Reactive Dog is Reactive, and Kind of an Ass

Shiva in snowWhen 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.

Scary Men

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.

PosingAt 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.

33 thoughts on “Reactive Dog is Reactive, and Kind of an Ass

  1. Well, holy woof Kristine. Way to take a subject I thought I understood and just TURN IT ON IT’S EAR.

    It is EXACTLY like acne and every bit as frustrating. I’m fricking thirty (or there abouts) and I truly believed my now that I would have coerced my skin into good behaviour with face creams worth more than my food budget and a little TLC, but much like Felix’s reactivity, it comes out at the weirdest times and seemingly without provocations. I thought I was working towards a cure for Felix and now you tell me best I can hope for is mild outbreaks that I can usually forget about given enough chocolate?! *sigh* That is daunting and a little freeing at the same time. When he reacts, I haven’t failed, reactivity is just a recurring thing that happens. Thank you.


    • The key is to build your partnership, which you and Felix definitely have done. It isn’t going to be perfect all the time and who cares? You aren’t going to let him hurt anyone and you can always just hightail it.

      Shiva can just be a bitch when she is on her leash and other dogs get in her face. Some dogs she likes, some dogs she hates. She is allowed to state her boundaries and I would rather her bark and growl than cower in fear. The people-thing is trickier. It makes having family over very awkward and I get nervous taking her to any public space. But, I am kind of a hermit anyway, so she gives me an easy excuse to stay home. 😉

      I am glad I could help relieve the burden of perfection, at least. You just never know. Maybe Felix’s behaviour is the type that can be cured. Every dog is different, after all.


  2. Oh, Kristine, thank you for this post! Your descriptions of Shiva’s reactivity reminds me SOOOO much of Ducky’s in relation to strange people. (She’s good with other dogs, except my one neighbor’s chihuahua, but when it comes to human strangers? That’s a totally different story. But like your Shiva, there are days when she won’t react at all and other days when she goes ballistic. Even with people we know and accept into our home. And yet, it only seems to happen when Sam or I are around. (Mostly me.) I actually had to have her meet one of our pet sitters at the doggy daycare while I sat in the car, just so she wouldn’t react badly to the sitter.

    And, at the vet’s office, she loves the vet, but doesn’t like the girls who work for him. Figure that one out! Actually, the vet is wonderful with her, and very calm, and I know she senses the difference in his energy as opposed to his assistants.

    I wanted to get on to that blog hop last week; but the weather just totally screwed up my entire week. And I’m still trying to catch up even though the snow’s been melted and gone for three days already.

    Have a great week! Thanks again for sharing about Shiva’s reactivity. I’ve learned to accept Ducky’s reactivity — and how to manage it — as part of her personality too; but it sure helps to have a fellow blogger with similar dog “issues”. Especially one who’s better about writing about it than I am!!


    • There is no figuring it out, that’s the problem. Shiva is good with most women but every now and then she will surprise me by freaking out at a female who gets to close. I don’t know why she likes certain people and dislikes others. Only she can tell me that. Maybe it’s the way they move or look at her or smell. All I can do is either get her out of the situation or, in the case of the vet clinic, reassure her that the person means her no harm. It’s definitely the suckiest part of having a dog who is human reactive. You have mu full sympathy.


  3. Silas also doesn’t like surprises. Down to not liking the person who arrives after us at a party, even though he can accept everyone who was already there. One day he had a meltdown at his “best” park, because a guy was standing off the trail. I kept reading the dog training books, looking for someone else who had a similar problem, but they’re all focused on solving dog-dog leash reactivity.

    Unfortunately, “dislike of surprises” is pretty hard to counter-condition. You can’t exactly time carefully closer interactions with cookies for looking at the surprise.


    • I know what you mean. Most of the articles and books I deal with all deal with dog-dog aggression but none really handle dog-human with all that much clarity. Shiva isn’t aggressive so much as just really jerky. She will run up to a person like she is happy to see them – or so they think – and then start barking in their face. It’s totally obnoxious and why I reserve the right to call her an asshole. It’s like she wants to see them, wants to sniff them, and then decides she doesn’t at the last second. Or something. I don’t really understand it myself. So for the most part we keep away.

