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My Reactive Dog & Me: Living and Adventuring with a Reactive Dog

Updated: May 10

Owning a reactive or aggressive dog is something you'll have to learn to manage for the entirety of your dog's life. It's something I manage on my own every single day, on every walk, and every time we step outside our home. There are no days off when you don't own a giant yard and are living in the city. I've tried to collect all my thoughts and tips in the hopes that it can help others who might be struggling with their reactive dog.


Choosing When & Where to Hike

I switched my work schedule to four 10-hour days so that I can hike on fridays now. Dealing with off-leash dogs with no recall can be mentally exhausting. Every time a dog runs up to me, I feel my anxiety reach a 10, it's maximum, and I slide into flight or fight and Sora feeds off my anxiety/reactivity too, so I have to try and bring myself to the present and really try not to react, but respond with picking Sora up and distancing myself from the dog.


The best time to hike is often early morning sunrise or late at sunset, and on a weekday. If you're trying to see a popular trail at it's most popular time of year, then I recommend bringing at least one friend and/or their dog. The best way to find out of a trail is popular is to see the number of recent reviews on AllTrails, and whether it's marked a "heavily trafficked". Be mindful of seasons and where people go. During larch season in Washington, most non-foliage/non-larch hikes are completely empty! Likewise for popular summer trails in the winter; i've hiked Snow Lake several times in the winter to only see a handful of people on the trail. National park trails (where dogs are allowed) can be a safer bet sometimes too, since rangers are on duty and enforcing the leash law. I remember feeling super safe when I visited Zion National Park with Sora. There were rangers throughout the dog-friendly trail making sure visitors felt safe and comfortable!


Sometimes it's better to choose a less popular hike. If you just want to get out in nature and don't care what you see, i'd opt for this option. Oftentimes you can find trails nearby popular trailheads, like in the case pictured below. We really wanted to hike Mayflower Gulch, but when we arrived at the parking lot there were already several off-leash dogs, and we just didn't want to deal with it, so we pulled up AllTrails and filtered on Nearby Trails on the map and saw Clinton gulch just down the road, and the parking lot was almost empty, so we went there! It was even better than we had hoped since Sora could run on her longline leash! It might not have been as stunning, but we still got some good views and minimized our interaction with other people and dogs by choosing the less popular trail.


Become Involved in Supportive Communities

Follow hashtags such as "#reactivedogsunite" and "#reactivedog" on instagram and try to find other owners who live in the same city as you or own a similar dog breed (in Sora's case I reach out to any Nihon-ken breeds, Shibas, Kai kens, and Akitas) or from the same rescue shelter. I've done reactive dog meetups in Seattle, Denver, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Chicago! You can organize them or reach out directly to someone who lives there and see if they could organize it for you to join since it's their community, or just message someone and see if they want to walk and practice training; most people are pretty willing to meet up in a city park and work on training.

Reactive dog owners are everywhere and usually those owners desperately want to get out and explore in the outdoors safely. I had a friend in Denver who has a reactive dog as well, and just the compassion and understanding we had for each other made us feel safe. I felt much less anxiety hiking with someone who could also scan for off-leash dogs running towards us. If one of us wanted to capture some photos, the other could stand by and watch for other dogs. I'm not saying you can't be friends with people who have their dogs off-leash, especially if those dogs are properly trained! I have another friend whose dog could heel the entire hike off-leash and would never approach Sora, so that was totally fine with us! She also didn't like dogs charging hers without permission, so she was empathetic to the off-leash dog issue. Always make sure to tell the other people you're meeting that your dog needs some space; i've found it helps to set their expectations lower so they can be impressed when your dog is calmer than you led on. When you hike you can simply walk behind or beside them, depending on how wide the trail is and how reactive your dog is; Sora does best when she walks behind other dogs, this also allows me to be warned if a dog is coming.


