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This post is part of a WOOF Support bloghop!

WOOF stands for Working Out Our Fears, and WOOF support is a wonderful community of pet lovers who have in their lives a dog with fears or anxiety.  I feel really privileged to be a part of this group, and have already learnt a lot through the experiences of others and from the friendly, kind support I have received there.  If you would like to join, check out the facebook support group here.  If you would like to read some of the stories of the many wonderful members of this group, please see the links at the end.  Happy reading!

Oz the Terrier

My Reactive Rover: Beginnings

I distinctly remember the first time I saw Billy.  I was working for an animal shelter at the time, doing health checks on all the stray and surrendered animals, as well as neutering and spaying dogs and cats prior to adoption by loving new owners.  I was walking past the barking dogs in their concrete pens, minding my own business, when something made me stop in my tracks. Brow furrowed, I took two steps back and peered into kennel number 16 at the little tri-colour boy within.  He was leaning his whole, scrawny body up against the wire, tail wagging furiously and big eyes staring up longingly.  After a quick sideways glance around to ensure I wasn’t being watched, I dropped my clipboard and stethoscope, unlatched his gate, and slipped inside to say hi.  After the initial excitement, this smelly, matted little dog settled quietly onto my lap and closed his eyes while I stroked his dry, brittle fur.  That was the end of me.  I was done.

reactive rover

I mean seriously, look at that face!

After passing his health check and scoring an A+ from the trainers on his temperament testing, I neutered, vaccinated, wormed and microchipped this 10 month old pup and took him home.  In that sequence of events somewhere was an earnest conversation with my husband about why we had to have this dog, but realistically the decision was made the moment I laid eyes on him. Although Darren will argue this point fiercely, he agreed that the dog would be his responsibility and he was the one that named him Billy.

Awww, you guys!

As it turned out, I was the one to take Billy to dog training, where we started with a basic course.  I didn’t mind, I loved spending the time with him and it was a lot of fun. At first.  Then one day, maybe about week four, it all fell to pieces.  One of the class members, a boisterous chocolate labrador called Charlie, showed up late and came bounding in after everyone was already busy doing their thing.  Billy freaked.  To this day I don’t understand why, but he started barking hysterically, and lunging!  On the trainer’s advice I removed him from the situation.  We made several more attempts to integrate him back into the group, but he wasn’t having it.

The trainer and I had a serious chat and together we decided it would be best to pull Billy from the class and move to a session specifically for ‘reactive dogs’. It was the first time I’d heard the term, and little did I know how familiar with it I was to become!


Me? Reactive??

Why Might a Dog be Reactive?

Reactivity towards another dog may manifest as barking, snarling, snapping, lunging, or in Billy’s case, a whine/bark/lunge combo routine.  It could be caused by fear or frustration or a combination of the two.  In cases where the behaviour is based on fear, it may be fear of

1) approaching dogs due to poor socialisation as a puppy,

2) a traumatic previous experience, or

3) even fear because when the dog has previously been ‘reactive’ out of excitement, the owner has responded with punishment like a jerk on the leash.

With the latter, aggression is then increased in future encounters because unfamiliar dogs are now associated with a nasty experience at the hands of the owner.  Of course it’s always possible that the individual dog’s genetics play a role in his or her predisposition to being fearful also.  Regardless of the cause, the problem is aggravated by every new exposure to a similar situation that does not end with a positive outcome.

Back to Billy

I don’t remember a lot about Billy’s time in the reactive dog class, other than walking around in huge circles at specified distances from the other dogs with strategically placed objects for the dogs to go behind if it was starting to get overwhelming.  And of course lots of emergency U-turns.  Long story short, Billy failed this class miserably and was moved again, to private one-on-one classes with the trainer and her bomb-proof dog, who interestingly also happened to be a chocolate lab. After only three sessions and no discernible response to the techniques tried, Billy and I officially failed the last option the trainer had available to us. She looked at him sadly and shrugged “there’s nothing more I can do for this dog”.

