the game, right?) and there were three cyclists. Rodrigo didn't do great, but I blame myself, because I shouldn't have taken him on the Centennial Trail.

    I'm so thankful for your blog, because otherwise I would be so much more stressed about this thinking that I was just a bad dog owner.

  6. You are not alone! Pyrrha is reactive to other dogs on leash (and nervous around small children in all circumstances), and it is a daily challenge and something that we're always working on. You've already done so much for Ruby, so don't let yourself feel discouraged! Progress can be slow and incremental -- and often hard to even detect. But it is happening, particularly with your awareness of this issue and your hard efforts at helping Ruby with her fears. Keep up the good work!

  7. Great post, Lara! I know for me it feel like two steps forward and then one (two or three) steps back. It can be so frustrating but the great thing is when you see the small, subtle changes...and sometime just those little positive reinforcements can make such the difference. It's great that you are using your blog to "keep a record". On thos days when it feels like three steps back you can look back and see how far you and Ruby have already come.

    Thank you for joining my WOOF Support group. It is great having you there and I hope we can all learn little somethings from one another...so everyone can have a two steps forward day!
    Oz (and Gina)

  8. Great post. (And hi from WOOF!) I'm the same - scanning constantly for other dogs while on walks, ducking behind cars, changing direction if a potential bad 'sitch needs to be avoided. Rita is getting better, but it's slow going. Some days/some dogs she does great with, other days... not so much. But, like you said, we're in it together and for the long haul!

  9. I love to hear about the relationship bonding your having with Rubi, the learning experience and the adapting less to trying to make her "normal" and more to make her happy. She's really luck to have you!

  10. It's such a process, isn't it? Good days and bad pass by in a blur, and I think having a supportive community to cheer on or support each moment is so important. You're doing an incredible job!! And thank you for sharing the FB group! I'm heading over to check it out!


Thanks so much for visiting The Ginger Sisters at Rubicon Days! We enjoy each and every comment and love getting to know our readers.