Build Friendships Before Introducing Dogs

It helps to build a strong friendship bond with someone (without your dog involved first) so that they can grow to respect and care for you as an individual. Having a reactive dog can be incredibly isolating - you have to avoid everyone outside, you have to constantly be yelling "not friendly", and people will assume you are not friendly because of this and many will judge you. If you build a friendship with a dog owner first, then they will be way more likely to hear you out and have compassion for you, this goes the same for neighbors. This will help them with being patient and understanding that your dog will eventually warm up, but just need a little more time.


Find areas to let your reactive dog enjoy off-leash time

Lots of single dog moms/dog dads cant afford a giant house with a yard, so we live in apartments and don't have access to large areas for our reactive pups. Use Sniffspot to reserve areas for off-leash, private play! I also try to find baseball fields in the wintertime or on long roadtrips in small towns so Sora can run off-leash in an enclosed space, safely without other dogs. Usually the small dog section at the dog park is open too, so find dog parks that have different sections. This also works if you want your dog to play with another dog-friend safely.


Using the Right Tool for the Occasion

I've probably tried every collar there is out there. I think the best thing to do is use a variety of different collars and tools and make your decision for which one to use on the day of your adventure! When I'm doing a hike with friends or photography for a collar product, I actually use Sora's prong collar with her regular buckle collar. She becomes way too out of control if i use the harness and we're close-by to other dogs. I use the harness when I'm hiking without other dogs and on roadtrips in the car or for camping. She always has the prong on if we're in heavily crowded areas and/or cities, especially when we walk through areas like pike place market or farmers markets, etc. I used to have this e-collar and it helped immensely with her reactivity, but eventually she grew a tolerance for it (this seems to be a rare case though as my of my friends don't have this issue with their dogs). If you begin e-collar training with the prong, my dog trainer recommended a lightweight leash because this gives the dog the feeling of being off-leash and less restricted (and therefore they feel less need to react/be on edge because they're not being pulled back).


I also did muzzle training for Sora, so that's another tool I have for heavily crowded hikes and/or contained spaces with friends where I need some extra assurances. Make sure the muzzle is wide/long enough for them to be able to pant if you're doing an intense hike and maybe avoid it in the hot/summer months. If your dog can be reactive to people, I would suggest always keeping them muzzled just to be safe - it's much worse if your dog hurts a human vs another dog. Muzzles are great tools for safety, I keep Sora muzzled when i'm on trips and staying inside homes with other friends and their dog(s).

Reporting Off-leash Dogs

Some trails, especially a few in and around Seattle have signs where they have a phone number you can contact. If you're able to get the dog's information (e.g., the dog runs up to you, take a picture of the dog tag) then you can provide that information to the animal control number and they can issue a warning and eventually a fine, especially if the dog tag has an address on it! I had to report my neighbors for their off-leash dogs because even after pleading to them my case, they did not respect our space, I couldn't leave the house easily or sit on my patio because their dogs were always off-leash. After 7 months of dealing with their dogs off-leash in and around my apartment (and me trying to be polite, trying to be rude, trying everything) the only thing that managed to get them to leash their dogs was reporting them to animal control and them receiving a warning. I recommend not talking to your neighbor if they seem unfriendly and just go straight to reporting them. It's much safer for yourself and if you confronted them, then they'll easily know you reported them and it could make your living situation unsafe or uncomfortable. If they seem reasonable, you can try to befriend them first.


Hiking, Trail Courtesy & Speaking Up

Read the signs at the trailhead, most trails require dogs on-leash or voice command. If confrontation is too exhausting for you, then try to keep your interactions very minimal with these people. If their dog is on a leash, I simply step off to the side to let them pass and don't bother interacting unless they try to get close to us, where I simply say "not friendly, sorry!" and they usually get it! If I spot a dog off-leash in the distance, I usually yell "my dog isn't friendly! just a warning!" and most of the time they will grab their dog and/or leash them respectfully. In the case that they don't, I pick Sora up until they've passed us on the trail. This isn't possible with a large dog, so your best bet it so be very vocal and step as far away off the trail as you can to distance you and your dog from the situation.


