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Life with a Reactive Dog: Tips & Tricks to Manage

Living with a reactive dog is one of the most difficult experiences a pet parent can imagine. That may sound dramatic, but scroll through any "reactive dog" Facebook group or Reddit thread and you'll likely read many a similar sentiment. Raising a special-needs pet is a daunting task that not everyone is able or willing to tackle - particularly if issues were uncovered post-adoption.

It's an isolating experience. The narrative we hear most often is that getting a pet is the greatest decision one can make, but reactive dog owners may find themselves unable to fully relate to this perspective. Many times, these pet parents find it difficult to reach out for support. They fear judgment and sometimes even legal consequences depending on the extent of their pup's issues.

My dog Greta is among the millions of animals that have been irresponsibly bred and dumped. Often, the ramifications of their neglect or abuse are placed on a new owner. That means that thousands of pet parents are likely struggling with similar behavioral issues. And in fact, even purebred dogs raised from birth can become reactive - they may just be born with a chemical imbalance. Many times, these stories end in heartbreak. Luckily, they don't have to. Greta and I have learned to manage, and dare I say, almost... thrive? Stay with me through the end for some tips and tricks that completely transformed my life with a reactive dog.

What is a "Reactive Dog"?

Before I dive into my experience, let's review exactly what reactivity is. "Reactive" was a term I was unfamiliar with prior to adopting Greta. As it turns out, dogs are rarely vicious for no reason. Reactivity is an emotional and behavioral overreaction to triggers, thus most reactivity issues are fear-based.

Let's illustrate it. Your dog Fido encounters something unpleasant: your friend named Greg. For some reason, Fido doesn't like Greg - maybe he reminds him of a previous owner. When Fido sees Greg, he becomes afraid. Greg, unaware of the issue, gets closer to Fido. Fido wants Greg to back away NOW, so Fido growls. Greg ignores the growls and gets closer. Without any other tools to make this frightening person go away, Fido bites. Greg retreats. Fido has learned that biting makes scary things go away. The next time Fido sees a big man who resembles Greg, he feels the fear emotion and instead of growling, immediately bites the man. To Fido's owner, this bite may seem unprovoked - even aggressive. In reality, biting is Fido's only tool to manage fear. It's simply a learned behavior, which becomes reinforced every time it is used to make the scary thing retreat. And thus, reactivity becomes ingrained.

From the Beginning

Pit bull type dog in grass at animal shelter

I'm a research freak. If I need to purchase a vacuum, I'm 300 reviews deep with no fewer than 30 tabs open before I can even begin to make a semblance of a decision. When I decided to adopt, I had exhausted every shelter, met several potentials, and was in touch with a dozen foster parents.

One cold day in October, after months of careful planning, I walked into Chicago animal control with a mission in mind. I walked the endless rows of homeless animals, and my heart sank for each and every one. It wasn't until a high-pitched, gremlin-esque bark emitted from my left, however, that my heart leapt. Little Greta, with tear-stained eyes, mangled ears, and a worn, stubby body, gazed up at me and barked as if to say, "there you are. I've been waiting!" I knelt down and stuck my hand through the bars, and in no less than three seconds, she melted into my arms. Volunteers assured me that she was a play-group superstar, even showing me a video of Greta enthusiastically frolicking with some fellow shelter dogs. She was seven years old, low-energy, fully potty-trained, a nap-a-holic, and exactly what I was looking for!

The shelter didn't know much of Greta's past when she arrived at CACC. She was dropped off with another dog by a man who said he "found" them but dodged further questioning. Staff put two and two together and realized he was likely their owner. They asked him to fill out a short form, just to provide some - any info that would help rehome his dogs, but he refused.

Greta spent the next month at CACC in horrible health. She was left with parasites, an awful respiratory illness, and did nothing but "owner search" in the kennels. She didn't know how to play with toys. Had no interest in bones. She wasn't fixed and had clearly been bred. Not shocking, as Greta is actually a purebred American Bully (a cross between an American Bulldog and an American Pit Bull Terrier). She spent her days at the shelter curled up quietly on her blanket.

I took her home after she was spayed, and her body shook from fear from the moment we exited the building. She cried the entire ride home. Once in the condo, she defecated out of stress. Poor thing. My sister and I set up camp with her on the living-room floor.

In that first month, things went according to plan for the most part. We followed the recommended decompression routine of two weeks minimum total shut-down, no meeting new people or dogs. This is suggested to slowly transition rescue dogs into their new life and it's definitely vital. 

Warning Signs

A few weeks in, Greta lunged at another dog in our condo complex when my sister took her out to go potty. I mistakenly blamed my sister, upset that she had let Greta meet a dog too early.

About a week later, I popped Greta in the car to visit a friend. As we drove, Greta saw a man on the sidewalk. She launched her squat body at my window and released a terrifying howl, instantly disturbed by his presence. I took a mental note of this but figured it was normal. She was just getting used to her new surroundings, after all.