      I do think it’s awesome you can take Silas to parties! That is something we have never done with Shiva. My nerves just couldn’t take it. That, and she would probably steal all the food off the tables. 😉


      • Yes! Silas is a specialist at “I am sweet, you want to pet me!” Then the person reaches out, and he has a meltdown. But he doesn’t do it every time, so I’ll get lulled into a false sense of security and let him go meet someone. It’s like he doesn’t understand that walking up to a person is going to involve petting.

        I didn’t meant to give the impression that Silas was a party animal. We have a lot of rules. In general I’d trust him in groups no bigger than 6-8 people, as long as we’re the last people to arrive and everybody knows to leave him alone. Plus it isn’t worth it, unless there’s a reason I can’t leave him home. This adds up to *maybe* twice a year.


        • That could be the problem, actually. They don’t think it will involve petting, they just want to sniff and when the person automatically reaches up or out to touch, they are all “whoa! I didn’t want that!” Last month we had two friends over for the very first time. My best friend and her boyfriend. They both love dogs and knew what to expect so I wasn’t overly nervous. Shiva spent the whole night running up to him where he sat on the couch and either soliciting pets or barking. It was so rude but he was a really good sport.

          I never thought about being the last to arrive before but I see how that makes sense. If everybody is already sitting down and not moving, it would be much easier for Shiva to feel comfortable as well. As long as nobody gets up or walks through a doorway. Oh, those evil doorways…

          I think it’s awesome how you have worked so hard with Silas and don’t let his behaviour stop you from doing things together. Dogs are always baffling. As long as no one gets hurt, all we can do is laugh it off and move on.


      • Ruby is reactive to pretty much everything. Some days I wish for the “luxury” of only dogs or only people…but for her it’s both. And bikes. And skateboards. Sometimes cars. I still haven’t really pinned down the real reason, either. In the home she loves people, happy to greet them, no fear. She is really busy and squirrelly and is not much for petting but I wouldn’t worry about her snapping/biting like I had to with my elkhound. Outdoors she views anyone approaching in motion with suspicion, but if they’re stationary off to the side she usually wants to go and greet them. It’s really quite similar with dogs – the ones she’s met in homes she does great with, has never growled, snarled or snapped, just wants to play (in a relentlessly obnoxious fashion). On walks or watching out the window, it’s the typical aggressive-appearing bark and lunge. I tend to lean more toward frustration-based reactivity than fear-based, but she is noise sensitive and can be skittish, too. She is a complicated creature.


        • Right, frustration is also an important cause/trigger. I should have mentioned that. When it comes to dogs Shiva is mostly just reactive when off-leash and so has little trouble at dog parks. She also has difficulty with windows and if we had a fenced yard would probably be the best fence fighter in the west. Yee haw…


  4. Delilah picks and chooses too. Although I’ve learned to tell when she will react by watching her. Last night she about lost it over a chunk of snow in the road (it was dusk) she was dragging me towards it. Silly dog.

    Mostly she 1) doesn’t like surprises and 2) she has a clear idea in her mind of how dogs should behave (you’d never know by her behavior) and if she sees a dog that doesn’t act that way, she wants to teach it a lesson. Of course, she will react to a reacting dog, so I just have to be on my toes.

    Who knows, maybe someday we’ll have a handle on it.


    • Exactly. It’s all about reading their subtle signs, an ear twitch or a slight curl of the lip. I usually have about a second to interupt or it’s too late, depending on how close the trigger and how jerky she feels towards them. Last week Shiva was about to leap on a jogger’s back and I was able to stop her mid-air before the person even noticed. I was pretty proud of that move. Bet I couldn’t do it again. 😉


  5. So my Maggie is the Queen of Assholery. Reactivity, sure. But she takes it much farther. Like chewing a bone right in front of the door to the room our temporary weekend foster is staying in. A temporary foster who is separated from my dogs due to her propensity for assholery. Still being an asshole even when I make arrangements to prevent her from being an ahole to other dogs!