Things to Pack for your Adventure

  1. High Value Treats and/or Toys: Is there a specific treat your dog wilI do anything for? Is there a toy that can break their focus on something? For Sora she goes nuts for tennis balls (prey drive) and will absolutely go crazy for Ruffbars. I usually bring a tennis ball for days we are at the park and/or paddleboarding. This keeps something in her mouth so she can't bite if another dog runs up out of nowhere, and she doesn't need to pant as much if we're just relaxing.

  1. Dog Repellent: There are several kinds of safe dog repellent sprays you can buy! Please don't use bear spray or something that could kill the dog, especially in heightened moments of fear you might accidentally spray your own dog. Just having the spray in my side pocket for really bad trails makes me feel safer! I've never had to use it, but there were several times in the past where I wish I had when dogs charged up and no owners were in sight.

  2. Two Leashes: I always start Sora off with a 5-6 inch leash in case a trail is crowded, but if there's hardly anyone around I switch to her 20-30ft leash! It gives her some freedom to roam and enjoy playing a river or lake.


Warming up to Other Dogs & Making Dog Friends

Sora is only reactive with new and unfamiliar dogs. I worked with a trainer in the early stages of her reactivity and we found her triggers were dogs that got in her personal space/too close to her face and other animals that triggered her prey drive. The trainer taught me how to properly socialize her with new dogs, we never did leashed interactions and would walk side-by-side with other dogs until she eventually stopped growling/reacting to them. It usually takes about ~3 months of walking together 1-2 times per week. This has worked for every dog i've tried it with now. Every dog is different, but once Sora trusts and respects another dog, she is pretty much bonded to them for life and would never harm them. Just be patient, read your dog's body signs and always practice caution, don't rush into greeting/introductions because it takes a lot more time to correct a bad first interaction than to slowly ease two dogs into becoming friends.


On the Road & Hotels/Airbnbs

When you're on a roadtrip, you're going to be placed in many unique situations where your dog will likely have to come with you. Whether you're switching hotels at destinations or en route to somewhere, you'll be encountering other people and dogs at restaurants, rest stops, etc. If you're eating out, try to always get a space on a patio that is in a corner, away from other tables. If you're staying at an Airbnb, read the property descriptions ahead of time and if they mention dogs live on property then simply request that you have some privacy/space during your stay. I did this with one of my airbnbs that had mentioned they had a giant, friendly dog we might see. I sent the host a message and politely asked if they could keep their dog away from us during our stay since my dog doesn't like other dogs, and they were very understanding and respectful!


Some it's Okay to Leave the Dog Behind, Take Care of Yourself!

Some days you might just want to go out and be in nature and not worry, and that's totally fine! I often will use trips to National Parks or other places dogs aren't allowed for these opportunities. I also don't usually bring Sora on my runs since she stops too frequently. Running is my "me time", just to myself, where I don't need to worry about scanning for other dogs, I don't have to be very alert, and I can just enjoy being outside peacefully. These times are just as important for keeping your own mental health in check. Some examples of activities I do without Sora: long-distance running, skiing, going to concerts, pilates, cycling, and drinking/eating with friends.

Practicing mindfulness-based meditation and becoming more grounded yourself will allow you to be the best version of yourself for your dog too. It's also important to spend time with friends, go on dates with your partner or new people if you're single, and have interests outside of your dog as well. During my first few years of owning Sora, I made her my entire life and I started losing my sense of self. Having a reactive dog is emotionally taxing and you need to have methods to destress and practice self-compassion; remind yourself that you have and can accomplish things. There's a lot of guilt that comes with having a reactive dog and you need to work to build your self-confidence and self-esteem in other ways, especially if the training isn't producing great results (it can be super discouraging). I highly recommend taking a meditation course; I took the 8-week long MBSR course and silent treat to learn some skills to help with calming my nervous system down; they also have free guided meditations on their site.


