When reading through the posts of last week’s #WOOF Support Blog Hop – an event hosted by and supporting owners of reactive dogs throughout the Petosphere – I was not surprised by how many of the stories sounded familiar. Roxy turns into a whirling dervish at the sight of other dogs, Ruby‘s anxieties are triggered by quick motion, and Felix was never taught solid social skills. These are all things Shiva and I have encountered together. And are still encountering.
Almost five years in, I wish I could say we have jumped down the other side of the reactivity mountain, like all her lunging is a distant memory and we walk down the street without a care. My former self liked to believe this was possible. If I was to go back and read posts from several years ago, I know I would find a cocky attitude and jokes about Shiva’s “reactive remission”. I saw every success as foreshadowing a cure.
I am now far too wise, too Shiva-savvy, to make these comments any more. Remission was never the right word to use. Reactivity (or assholerly, depending on the circumstance) isn’t behaviour that appears like a symptom of a disease and then remains until treatment pushes it into dormancy. Shiva’s barking and lunging and jarring is much more fitful and much more predictable. It is more like acne than cancer. It requires vigilance and practice. Sometimes old methods stop working and I need to try something new, a different topical cream to smooth out the skin. Shiva can be calm one second, jerky the next, and then calm for several months in a row. It’s just how it goes.
It would be a lie to say her eruptions are unexpected or that I never know how she is going to respond to a stimulus. Based on experience, I have an educated guess and I am almost always right. If I calculate twice per day for the past four and a half years, we have almost 3,500 walks in our tumultuous history. And counting. If I haven’t learned her common reactions by now, I haven’t been a very good partner.
However, just because I can predict her actions, doesn’t mean I always do something to prevent them. Sometimes I am too slow. Sometimes I am too lazy. Sometimes I am irritated with the situation and I don’t care if she freaks out. Sometimes I choose to be polite rather than put her first. Sometimes I like to take risks, see if I am wrong
I am usually not wrong.
The areas that differed between participating blogs in the hop were the posited reasons behind the reactive behaviour. Buster was injured by a larger dog, Forrest battles vet-diagnosed anxiety that affects multiple areas of his life, and Lucas has overcome a great deal of fear but needs help keeping his emotions in check. I have yet to come to any conclusion about the cause of Shiva’s dislike of other dogs, plastic grocery bags, and strange people – among other things.
I used to think it was fear based. Perhaps sometimes it is. But she is a very confident dog in many ways, if not a little over-confident. Is she just over-compensating?
The bulk of her problems lie in surprise. She doesn’t like it when something is there that wasn’t before. For instance, a few weeks ago someone had dumped an old leather chair at the entrance to the ravine. When we came out of the trees, Shiva saw the stocky black item and stiffened. The closer we got to the chair, the more she tensed. She started breathing in thick pants through her nose, always a warning sign. In her mind that chair didn’t belong there; it was an instant threat. The same thing happened on the weekend with a minivan parked on the trail. According to Shiva, minivans do not belong on trails, they belong on roads. When we turned the corner and she saw the large vehicle planted to the side of the path, she lost her mind.
If you have never seen a forty-five pound mutt take on a Dodge Caravan, I highly recommend it. Hi-lar-i-ous.
Strange men are also a common trigger. Not all men, though, just most. She instantly liked my PH’s older brothers but is still wary of my father. I can never be sure who she will accept and who she won’t so we avoid them all equally on our walks. This morning we took advantage of my day off and took a longer sniff through a part of the river valley we don’t get to visit often. It was early for a holiday and there weren’t many people. I made the mistake of assuming we were completely alone and forgot to pay attention.
Do you see the men in the above picture, to the right? Way off there in the distance? I didn’t either. Shiva did and she let them know it. I should probably have felt bad about her wild barking but, in truth, I appreciated the warning. I didn’t want to hang around in a quiet park with four strange men any more than she did.
This is why I am still conflicted about the reasons for Shiva’s reactions. They could be caused partly by fear and partly by a naturally territorial nature. They could also be a way of communicating with me when I forget to observe our surroundings. A “hey, there are people over there, just so you know, can we trust them?” Or, when it comes to her behaviour toward other dogs, she could just be kind of an ass.
At this point Shiva trusts me to handle most situations and the worst of her asshole, er, reactive, days are in the past. Most of the time I am able to prevent any episodes and we continue on our merry way with none the wiser. We’ve got the techniques down to an art and when in doubt, I don’t hesitate to cross the street or make use of someone’s driveway. But we both still make mistakes. Like an annoying pimple, there are some things that will always give us trouble. Shiva is reactive because she is reactive. That is just her personality. It is my job to help her deal with it.