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Reactivity in Dogs | Part I: The Myth of the Good Dog

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Meet Polo

We didn’t know Polo was reactive and aggressive until we’d owned him about a week. We’d taken our family of four, plus our little dog Sally, to meet him at the adoption center. He’d loved everyone – wagging his tail happily, chasing and playing with Sally. I’ve worked in veterinary medicine for over 30 years, and I saw no red flags in Polo.

Seven days later, my boss, Karen, came to my house. Since it was October 2020, she wore a mask and didn’t expect to be asked inside, but when I opened the door, Polo ran out, barking at the back of her legs. Then he leapt up and bit her calf. “He only nipped me,” she said – registering the shock and horror on my face.  

I’ve never owned an aggressive dog. Wait – that’s not altogether true. I’ve never owned a dog that was aggressive in that particular way. My dog, George, had bitten my son William on perhaps three occasions. As a toddler, William thought that hitting George was funny, and despite strong warnings and close monitoring, William managed to hit him twice. On the second time, George took matters into his own paws. But had William not been crying, you wouldn’t have even known that he’d been bitten. George, I was told by an animal trainer friend, had excellent bite inhibition. Meaning, if he’d wanted to break the skin on William’s face, he certainly could have. He’d chosen not to. 

The next day, I was on the phone with a board-certified animal behaviorist. Having worked in a specialty hospital for 20 years, I have the utmost faith in specialists. I was sure if anyone could “cure” Polo, it would be a behaviorist. The doctor told me that Polo was a “reactive” dog.  

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The Reality of Having a Reactive Dog

Imagine reactivity as a ladder. Every step up the ladder, the dog becomes more fearful. At the bottom of the ladder, the dog is calm and unafraid. Then perhaps, he meets a stranger, hears a noise, or sees another dog – whatever thing(s) he or she is afraid of. The fear and the reaction to the fear continue to escalate until at the top of the ladder, the dog feels compelled to protect himself via a bite. Polo reacted to people at our door, dogs barking across the street, people on the sidewalk, the mailman, construction noise – pretty much anything and everything. 

Now imagine thinking that every noise you hear outside is someone coming to harm you – 24/7, 365 days a year. If your brain is constantly in fight or flight mode, it’s impossible for you to learn a different way to be. Learning of any kind shuts down when we’re really scared, so the first step was to try to find a medication that would help reduce Polo’s fear of the world around him. We tried two that made him worse before we found one that worked. Finding a medication that helped, even a little, allowed Polo to relax enough that he wasn’t barking about noises outside every 5-10 minutes, and that allowed us, his human family, to regain a measure of sanity.  

It also helped to discover that Polo is the smartest dog I’ve ever met. He took to clicker training like a duck to water and would learn one-step tricks in 30 seconds or less. However; once I discovered how capable Polo is, that created an unforeseen problem. I began to think that “fixing” Polo’s reactivity was a function of me working harder and harder with him. So I decided I needed to work with him in all my free time, because his aggression was preventing my kids from having friends over, forcing us to give up summer trips, and limiting our lives. Forgetting that it was a complex and challenging problem to solve, I grew determined. In my mind, I needed to solve it – now. 

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The Myth of the Good Dog

As the owner of a reactive and aggressive dog, it’s all too easy to take that problem on yourself. You just want your dog to be “normal,” and you want to be able to enjoy activities, like hiking, traveling, or going for a drive, with your dog. In addition, I’ve discovered that society heaps blame and shame upon owners of reactive and aggressive dogs, even when we’re doing absolutely everything we can to keep all parties – our dogs included – safe. 

There’s this myth that’s pervasive in American culture – what I like to call The Myth of the Good Dog. It’s the myth that says that every dog should put up with whatever we humans can dish out. The Good Dog should allow children to ride it and pull its tail, never steal food off the table or get in the garbage, sleep on the floor, rescue Timmy from the well, and fetch our newspaper and slippers. It should never complain, only bark or growl at people who would harm its owners and be an unceasingly loyal companion until the day it passes away, quietly in its sleep. And so, where does the Myth of the Good Dog leave the rest of us – with dogs like Polo or George – who have limits and will bite when those limits are passed? 

I have a feeling the Good Dog exists just about as much as the Normal Family – that is to say, not at all. We’ve come so far in recognizing that humans are flawed, that mental illness is pervasive, and that there’s no shame in seeking help. I don’t think we’ve yet been able to do the same for our dogs, or for ourselves as pet owners. The reason I say that is the way in which many dog owners minimize or ignore their own dogs’ aggressive or reactive behavior. Every day at dog parks and veterinary offices, the phrases “He’s usually so friendly,” “don’t worry, she doesn’t bite,” and “he’s never done that before!” are heard. People seem to believe that if you have an aggressive dog, you must have done something (or, in the case of socializing a dog, not done something) to make your dog become aggressive. However, especially in the case of rescues, aggressive or reactive behavior may be the result of a trauma inflicted prior to your ownership. In addition, according to a study conducted in 2016, some aggressive behavior may have a genetic component.  

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The purpose of this three-part blog is to share what I’ve learned about reactivity in the past several months of owning Polo. It’s to offer support for those who have a reactive dog and to help inform those who don’t. Part II will review resources for those pet owners with reactive dogs. And Part III will include reactive tips and tools that I’ve learned through personal experience and copious research.   

Heidi Brenegan, Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota


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