During our first drive to the office after her two-week shutdown, a coworker hopped in my car to catch a ride. Greta reacted poorly to this, air-biting too close to her face for comfort. My worry grew but I tried to stay optimistic. These new people and places had to be stressful for Greta, so it made sense that she was on edge.

As my bad luck would have it, a few weeks later on another trip to the office, a larger incident occurred. We arrived without knowing that my boss's dog was already there, and I made the crucial error of letting Greta and the other pup sniff face to face (it's typically recommended that dogs meet nose-to-butt on first greeting). Before I could even react, Greta had the dog by its scruff and would not let go. Everything was a blur. My coworker was badly grazed by one of the dogs in the process of separating them. Greta left with a bloody eye and my boss's dog left with a hearty puncture wound. Crap.

From then on, these episodes became more and more frequent. Vet visits were stressful, with Greta growling every time a tech got close. She started reacting to and barking at any house visitors. She would scream - yes, scream, at other dogs in the hallway of our condo. My stress mounted and I soon began to regret my decision to adopt.

My Reactive Rover

By the time that I finally understood that I had a reactive dog on my hands, I was already attached to my little companion. When she wasn't reacting, Greta was the most affectionate dog I had ever encountered. Sometimes I would stress-cry after a particularly difficult day with her, and she would immediately join me on the couch and press her body as close to mine as possible, as if to say, "I'm sorry. I can't help it. Please don't give up on me."

Unfortunately, as our bond grew, so did my worries. Every walk was an anxiety-inducing dance avoiding any and all dogs, people, and kids. Off-leash dogs would send me into a full-blown panic. Several times I had to physically pick up the front half of my seventy-pound pitty in order to keep her from getting too close to a rogue, off-leash chihuahua. I began to dread even leaving the condo with Greta, scared that she could easily attack another dog, and possibly a person. I spent hundreds of dollars on both private trainers and classes. Nothing really helped.

Dog laying on couch next to obedience class certificate

Wit's End

The cost of paying off a dog bite is not cheap, and it's laughably difficult and expensive to insure yourself if your dog is a "bully breed". I felt trapped. How did my well-researched decision turn into such a paralyzing and heartbreaking situation? My pet-parent friends and family had nothing but great experiences with adoption.

I'm not proud to admit it, but I began looking for options. I was truly at my wit's end. I couldn't have friends over anymore, and couldn't travel because I didn't trust anyone else to be able to manage her. I made a plan: reach out to as many pit bull rescues as possible and just plead for help. Either help to rehome her, or help to learn how to manage the situation.

Weeks passed, and we finally heard back from one that agreed to guide us on our reactivity journey. They had extensive experience with bully breeds suffering from trauma. I felt hopeful for the first time since Greta's adoption.

How to Manage Life with a Reactive Dog

If you're still with me after my sob story, congrats! This is where I tell you what I actually learned from this process. With the amazing guidance of the pit bull rescue, and lots of trial and error, here is what helped, and what I'd recommend:

Medication

The first suggestion that really helped us turn a corner was medication. Some dogs, just like people, need a little extra assistance balancing their brain chemistry. Greta had such severe anxiety that it was making her react disproportionally to everyday stressors. We worked with the rescue and their veterinarian to get Greta on Fluoxetine, aka Prozac. After a few weeks, I noticed that Greta stopped barking at my sister's boyfriend. She was a little slower to reach her breaking point when we were out on walks.

After that, we added Clonidine, which resulted in even further improvement. Greta could go for a multi-hour car ride without screaming and launching herself at my window toward every person and dog she saw. The little things!

Training

R+ training! I have become a HUGE advocate for this method. R+ means positive reinforcement, and it emphasizes the importance of replacing undesirable behaviors with new ones, without using force or punishment. Think about it - a dog can't lunge at another dog if they've been taught to look at their owner for a treat instead. Introducing rewards every time Greta saw a trigger and didn't react meant that she slowly started to associate calm behavior during stressful encounters with delicious treats. There's a huge range of training recommendations online, and everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but a lot of research has explored the danger of aversive training methods, particularly if you own a reactive dog.

Punishment-based training - corrective actions like yanking on a choke collar, shocking with e-collars, reprimanding, etc. - can conversely either cause a dog to shut down in the presence of triggers (knowing that stress and punishment follow) and may result in even worse reactivity. I won't lie - R+ training is slow and steady. There will be setbacks. But after about a year of training, Greta's stress has greatly decreased. Now she can walk by a calm dog in a yard and simply observe. I'm proud that she made these behavioral changes without any force or intimidation. She genuinely learned to alter her reactions to stress.

If you're Illinois-based, I noticed almost instant improvement with A Sound Beginning Training and would wholeheartedly recommend them.

Muzzle Up

Years ago, muzzles were considered cruel or indicative of a vicious dog. Now, people have grown to understand that sometimes a muzzle can be the only thing between you and a $40k+ bite lawsuit. Properly conditioning your dog to wear a muzzle so they actually enjoy it can allow bite-risk dogs to function almost like a non-reactive dog. It also allows pet owners to walk their dogs without constant anxiety and uncertainty.

