I mentioned in another post that my pupper, Willow, is a reactive dog. This post is going to explain exactly what something like that looks like.
Willow is a 5 year old rescue pit bull mix. She’s small for a pit at 45 pounds, but she is a strong and athletic girl. I adopted her just before her third birthday and I am her third, and final, family. I don’t know anything about her history before I met her, other than the clinical things listed in her veterinary papers that were given to me with her. I don’t know who the people were that owned her before me, and I don’t know what sorts of things she experienced. I do know that whatever those experiences were, they affected how she interacts with and perceives the world.
Willow falls under the category of “reactive” because most things that we consider normal stimuli elicits a negative, or fearful, reaction from her. Things like seeing another dog, people walking into a room that she’s in, strangers talking loudly, delivery people driving trucks past the windows, sometimes even the sounds of babies crying or children laughing on the tv. There was one time where a flag flapping in the wind on a flagpole scared her on a walk, and we had to make a point to positively reinforce seeing and hearing the flag so that she didn’t develop a full blown fear of it.
I can already hear people asking “but aren’t all dogs okay with everything?” Let me put this in another perspective for you:
Humans all respond to things differently too. Some people are afraid of heights, or spiders, or water. Some get emotionally worn out being around other people for long periods of time, while others thrive on human interaction and socialization. Some people have had experiences in their lives which causes them to react in a certain way to that certain stimulus, always (Hello, ice cream truck song). People who were victims of abuse or assault tend to be more wary in unfamiliar settings, uncomfortable around strangers, or unsure how to navigate socially when it was, at one point, effortless. And others still are just born this way, with anxiety or higher levels of sensitivity that make normal things harder to deal with.
It is the same for my dog, and for many other dogs out there too.
I don’t know exactly which of these scenarios are her truth. I don’t know exactly what happened to her to make her so uncomfortable around men and so terrified of other dogs. I don’t know if she’s ever suffered from physical abuse of some kind, or if she was ever attacked by another dog. The only things I know for sure are the things she’s shown me.
I know seeing other dogs scares her. I know that strangers and people she’s unfamiliar with scare her. I know that sometimes she gets overwhelmed and socially exhausted, and she needs time to relax and decompress alone. I know that when she’s scared, she looks like she’s aggressive because she is externally reactive. Her goal is to make the scary thing go away, and in order to do that, she barks and growls.
It breaks my heart to see her like this, and it’s frustrating to have a dog that I can’t introduce to people, take on puppy play dates, or just go on walks in the park on nice days. There is a lot of work that goes into managing her environment correctly so that she’s not unnecessarily stressed out, and so that everyone around her is kept safe and comfortable. Going into all the small things that I do every day would take a thousand years and become unbearably boring, so let’s just say that it’s a lot. Constant. All the time.
And as much work as having her is, I wouldn’t change it for the world. She teaches me new things every day. She’s helped me grow up and face adult responsibility. She’s taught me how to parent, and how to handle situations that may seem like the end of the world. She’s also taught me what true, and unconditional love feels like. And for that, I will always be grateful.