Billy snuggling

Looks like we’re on our own buddy

I felt like somehow this was all my fault. I had adopted this dog who ticked all the right boxes in his temperament test and turned him into a bundle of nerves.  When I brought it up with one of the trainers at the shelter, I was even told “he was fine here, it must be you.  You must be projecting your own anxiety onto him, or inadvertently reinforcing this behaviour”. The guilt I have carried around since then has weighed heavily on me.

Things Billy and I Have Tried

  1. Gentle Leader/head halter, on a loose leash
  2. Establishing threshold and working just outside of it with desensitisation and counterconditioning – using awesome food rewards
  3. Thundershirt
  4. DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) collar
  5. Fluoxetine


Captain Bill-dawg chillin in his Thundershirt

My Reactive Rover: Present Day

For the most part, Billy and I practice avoidance.  We walk late at night, early in the morning, or when the weather is bad.  If I spot another dog before he does I abruptly change course.  And we never, ever go to the park.  I walk him and my other dog, Anika, separately as it’s too much for me to manage them both (and a toddler and a baby!) if he’s presented with a difficult situation.  We play together in the backyard a lot, and he’s quite eager to please so we have our little training sessions at home.  But I never challenge him.   He becomes aroused and I can almost see the adrenaline rushing through his veins as soon as I reach for my shoes or pick up his leash.  This is before we even get to the front door! I’m sad to admit I’ve let his behaviour damage our relationship, and there have been moments when I’ve felt so defeated and just stared at him blankly thinking “you’re hard to love sometimes mate”.  I’ve been embarrassed. I’ve been angry. I’ve been upset.  But at the end of the day, there is so much to love about this dog.  He adores us and tries really hard to be a ‘good boy’. He has lovely manners in every other respect, and his favourite pastime  is snuggling up together and being petted – especially on the couch.

Billy walking

Ever vigilant, searching for danger

So Where to From Here?

We are going to go back to basics and try something like Dr Sophia Yin’s foundation exercises at home, but very slowly, in baby steps.  I’m considering also purchasing a Calming Cap, and would be very interested in hearing if anyone has experience with one of these and whether the decrease in stimulation was helpful.  If we continue to struggle, the next step is a home consultation with a veterinary behaviourist.  It’s something I’ve been holding off on for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is my stubborn feeling that I should be able to manage this. I am a vet.  I have done postgraduate study in behavioural medicine. I’m no stranger to reading scientific literature and working out what’s evidence based and what should work for me.  But I’ve learnt through personal experience how difficult and frustrating behaviour cases can be, and it’s given me a new empathy and understanding for my clients going through similar experiences with the animals they love.

I hope this post has given some insight into what it’s like to walk in our paws/shoes, and I think if Billy and I have anything to offer others in the same situation out there, it’s that it’s bloody hard!  I’ve done quite a bit of study in this area and for me it’s hard, so don’t beat yourself up if you are having a tough time.  It’s not your fault, and it’s not the dog’s fault.  And there are many others out there going through similar experiences – you are not alone.


My dog is not perfect, and neither am I, but we’ll work on it together with kindness and patience and trust, and just do our best.

Thanks for reading!

Joanna Paul

Dr. Joanna Paul BVSc (hons) BSc

Jo is a practicing small animal veterinarian based in Melbourne, Australia. Working in partnership with loving pet owners to ensure their fur-kids remain happy, healthy family members life-long is what brings her joy. Well, that and taking naps. Jo strongly believes that helping to maintain the wonderful bond between a pet and their human is reason enough for a happy dance.

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Showing 20 comments
  • Jen Jelly

    Having a reactive dog myself this post rang true in so many ways. I’ve been embarrassed countless times; and not that I love to share suffering and frustration but it does make me feel better knowing I’m not alone on this. Luckily with my dog Laika counter conditioning and desensitization has worked really well when we’re out on walks. As far going to the dog park; it’s probably never going to happen, and I’m OK with that. It’s not worth the risk. Thank you for sharing Billy’s story; those of us who have a reactive dog relate 100%. It’s always nice to know we’re not alone.