Teaching Greta to wear a muzzle was invaluable at the beginning of our training together. Now that I have tools to manage her and trust that I can anticipate her behavior, we don't need one. If you're exploring muzzle use for your own dog, I highly recommend joining a pro-muzzle Facebook group to ensure yours fits properly. Many owners select sizes that are much too small or mistakenly use short-term muzzles that can cause heat-stroke.

Insure Yourself

I highly recommend investing in two kinds of insurance if you own a reactive dog. Homeowner or rental insurance that allows you to protect yourself if your dog bites or injures someone is quite vital, especially if your dog is a bite-risk. This can be difficult, especially if you own a particular breed, but if you do some research in your city, you should be able to find a company that will insure you.

Secondly, reactive dogs can be unpredictable. At the peak of her reactivity, Greta tried to launch herself at someone out of a moving car. Pet insurance like Figo can give you peace of mind, especially if your dog injures themselves when they're anxious or gets into a fight.

Support

Join a Facebook group for support. This might sound crazy, but owning a reactive dog can be an enormous and daily stressor. It's isolating and often even your closest family and friends can't relate. I was very active in these groups, especially in the beginning, and some of their tips were invaluable to our progress. It was nice to vent to a non-judgemental group when I had a particularly difficult day with Greta.

Take it Slow

I cannot stress enough the importance of meeting your dog where they're at. When I first realized the full extent of Greta's reactivity, I thought it would be helpful to start increasingly exposing her to her triggers. I assumed repeated exposure would be healthy and desensitize her. This led me to put her in situations where she was forced to react (because duh - she was stressed and had no tools yet to manage) which only reinforced her negative behavior.

Instead, start with baby steps. Play the sound of a barking dog and give treats for calm reactions. Then ramp up to a VERY distanced walk through the neighborhood, treating every time a dog catches their attention from afar without inducing a reaction. Eventually, you will be able to build up and get closer to triggers until they elicit no reaction (or a much smaller one).

Pet Sitters

Vacationing was a huge issue for me. I love to travel and was suddenly faced with the possibility that I would never be able to do so again. Contact every dog sitting service in the area and be blatantly honest about your dog's issues. Ask specifically for sitters that have reactive dog experience, look over references, and do meet-and-greets. Make certain your sitter is licensed, insured, and bonded. This covers your bases in case something does go awry while you're gone.

I personally recommend Urban Tailz in Chicago. They set me up with a reactive-dog-friendly sitter, and it has allowed me to live somewhat like I did pre-adoption, and has given me so much peace of mind.

Note: if you have a backyard, this will be much easier. I live in an apartment complex which means that it was extremely important for me to find someone who could handle Greta's unpredictability around strangers and dogs.

Adjust Your Expectations

When I envisioned life as a pet parent, I pictured an Insta-worthy lifestyle. Bringing my go-with-the-flow pup to work, brunching on patios, meeting up with friends at the dog park. I fantasized about owning a street fair dog, bandana on, ready for photo-ops and loving crowds as much as I do. Boy, did I have to adjust my expectations. Life with Greta will never be picture-perfect. Hikes have to be done solo, with a "do not pet" bandana on. Guests can enter the house, but only if they've properly ignored her and let Greta greet them on her terms.

I've also come to understand that often the expectations we have for dog ownership serve us more than our dogs. Your pet doesn't need to have pals, and they don't need to dine patio-side with you and your gals. They need love, mental stimulation, and a safe home environment. In fact, the best gift you can give a reactive dog is stability and routine. If all Greta does in a day is go for a nice long walk and nap in my lap, that's a success for me!

Will My Dog EVER Be "Normal"?

Dog hiking with a bandana that says "Don't pet me"

Long story short, it depends. Will Greta ever be able to frolic at the dog park or dine on a crowded street? Never. Like I said, I've had to mourn the idea of the idealized pet parent life and replace it with a more realistic one. I love my dog, and I chose her. She depends on me, and I'm going to do my best to keep her happy, healthy, and as stress-free as possible. She can't help that she was given a rough start in life, and it's not her fault that the trauma she endured will stay with her for the rest of it.

However, she is night-and-day different from the dog she once was. I am so proud of her improvements, knowing how far she's come. She's learned to trust my houseguests and I now look forward to walks, knowing I have the tools to manage her. It can be so hard to keep your head above water when you're drowning in stress. Resources can be limited! But keep at it and you will likely see progress.

Keep in mind, whether you adopt or purchase your dog - this is a decision that can impact your life forever. It's not one to take lightly. Make sure you're aware of the worst-case scenarios. It'll save you some shock later on in the process. If you equip yourself with knowledge and are patient with your dog, you can thrive, reactivity and all!


Lizz Caputo is a Content Strategist at Figo, animal enthusiast, and owner of a rescued senior American Bully. Her hobbies include checking out new restaurants in her area, boxing, and petting dogs of all shapes and sizes.

Protect your pet from the unexpected with Figo Pet Insurance, rated “Best Pet Insurance” by Reviews.com since 2017.

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