    • Hahahaha! I probably shouldn’t laugh but Maggie just looks so sweet it is hard to picture. I guess all dogs can be jerks sometimes. It sounds like you have her number, though, and I know you have worked very hard to keep her and your other dogs safe and happy.


  6. This sounds a whole lot like life with Morgan! I’m still really struggling with how to handle her behavior, though. The truth is, if she did really decide to go after somebody, I couldn’t stop her and we both know it. Assholery to the max! :/


    • That is definitely tough, especially if you have concerns around safety. 😦 I have been so lucky with Shiva in that sense, though I will always be extra cautious with children. There is no simple fix and it sucks. Morgan is such an intelligent, sweet girl with her family and her loyalty is a great part of her personality. Unfortunately, it also gets her into trouble sometimes. You have done a terrific job with her, though, and have a lot to be proud of.


  7. I always find it’s when I think BD has made huge steps forwards that something will happen and we take a big step back. Your right it won’t ever be cured, but it is about learning to cope.

    Interestingly when i first lived with BD i thought I would never have another reactive dog, now I’m not so sure!!


  8. I think of reactivity as bring similar alcoholism; it’s possible to have the disease under control, at times, but it always exists. There are always temptations. There will be tumbles off the wagon. But with due diligence by the addict and the sponsor, I mean dog and handler, each can earn “days reactivity free” rewards. It felt like I was one if the only people in the WOOF Support hop who understood that this disease never really goes away. I hate for that to discourage anyone but your post does a great job of saying it. But I have only had three years of life with a reactive dog. Maybe when I get to as many as you, the sense of humor you have about it will happen for me too! Until then, I’ll keep scanning the world for tiny dots like those men in your photo and fight back the tears when Brychwyn goes crazy from seeing them first.


    • You’re not the only one at all, Bethany. Ruby is my second reactive dog – my reactive elkhound really never got much better in nearly nine years with her. She was not nearly as intense as Ruby, though. I’m committed to doing all I can to help Ruby, but I’m also prepared for things to remain largely the same. My main shift has been in attitude and expectations. I know what it’s like to fight back tears. As much as I try to stay positive on my blog, there are good days and bad days. I had one of each this weekend. Thank you for joining the hop – I think one of the most important things for those of us with challenging dogs is that we not feel alone.


      • Thank you! I had posted my reactivity training suggestion and then some of the comments made *gulp* like I hadn’t made it clear that this wasn’t going I magically fix anything, probably ever. And you are so right that the main shift really has to be within ourselves as good partners to the dogs we love!


    • Bethany, like Lara Elizabeth said, you are definitely not alone. There are still some times I feel like crying but there are many more good days than bad. I could show you so many posts I have written on this subject, some while bawling my eyes out. It really, really, really sucks. Especially when other people don’t get it, that is the worst part, or was for me. I just wished others could see how lovely she was but all they saw was her craziness. She made me doubt myself all the time.

      It will get easier, that I do know. If you keep working with her and building your relationship. There will be a day you will laugh. I promise.

      By the way, Brychwyn is a beautiful name!


      • I have been stalking your blog for a couple of years, Kristine, so I have likely read some of those posts. You have actually been quite an inspiration to me , I first got on Twitter (@wilbryhux) for more education and support than I was getting in my dog sport classes and from my dog show friends. Even very few of them understood what I was going through with Brychwyn. And we do laugh- as much as I want to help my brilliant baby corgi feel secure I cannot help but tease him for barking like a maniac at a statue. Duh!!!

        And I love his name too! I just have to not care that no one can pronounce it! Lessons in not caring what others think is part of life with a reactive dog, right?!? 🙂


  9. I feel your pain. Rufus has been with us for over 3 years now and his reactivity comes and goes. Just like you, I think some of it is fear-based but much of it is also probably territorial. Ugh…and also just like you, I don’t mind the barking at strange men in the early or late night walks….what to do…


    • I am a big believer in lifestyle training. As long as no one is in danger, I say train what bothers you and manage the rest. Sometimes, and I am guilty of this as well, we spend too much time worrying about what is wrong with our dogs instead of just making them, and ourselves, happy.

      Thanks for commiserating!


