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Reactivity - Beyond the Behavior: A Human Perspective

So often when we hear about reactivity the behavior and resolution is the central focus, but living with and loving a reactive dog goes far beyond the behavior. The human experience of reactivity is a whole journey in itself. As someone who is the guardian of two recovering reactive dogs who are now in their senior years, I have been through it twice now.

A small tan dog wearing a blue fleece, orange harness, blue and orange leash with a yellow leash flag and black muzzle clipped to it, sniffs the grass next to a sidewalk.
Ollie sniffing about five minutes post reaction.

There is the involuntary embarrassment that you feel when your dog has a reaction. I used to feel this before I truly understood the complexities of reactivity, and to my surprise, I felt it again today when Ollie had the worst reaction I've seen from him in at least 4 years (we were completely caught off guard by someone with two dogs with about three feet of distance between us and them). While the responsibility always falls on the human end of the leash, reactive behavior is more complex than what society tends to view it as: lack of obedience and control. Reactivity can have a variety of causes: genetics, stress while in utero, trauma, lack of proper socialization, and more. So while we are responsible for the environments we expose our dog to, training, and more, it's rare that is solely your fault. And even if it was partially due to something you did or might have done in the past, it really doesn't serve anyone to hang onto that. It's always okay to feel it, I just don't recommend you live in that feeling.

Then comes the hyper-analyzing and guilt. What did I do wrong? What could I have done better? Why didn't I do x, y, or z? While I think its a good habit to try and take some lessons when a reaction does happen so that you can find ways to do better in the future, it again doesn't serve you or your dog to cling to the "what ifs" - after all they potential "what ifs" are endless.

If you, like me, understand that reactive behavior is often driven by emotion such as fear or frustration, then you likely start to feel sad about your dog's experience - at least I do. As someone who struggles with anxiety, I understand what its like to feel afraid and panic all too well so its easy for me to empathize. If you are lucky to not struggle with anxiety, let me tell you, it's not fun and no one would choose it if it was a choice.

Worry also sets in... What will the effect of this reaction be? If you've done some training and are in recovery, there's always some worry on if a reaction will cause a setback. I'll tell you what I tell all my clients (and myself) in these scenarios: while we can do our best to avoid situations that would cause a reaction, you can't put your dog in a bubble nor can you control the actions of others. There will be situations completely out of your control where people surprise you out of nowhere or sneak up on you (it happens!). Sometimes reactions are going to happen and when they do, look for the small wins. Did your dog recover quicker? Was the reaction less severe? How long did the reaction last? Did you handle it in a better way than in the past? Even when its hard to find those wins in the moment, know that all the work you've put in isn't undone. And if worst case scenario, the work you've put in is undone - which is unlikely - this time you have the knowledge and skill to work through it.

There might also be some frustration mixed in whether its directed at yourself, your dog, or others. Know that it's normal to feel a little frustrated, but how you handle it is what matters. When I'm feeling frustrated with myself, I remind myself that I am doing my best and my best is enough. When I'm feeling frustrated with my dog, I remind myself that my dog isn't trying to give me a hard time, my dog is having a hard time. When I'm feeling frustrated with others, I remind myself that some people don't know any better because they've never owned a dog with behavior challenges. I might also reserve some choice words for them in my head, but I don't say those out loud.

Aside from the emotions you experience before, during, and after a reaction, there is also some grieving that happens when you share your life with a reactive dog - grieving over the expectations of the dog you thought you would have and the life you would share. Those expectations while understandable, aren't always reasonable. It's okay to grieve them anyway, but once you let them go you'll find this beautiful acceptance for who your dog is.

Finally, there is the love. Bond between dog and human is strong, but the bond between dogs with behavioral challenges and their humans tends to be super strong. In learning to love, accept, and help my dogs through their reactivity journeys, I have learned a lot, made some remarkable friends, and even found myself here building my own career out of something that started as a hobby by necessity. As silly as it sounds, I feel like I've even learned how to love myself more fully through learning how to embrace my dogs as they are. Regardless of the reactivity, my dogs bring me so much joy and I know so many others feel the same about their "behaviorally rich" dogs. I'm willing to bet if you're reading this, you do too.

I hope you take at least this lesson to heart: if the way you're feeling or the story you're telling yourself about your dog isn't serving you or them, let it go. Sure, it's easier said than done. It may take time, but I promise if I can do it, so can you.

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