by Patricia Fox
Living in an apartment with a 50-pound Pitbull mix is a challenge. In addition, living with one with a traumatic past and, as a result, being reactive to other dogs seemed impossible.
However, when Duckie's picture crossed my desk, I knew instantly that no matter what, she had to be mine.
With Porch Potty's help, I could keep everyone safe while helping Duckie begin to heal. So, what does it mean when a dog is reactive toward other dogs?
What Is Reactivity?
Reactivity is often confused with aggression. However, there are distinct differences between the two. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), reactivity in dogs is the tendency to overreact to certain stimuli or circumstances.
While reactivity can lead to aggression, it doesn't necessarily indicate hostile intentions toward a person or animal.
For example, an under-socialized and reactive dog may bark and lunge at another dog across the street as a greeting. This behavior is because the dog doesn't know any better, or it may do the same to warn the other dog to stay away.
While reactivity triggers vary from dog to dog, some common ones include:
- Other dogs
- Being on a leash
- Small animals like squirrels
A dog may develop reactivity for many reasons, such as genetics, poor socialization, insufficient training, and traumatic experiences.
Challenges in Parenting a Reactive Dog
I had the benefit of knowing that Duckie was coming to me with dog reactivity. She and her son, Rooster, were found in Texas chained to a tree at a house by local authorities. Someone had called the police to the home for unrelated reasons.
Beyond the fact that Duckie was emaciated and heavily scarred, physically and emotionally, I didn't know much about her past.
She was also highly under-socialized, and nearly everything scared her. From semi-trucks to mop buckets, just about anything could potentially send her into a meltdown.
Her worst reactions, however, were directed toward other dogs. This behavior posed a problem, considering her breed and the close quarters we shared with other dog families in an apartment complex.
The difficulty with her breed is that many people have a strong bias against Pitbulls. Meanwhile, a cranky Chihuahua can growl and snarl at everything that moves. Yet a Pitbull must be on its best behavior at all times.
Admittedly, there's a vast difference in strength between Chihuahuas and Pitties. Because of that, I recognized that adopting a Pitbull carries a huge responsibility to ensure everyone's safety, especially Duckie's. However, putting these differences aside, Pitbulls are still viewed as a “dangerous” breed for displaying the same behavior as other dogs.
Thankfully, with my background in dog training and a team of experienced professionals to help, I felt prepared for whatever challenges we would face.
What Is Socialization?
Many people assume that proper socialization means that dogs receive training to learn how to be friendly. However, it's a lot more involved than mere disposition.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) defines socialization as "the process of preparing a dog or cat to enjoy interactions and be comfortable with other animals, people, places and activities."
Many people mistakenly equate "well-socialized" with "friendly." However, they are not the same.
A properly socialized dog remains calm no matter what is happening around them. As a result, they aren't easily startled by everyday commotions such as trash trucks, other dogs barking, and crowded streets.
For comparison, the friendliest dog you know would not count as "well-socialized" if he or she tried to jump on every passerby. Likewise, a dog with a more reserved personality would be "well-socialized" if he or she remains calm and steady despite highly stimulating events, people, or objects.
Changes in Lifestyle
My biggest concern in adopting Duckie was ensuring I protected her from situations that would set her up for failure. Because she was dog-reactive, I needed to begin the arduous road of proper socialization.
It was a journey that would require a lot of patience, time, and the ability to celebrate seemingly minuscule successes.
This training process required switching up some habits, like the schedule and pace of my day. Because a fully remote team runs Porch Potty, I had the flexibility to do just that.
One of the significant changes I made was ensuring I took Duckie out during low-traffic times. This schedule meant early mornings, late evenings, and during the day when neighbors were away at work or school.
These specific times of the day reduced the chance of training being derailed due to her insatiable drive to meet new friends, whether they were ready for her or not.
Duckie met new individuals one at a time, which helped me teach her to sit nicely for attention rather than jumping up and pawing at them.
For Duckie, I took what some would call a "gentle approach." With the help of a dog trainer specializing in dog reactivity, I exposed her to novel objects, animals, and circumstances at a pace that kept her challenged but not overwhelmed.
I would take her to the edge of her comfort, remaining in that spot consistently calm until her comfort level increased.
Porch Potty and Reactivity
We all know that we can't always time when nature calls. While you can achieve a reasonably predictable potty schedule with measured and scheduled feeding, trying to plan for every potty break during minimal traffic times for Duckie was impossible.
Having a Porch Potty allowed Duckie to potty throughout the day when needed. Having an indoor potty helped us to stay focused on her training and socialization, rather than rushing to get her to the grass to pee or poo and pray, pray, pray that no other dogs came out while she was going.
The next game changer in our journey to healing was this year when Porch Potty launched the Stress Support Supplement. After examining the ingredients list and running it by our vet, I volunteered to test it on Duckie before the launch to see if it affected our training.
How did it go? Well, I was shocked at how well it worked.
Once I began giving Duckie daily Stress Support Supplements, her progress exploded. While we were already making huge strides, Duckie didn't get over-excited when meeting new people, and we could get closer to dogs without a meltdown.
There were even a couple of times when, despite my diligence, dogs popped out of nowhere, startling us. I was about in tears when Duckie calmly ignored them and continued walking without incident!
That's when I knew Duckie was on her way to becoming a well-behaved and socialized dog.
We're in a house now, and the Porch Potty still comes in handy. Change is not easy for Duckie, but having her familiar potty place made the transition much more manageable.
Living in Denver, we also get a fair amount of snow, and Duckie's paws are too sensitive to the cold. I keep a Porch Potty in our garage so she'll have a comfortable place to potty no matter the weather.
Not only did Porch Potty help her at our new home, but it also helped me. Our backyard requires a lot of work as it is mostly dirt at the moment. But Porch Potty helps keep her paws clean and the yard clear of waste.
I no longer give Duckie Stress Support Supplements daily, but I keep a bottle on hand to help with the occasional thunderstorm. She's learning how to be a well-behaved dog and has even made a few four-legged friends!
Duckie's story is far from over. The scars of her past don't all go away. Managing her reactivity will be a lifelong endeavor, but knowing she'll enjoy a full, happy life is worth it.
Closing Thoughts on Adopting a Dog With Special Needs
Adopting a reactive dog isn't for everyone. It's a lot of work, requiring considerable time, money, and commitment, especially in an apartment.
However, I'm fortunate to have access to several helpful resources. These include a dog trainer Duckie and I enjoy working with and, more importantly, one we trust.
We'll work with this trainer for years to come. The same goes for the veterinarian who does in-home visits. Along with the ongoing support from our rescue organization, we couldn't ask for more love.
If you're considering adopting a dog with any special needs, make sure you're prepared to handle all that's involved. Consult a veterinarian and dog trainer before you bring home your dog.
Look for products that other dog families with similar needs use. It's easy to get caught up in the emotions of "rescuing," but remember that it's a commitment for your dog's entire life.
It's expensive and, at times, exhausting. There are bad days when you'll need more than warm and fuzzy emotions to carry you through.
As for me and mine, we couldn't imagine our life without Duckie. She's an essential part of our family, as she has been since I first saw her picture.