  10. What a fantastic post!! I hope you don’t mind if I share!

    After 2 years, we’re learning how to read Ed, although really have no idea what his triggers are…most of the time it’s anything moving other than us on our walks, although sometimes he surprises us by not caring about certain dogs or people. We do know that he has strong (negative) feelings towards larger dogs, herding breeds — those eyes!, bicycles, and people in hats.


    • Of course not! I am so glad you got something out of it!

      Reactivity never goes away, at least I don’t think it will for us, but it does get easier to manage. As I mentioned, it is mostly about building your bond, which can take a long time. Once Ed starts to look to you first before reacting, you have a pretty big opportunity to prevent future episodes. This doesn’t mean mistakes won’t be made – oh, how I wish – but it will become at lot easier. You’ll learn his warning signs, even if you never understand his triggers. Good luck and don’t give up!


  11. Love the analogies in this post as well as in some of the comments; they are so true. Oz was never reactive until “the incidents”; before that we could walk anywhere, past or up to other dogs, and not have a problem. Now, not so much. I don’t even think it is completely fear-based anymore but more of a learned response (which I allowed) that now just works for him.

    I know this reaction (or assholery) is never going to go away completely. That is not why I started WOOF…I started it to be supportive of others who are going through the same thing (because I received great support when we “came out” and it felt nice to know we were not alone). In addition, I thought it would be a good place to learn about techniques that can help mitigate/ease the reactions – the dogs as well as our own.


    • It’s so true, isn’t it? I also still wonder how much of Shiva’s behaviour is caused by my own response as sometimes I might pre-anticipate even her pre-anticipation (if that makes sense) and then she picks up on my worried energy and responds accordingly. Who knows with these beasts?

      Also, I want to make it clear, just in case I didn’t, that I only think my dog is a jerk, not everyone else’s! Oz is no doubt a much sweeter, much less obnoxious dog than Shiva and I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I think all reactive dogs are assholes. Just mine. 🙂 And I say this with deep affection.

      I think the group is fantastic, by the way. So many times I have said how I wished I’d know the Petosphere existed when I was dealing with the worst of it. A little support goes a long way and I do hope I can help reassure people that it does get better. Thank you so much for putting this all together. I am very sorry I missed the actual hop but I did enjoy reading all of the submissions!


      • LOL! No worries about the A-hole thing! Oz is a BIG one in a small body sometimes; a true terrier. Though he can be sweet, when on-leash around dogs he does not know…well, you know what he is.

        I agree! Since starting the group and listening to everyone, I have noticed how I tense up in anticipation of having to pass another dog. I know my body language and energy are just telling Oz “get ready. Here it comes…”. I have tried to be more conscious of both but sometimes I am just too tired or am distracted; that is when the big blow-ups happen.

        I knew someone in the group said how they wished the group was around forever ago but dog-gone-it, but could I remember who? No. If there is only one thing someone takes away from this group, I hope it is that they felt among like-experienced people (and dogs) who understood what they were going through.

        Thank you for being one of the few in the group have made it to the other side and are still willing to share and be supportive.


  12. I feel bad for saying this, but it’s nice to know I’m not the only one with jerk dogs. 🙂
    Just tonight the 2 of them saw a neighbor’s dog way back in its OWN yard & they lunged forward and F U barked. Luckily they stop when I say “HEY, knock it off, jerks” & keep walking. If I blow it off and stay calm they’re fine, but it still sucks when the other dog is doing nothing wrong & they’re being territorial psychos. Darn punk dogs.


  13. Ok. The plastic bag thing… what is with that?! Lucas struggles with that, too. Although he’s much better than he was, when I change the liner, he still leaves the kitchen. Thank you so much for the shout out. You’ve done an incredible job with sweet Shiva. As for the question about your response… I JUST had this major epiphany (that I read in a book): If your in-the-moment reaction is to hold your break/tug on the leash/whatever, use the clicker to train YOUR response as a positive thing. So I tense up and tighten Lukey’s leash, so I”m practicing doing just that, then clicking and treating. Hopefully/ideally when I tense up, he’ll expect a treat!


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