Focusing on the Positive & Practicing Self-Compassion

After I got bit during a fight with another dog and Sora in the summer of 2020, I had a lot of unprocessed trauma and shame surrounding how I let Sora get this way; I blamed myself entirely. I retraced exactly every step of how I raised her to try and find out where I went wrong. I socialized her constantly as a puppy, every weekend. I watched every video/read every blog, exposed her to new places, new things, new people, new dogs. I had her in doggy daycare, took her to dog parks, puppy socialization classes, met with friends and their dogs, etc. I thought I was doing everything right, but she still ended up reactive with dogs, and strangers will be quick to blame you, thinking you didn't "socialize them enough". The truth is reactivity can come from anything, and Shikoku tend to become reactive more than other breeds - it is often luck of the draw. I think the main issue with Sora is she had a life-threatening surgery as a puppy, during her prime socialization months, and she had to be on bedrest for over a month to recover, and in this time she wasn't able to see any dogs/play because her stitches were at risk of coming undone. It's also possible she could have had a bad interaction at doggy daycare, but I used to work in the office and had to drop her off since she had terrible separation anxiety while I was at work all day. No matter how it happened, it happened, and it's just part of our life now. I forgive myself for how it happened and just want to give her the best life she can have now and move forward.

I try to focus on the positive things that I do love about her, especially on days where im super frustrated and tired. Sora is loving, intelligent, curious about the world, she's high sensation seeking, exploratory, but also sensitive and gentle at home. I love that our personalities are so alike, I do feel like i'm able to understand her. She's also amazing with all humans, when someone meets her and there are no dogs around, they comment how sweet and well-behaved she is. She has never not liked a person, and all people are so exciting to her. She bonds closely to people and never forgets a human (or dog friend!). She also just makes me laugh so much with all her weird, unique quirks! Shikoku are fascinating and beautiful dogs, with lots and lots of personality.

Sora's reactivity started around when she turned one, and while I often blame myself, I also release that shame and blame and recognize that no matter what you did or how hard you tried to avoid it, it can still happen to anyone. You can watch all the training videos, be a helicopter dog mom for them as a puppy at the dog park, and they can still end up reactive. Maybe you got a shelter dog and they have reactivity due to trauma, maybe it started out of one bad off-leash interaction. There are all kinds of reasons dogs don't like other dogs. Your dog needs you to be their advocate and voice when they can't speak up.





Reframing Your Mindset Around Off-leash Dogs

This past year I worked with a therapist to reframe my view of people who have their dogs off-leash (just one of many things I needed help with). I labeled all of them as entitled/selfish, but she encouraged me to not be so black and white about it. Not everyone with off-leash dogs are bad, and I admit that it's hard to look at them and not be triggered, and to not be scared that i'm going to get bit again. I get angry every time I see someone breaking a rule and taking over an entire park that requires leashes; it is selfish, but at the end of the day you talking to them most likely isn't going to do anything. If they respected you or anyone else, they would be following the leash law. The truth is i've dated and been close friends with people who do like having their dogs off-leash on trails, so it's allowed me to gain an understanding of their perspective, and I still loved/love them regardless.

In the majority of the confrontations I had with strangers, it ended up with ME becoming reactive to them and defending my dog, and them laughing and/or cursing me out. It hardly ever ends on a good note, they often turn it on you and blame you and your reactive dog. It's just often not worth the energy and your dog picks up on your reactivity and feeds off your energy. It's not my job to change people, especially if those confrontations are taking a toll on my mental health, which they were. The better solution for me personally was to get out of the way as quickly as I could - whether that be crossing the road or stepping off trail.

Of course, there are times where I have to speak up, especially if the dog is running towards my dog-reactive/aggressive dog, but I try to just avoid it as much as I can now, so my dog doesn't feed off my own fear/reactivity towards these people and their dogs.


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Hi! I'm Jackie and my dog is Sora. I work remote as an engineer, but I love to spend my free time in nature and by traveling to new places. I take my camera wherever I go, and sometimes my drone.

Somewhere With Sora is a Seattle-based lifestyle and travel blog that provides helpful travel and adventure tips for all kinds of trips, with or without the dogs.

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