    • Joanna Paul

      Hey Jen,
      it’s funny, I never realised how many people were going through what I was until I wrote this post and joined some online communities, particularly some Facebook groups for owners of reactive/fearful dogs. There is a lot of support out there, which is great.

  • Amy @ My Pet Warehouse

    Wow, Joanna! That article was not what I expected! I was expecting a happy ending and well… There wasn’t. It’s so open and brave of you to share this.

    You’ve done what you can to try and improve the issue and now you do what you can to remove him from situations where he may be reactive. Billy does sound like a very loving dog and you clearly care for him.

    Thanks for being honest in saying that you’ve felt embarrassed, angry and upset. I think many dog owners would have felt like that at one point or another (I know I have!) But as a pet owner it’s important to take those feelings on board and appreciate them without punishing the pet

    We will shortly be bringing in calming caps to My Pet Warehouse. Did you ever try one with Billy?

    • Joanna Paul

      Hi Amy,
      Haha, not exactly a happy ending, but we make it work in our own way, and I think Billy has a pretty happy life 🙂
      I did not try a calming cap yet, but I definitely want to give it a shot. You’ll have to let me know when they’re in so I can pick one up!
      You’re so right about dealing with negative feelings without punishing the pet – I am 100% against any form of violence towards pets, even more so when their behaviour is fear-based.
      Thanks for reading and for the thoughtful comment, I really appreciate it.
      ps, I refuse to believe Chowski has ever embarrassed you – He’s adorable!

  • Caitlin

    I understand how frustrating it is to be a vet with an anxious pet and not make any progress in managing it! Thank you for drawing my attention to the calming cap, I had not heard of it before but have some anecdotal evidence to support the concept.
    My Danny, now 9yo MN Shih Tzu X, was diagnosed with severe generalised anxiety (hyperreactive, dog aggressive, separation anxiety…) by a vet behaviouralist back in 2010. 6 months after the diagnosis, he developed SARD, an eye condition that caused him to go rapidly blind. Although this was unfortunate, it was the best thing that ever happened for his anxiety – removing visual stimulus allowed him to focus more on what I was trying to communicate to him, and he has been much easier to live with ever since. We can now walk the streets, I can leave him at home alone, and when I ask him to sit – he will listen and obey, rather than bolting in the opposite direction chasing some shadow.
    I hope the calming cap can give a similar effect for other dogs – reducing visual stimulus is useful!

    • Joanna Paul

      Hi Caitlin, great to see a silver-lining with poor Danny developing SARD. What an interesting story though, I think if I lost my vision it would increase my anxiety! Having said that, I think if a dog had a choice between experiencing crippling anxiety all the time or getting around without being able to see, I know which they would choose!
      Even though it is tough, it’s useful for us as vets to see things from the other side of the table with our own pets sometimes, isn’t it. It makes us much more able to empathise and understand where clients experiencing similar things with their furkids are coming from.
      I hope the little guy continues to do well in all respects, I’m sure he will – I know he has a super-smart vet as his mumma 🙂

  • Chris Loverseed

    Hi Jo,

    Sorry to hear about Billy’s misfortune. But one question, if you weren’t making progress with the trainer, why didn’t you look at another trainer who is better equipped to deal with the problems faced? If the trainer was unable to provide you with any progress/results I would be questioning if they are the right person for the job and what you and your dog need.

