If you’re not familiar with what a reactive dog is, it’s simply a dog that reacts- usually more frequently than what we find as “normal”. Ozzie is reactive, he will sometimes bark when he wants to meet a dog or person, lunges at motorcycles, bicycles and the occasional runner. Although he may be this way and is a rather large dog, he is by no means aggressive. If you didn’t believe that from first encounter, which I’d understand if you passed us on a bicycle, allow me to share my experience as an owner of a reactive dog.
Getting to know and understand Ozzie
Ozzie came to us from a Labrador-based rescue and we knew nothing of his previous history, other than the condition he was in and the way he acted for the first few months he came home. It was apparent that he demonstrated stray dog behavior and he was not trained. He would jump up on any surface to get any type of food, his favorite being cat food. He would eat so quickly it was incredible, yet sad to see. He would get paranoid about when his next meal would be, that he would search through everything he could to find food. At first it was tough to deal with, he could not be left unattended or trusted with anything on my counters. There was no doubt how malnourished he was, you could clearly see all of his ribs and he weighed as much as Ollie, who is half his size. It was obvious how neglected he had been at some point and my heart ached for him.
Beyond his looks, his demeanor showed that he didn’t feel safe or secure and that he had never undergone basic training. He would pull like crazy on the leash everywhere we were and I would get upset and not exercise him as much. I had begun to take him out at odd hours so I didn’t have to bring my “unruly” dog everywhere. After a month of him settling in my home, I signed him up for basic training. Turns out he’s smart, obedient and loved to go to our classes. He fell in love with his trainer and I was grateful to have this new outlet for him. The trainer taught me to not care what people think because she (and I) knew he was a good dog; and that some of his unnecessary behavior were habits he picked up before I came into his life and I understood that, even if others couldn’t.
Helping Him Thrive
From then on, I made it my mission to educate people about him; to help others learn that a barking dog doesn’t equal an aggressive dog, and also to work more with Ozzie on his reactions. Today, he rarely reacts to every runner or every bicyclist and he certainly doesn’t walk on the leash like the crazy dog he used to be. He is much more well-behaved, solid and calm. We’ve been lucky enough to have opportunities to show people (including a mother and her young daughter who was scared of large dogs) that he’s very affectionate. On the day Ozzie met the girl, he walked up to her with his ears back, leaned against her, nudged her with his nose, and wiggled non-stop as she pet him. In that moment, she trusted that he wouldn’t hurt her and the amount of joy I had at that time was unforgettable. I knew if people could give him this chance, he would prove himself.
To avoid stressful moments with Ozzie, I have made a few adjustments in our daily routine. We walk wooded trails, neighborhoods, open fields, quiet areas or as an alternative, I allow him plenty of time in the backyard. He uses several different collars on walks, one which is a head-halter that helps to guide him and mentally stimulate him but we also switch off to a harness, prong or no-slip collar. Since Ozzie has been trained with them all, it has made life much easier. I don't have a lot of weight on him, so when he used to pull me, he would be capable of taking me off my feet. I also try to be aware as we walk, so I always know what our surroundings look like, who’s coming up the road, and whether we need to change our route. He gets two to three hours of exercise a day and once he's exhausted, his reactions are extremely low or there is no reaction at all.
Despite some challenging moments with Ozzie, he has evolved into a wonderful dog with quite a tolerable temperament. He allows the neighborhood kids to throw their arms around his neck, hug him and embraces all of their love and soaks up the attention. He is the first to welcome any new dog into my care and will never tell them off (no matter how annoying they may be). Due to his calm nature, he has become my helper dog and my second source of confidence when working with timid dogs. He’s the toughest dog I’ve ever owned and the most loving. Please remember that we are not perfect and neither are our dogs. Every dog has flaws, never be ashamed to admit what they are. And know that educating yourself and others goes a long way and can help you feel more confident as an owner and handler.
*Edit: If you've read this far, congratulations! Some of my blog posts can be lengthy! I'm proud to write that as of Summer 2019, we've had almost NO reactions to bikes, motorcycles or runners. I've put a lot of work into rehabilitating this boy because I could always see his potential and it shows. These types of dogs are worth it!