November 18, 2016

On Reactivity and The Election

It's been a hard week for many of us. The world which previously felt safe, secure and predictable feels suddenly less so. We are on edge, our skin prickles with the anticipation of what might happen or what bogeyman is around the next bend. We gnaw on the bones of history, our thoughts run in tail-chasing circles. I don't know if I've ever felt a closer kinship with my reactive dog.

A few days after the election I read a heartwarming story about a hiker encountering her candidate walking in the woods with their spouse and dogs. After reading political editorials until my eyes blurred and breathing with only the upper third of my lungs all week,  I thought that getting outside with The Ginger Sisters was the best thing I could do. Friday happened to be Ruby's birthday-ish - a best guess of her age (now four) pinned to a double set of my favorite number (eleven) so I wanted it to be longer, more special walk than usual. I live nearby a wonderful open space park, a network of walking paths in a prairie ecosystem. It contains a frisbee golf course, soccer fields, a mountain bike trail system with obstacles and a major artery of our cities' primary cycling path. In a word, a minefield of triggers for a motion-sensitive reactive dog. It was a weekday, though - I expected fewer people, and I was feeling brave. I laced up my trail running shoes and fastened the girls into their jewel-colored harnesses. We set out, determined to be part of our world, however fractured or frightening. 

For some time I've known that I can often diffuse Ruby's reactive meltdowns by picking her up. I tend to use it as a last resort - it feels like cheating somehow. People with large dogs don't have this option, and it rubs against that idea of "little dog syndrome." On Friday I asked myself why it couldn't be framed differently. I know that Ruby's responses are fear-based. They are highly correlated with speed, as well - she can usually pass someone walking but feels threatened by a jogger. I saw this firsthand in the park: she was able to watch a mountain biker crawl up a steep incline, but a road bike whizzing past was another story. Why didn't I try picking her up sooner, as a preventative rather than a panicked trump card?

I don't just want to snatch Ruby up without warning or consent. This is something I want to put on cue, so she knows what to expect, maybe even starts to anticipate, like a roundabout version of the Look at That game. I settled on "I Gotcha," and it didn't take long at all for Ruby to understand what this meant. Rather than wait for her to start spinning and barking, I said "I Gotcha" the moment I saw a potential trigger. Ruby would sit, look back at me, and even started to jump up into my arms as I bent down. From an elevated vantage point, she doesn't feel so vulnerable. From the safety of my arms, Ruby was comfortable enough to watch her triggers with alert interest rather than crazed defensiveness.
I long ago abandoned treats as a panacea for Ruby's reactivity. If she was able to take food at all, she would frequently end up choking on it. There is no distance that she is under threshhold with most of her triggers except out of sight or earshot. Food does not change the association for her - it is a platitude like "nothing is going to hurt you," "calm down," or "it's not as bad as you think." Food does not make her feel safe. During our entire walk on Friday, Ruby was able to look to me and count on me for a change of emotion, from hysteria to security. We encountered several dogs, many bikes and two runners and she only barked once. I felt a little silly and a little sad that it's taken me so long to listen, to try something unconventional.

In times of trouble and uncertainty, be gentle to yourself and those around you. Take a long walk, longer than usual. Pay attention to the ways that we exist in harmony even when it looks like chaos. Go to higher ground and see how your perspective changes. Do the things that make you feel safe and find a tribe that listens. Ask yourself too, what you can do to lift up someone who is feeling afraid, even when their fears seem frantic and unreasonable. Trust your own strength enough to say "I've got you."


  1. I'm so glad you've found a way to help Ruby! That's excellent! I'd have to do some serious weight training before I could do this with Bar, but thankfully treats do work for her--not necessarily making her feel safer, but they shift her focus from the other dogs and then the other dog is no longer close by and life is good again :)

  2. I love this so much. Dogs I understand. This election? Not so much. Thank you for drawing this parallel. I'm going to seek out ways to say, "I've got you." Thank you for this.

  3. Excellent post. I wish I could pick Rodrigo up; it would make walks so much better. I also wish I understood reactivity sooner than I did, because I could have been working with him for a longer period of time.

    Rodrigo and I are going to start going on solo walks again. It's been a long time, because of busy schedules and it's just easier to stay at home. I'm not looking forward to re-acclimating him to dog walkers, joggers, and cyclists, but I know that regardless of how he reacts, he loves the walks. His reactivity isn't fear based, it's excitement based; he wants to run along side the cyclists and joggers, he wants to greet the other dogs. When he can't, he barks like crazy. I imagine him saying "HEY, I'D COME HANG OUT WITH YOU BUT I'M ATTACHED TO MY HUMAN RIGHT NOW, HEY HEY HEYYYYYYYY" - it comes across like a crazy, aggressive dog that scares everyone.

    Thanks for this post.

  4. What a great story thanks for sharing it with us
    Lily & Edward

  5. Another beautiful blog post Lara! I find it is hard to think of the obvious when it tends to go against the flow of societal thinking. I try to remind myself that 'who cares' what people normally do, I should do what works for me! Have a peaceful weekend!

  6. wonderful post and good advice....we all need to learn to do this for sure DakotasDen

  7. Thank you, Lara. This is a great post on many levels.

  8. Such a great post. Reminds me of my reactive girl Bailey. She will also feel much calmer if I pick her up and usually only do so if there is a larger off leashed dog near us. Luckily she does respond to food, but living with a reactive dog is - in my opinion - a constant journey of figuring out the balance and tuning to their emotions. I think you're doing amazing! :)

  9. This is so lovely; I love the imagery, the parallel to the political landscape, and most especially the use of care and love to give Ruby what feels safer for her. You're a great mama!


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