    • Joanna Paul

      Hi Chris,
      that’s the obvious question isn’t it 🙂 The trainer I was with had a good reputation and worked almost exclusively with dogs adopted from the shelter, so I thought that she was the right person for the job. She used a kind and compassionate approach towards him and methods that I believe in (essentially very careful desensitisation and counterconditioning). So when she told me at the time (we’re talking several years ago now) that there was nothing that could be done for him I was at my wits end, she was the professional, so I accepted her judgement and decided to instead work on providing him with as much as I could while avoiding contact with unfamiliar dogs. In retrospect I could have done things differently, and I would encourage anyone who feels that their trainer is not a good fit for them and their dog to consider other options.

  • Ruan

    Thanks so much for sharing and giving us immense inspiration. I think your last sentence sums it all up perfectly…

    “My dog is not perfect, and neither am I, but we’ll work on it together with kindness and patience and trust, and just do our best.”

    I think this is the perfect recipe to establish the perfect bond between owner and furry companion… Well done!

    • Joanna

      Thanks for your kind words! Establishing a great bond between owner and furry companion is really the heart of having pets, isn’t it. This is why I don’t agree with training methods that involve punishment or negative reinforcement. Maybe they will occasionally work on some dogs, although often only temporarily, but what about the consequences? I want a dog who trusts and loves me, and is excited to learn new things, not one who ‘behaves themselves’ out of fear.

  • Lara Elizabeth

    Thank you so much for sharing Billy’s story in the blog hop. I can relate to just about everything you’ve said here. Would you believe that the first few weeks that I had Ruby I took her to the farmer’s market, to a busy festival in a mountain town and to the dog park? Like you, some of her first exhibitions of reactivity happened during our group obedience class, which were kindly dismissed from as well. I was offered one private session in exchange for our forfeited classes, at which the trainer basically gave up and said “wow…she’s tough” as Ruby was distracted by people walking by on the busy sidewalk outside the school. I’ve done a lot of blaming myself since she was seemingly okay for the first month I had her, and then became increasingly upset by things. I think that if it’s inherent in these dogs’ genetics and personalities, something, somewhere is going to trigger them. Lots of dogs can bounce back from the same things that seem to send our reactive dogs into another stratosphere. It’s really easy to fall into the trap of despair – I was there just this weekend – but it’s important to keep things in perspective and look for the silver lining, to be as kind and forgiving to ourselves as we are to our dogs!

    I have tried the Calming Cap for brief periods in the car, as Ruby’s reactivity travels with us. While effective, I need to do more reinforcement with it to make wearing it a pleasant experience. She hates it and curls up looking dejected. No barking out the window, but not an enjoyable trip for her, either. I have never tried it out on a walk though I have been meaning to.

    Hang in there!

    • Joanna

      Thanks Lara, your response actually makes me feel a lot better. We have been through some of the same things, haven’t we! You’re so right that we need ‘to be as kind and forgiving to ourselves as we are to our dogs’. Sometimes easier said than done, but absolutely right. It sounds like the calming cap might have potential for keeping Ruby a little bit calm if you can, as you say, make some positive associations with it for her. I think I will definitely give one a go with Billy.
      Thanks so much for your kind words,

  • Kari

    Yes! I’ve tried the Calming Cap. It’s the only thing I could tell worked. We tried DAP, Tellington Touch, the Thundershirt, and Prozac, and could never tell if any of those things worked. At the time, we had Isis, who was very anxious, and a new puppy our trainer had thought would be “therapeutic” for her. Isis passed away suddenly about seven months after we got the puppy, Leo, who is now almost four and very leash reactive. We couldn’t have Isis and Leo in the same room for more than a minute or so, on leash. When we put the Calming Cap on her, she could lie calmly on her bed, and not react to Leo.Unfortunately, by that time, Leo had started reacting to her. I also used the Calming Cap once to take her to the vet.

    Your story breaks my heart. The idea that a trainer would tell you there is nothing she could do. And that the shelter would blame you. I’m so sorry that it has been so hard. I don’t know how things are in your house, if you have to keep your dogs separate or are worried about your children, but I say, if you can keep Billy happy and safe at home, and exercised in the backyard, don’t worry about training him to walk past distractions without reactions. If you absolutely have to take him somewhere, try the Calming Cap.

    He’s a beautiful boy. I’m happy you joined the Blog Hop. I wish you all the best.

    • Joanna Paul

      Thanks so much Kari! Billy is wonderful at home both with our other dog and the boys. It sounds like we’ve been through many of the same things and have tried similar options (DAP, thundershirt, Prozac). It’s beautiful to see everything you’ve done for your dogs, and I think you’re right about keeping them safe and happy at home.

      I would love to try a calming cap just to see if he responds, both for his benefit and so I can have another thing in my arsenal to discuss as an option with patients.

      I adore GSDs, and grew up around them (there’s a pic or two in my post “the human-animal bond”) In Australia I have noticed over the years though that there are more and more with a very anxious temperament. It makes me wonder if some of our breeders are breeding for temperament at all or just for physical attributes.

  • Kathy

    When my Hobie was younger, and our Hector was alive, I used to practice avoidance and only walk them at odd times, at night, and so forth. I totally get it! They were so reactive with other dogs. When Hector passed away, Hobie got better on walks and wasn’t “as” reactive to other dogs. Now he’s elderly and we can’t go for walks anymore. But he’s the best dog in the world. I applaud you for your dedication and loyalty to Billy. That’s true friendship 🙂

    • Joanna Paul

      Hi Kathy,
      “But he’s the best dog in the world” I love that comment so much! I wish all my clients were just like you! Thanks for your kind words, we do our best, and I couldn’t imagine ever giving up on a dog.

  • Oz the Terrier

    OK…wow! Now I definitely do not feel like such a failure if even a vet can find training/re-training a reactive dog difficult. Thank you for that. And thank you for sharing yours and Billy’s story. He is a sweet looking dog – aren’t they all until something triggers their “reaction”. I am trying to use Dr. Yin’s foundation exercises as well. Sometimes we have success walking passed other dogs and other times we fail miserably. She does us a gentle leader in some of her videos and I am thinking to try that to keep Oz’s attention in an “emergency” situation but I have never used one. Since you have, can I ask: do you recommend giving the gentle leader a try?
    Thank you for joining our hop and sharing your experience with us. I hope we can all learn something as well as just feel supported, especially as we struggle to find the right solution for our individual dogs.
    Gina and Oz

    • Joanna Paul

      Hi Gina and Oz,
      Haha, I don’t think being a vet makes me an expert in dog behaviour at all. Sadly we don’t receive a lot of training in this area during our university studies, and those of us who wish to be able to help with behavioural problems really need to seek out further study. There are plenty of vets who will freely admit to knowing dry little about managing these problems and devising the right behaviour modification plan when needed. I also know some who, like some trainers, still advocate ‘dominating’ dogs and being the ‘alpha’ 🙁
      It is something my personal experience has certainly helped with though and it’s driven me to learn more than I otherwise may have (my other dog has thunderstorm phobia and separation anxiety too)
      I like the Gentle Leader type head halters. They work really effectively in some dogs and give you control of their head so you can turn away when needed. I think to key is that you fit them right and use them on a loose leash.
      I’ve already learned a few things from other group members – thank you so much for creating it.

  • Jan K

    Thank you for joining our hop and sharing Billy’s story. The important thing is that you love him and are not giving up on him. I see practicing avoidance as not such a bad thing if that’s the only thing that works. I spend more time playing fetch with our Cricket than taking her for walks, and I think she is happy with that anyway. But we also just keep trying….she does enjoy the walks too.
    Billy is gorgeous and I can see why you fell in love with him!

    • Joanna Paul

      Thanks Jan,
      It’s a bit of a balancing act isn’t it, do we go for a walk and risk an ‘incident’ because they love their walks, or do we stay home and play where it’s safe. Looking forward to reading about your girl Cricket (adorable name!) and heading over now.

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