Before I dive into this blog post, I need to clarify two terms:
A reactive dog = a dog who is having an emotional reaction to a completely normal stimulus. This emotional reaction shows itself by excessive barking, lunging forward, growling, snapping, etc.
The pack = a group of two or more dogs.
Now that we all know what we’re talking about, let’s begin!
Our pack counts four dogs and one of them is reactive. Over the course of four years I have had the opportunity to observe how reactive Bailey affects the non-reactive members of our pack. I daresay that she has a special relationship with each and every one of them, but there’s no denying that she also affects them, each in their own way. Luckily, our pack is very diverse. It has a lot of different temperaments and behavioral specialties; that’s what happens when you’re addicted to rescues! They each bring their own stories and it’s up to you to make it work. Bailey is our second dog and our first rescue; it quickly became clear that she has issues and her training is a life-long work. But that didn’t stop us from adding more dogs to the pack and I am happy that it is so!
Does a reactive dog affects the pack?
The short answer is YES.
But you’ll want to stick with me for a longer explanation. The way your pack is affected by it’s reactive member depends on a variety of factors; let’s look at some of them!
1. Your other dogs’ temperaments
If your other pack members are very mentally stable, you likely have nothing to worry about. But if they tend to be more fearful or are quick to get upset, you might have an issue. Lady was very fearful when she came to us and sometimes Bailey’s reactions scared her. Even now, if we are on a pack walk and it happens that Bailey barks at another dog, Lady needs a lot of attention and communication, in order to stay in good mentality. But on the other hand, being around Bailey has helped desensitize her to other dogs who are not in the best state of mind. This is always useful if you are approached by an off-leash dog; your dog should know not to concern himself with them but keep his focus on you. Lady had a lot of practice with that, especially with Bailey around. Even though we’ve worked through most of Bailey’s reactivity, she is still a nervous dog when we are outside or in a new environment. Lady not paying attention to her at that time is very positive for both of them.
Reactive pups require a different lifestyle than most dogs and it’s not always easy on the owners, especially if you have more than one dog. Your reactive dog probably won’t do so well in an environment with a lot of triggers, but your other dogs may really enjoy dog parks, city centers, cafes etc. You’ll have to figure out a way to manage both.
Example: We live in a very urban area (for now). Bailey needs my complete attention on walks, until we reach a meadow where she can run freely and relax. This is why I mostly walk Chilly and Bailey separately. Chilly is still just a puppy and I can fully rely on him yet. (Soon!). But this means that he has to wait at home, for his turn. I’m sure he’d sometimes be happier if he could play with Bailey outside – just today we went on a lovely sunny walk in the park, but because it’s Sunday and there are a lot of children, Bailey had to stay at home and wait her turn. When I got home, I crated Chilly and took Bailey out alone, on a more secluded location.
Mostly this affects the owner, I think. You have to learn how to manage your time and give your reactive pooch special care, while also taking care of your other pups. Sometimes your dogs will have to learn to wait their turn or show some self control and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you learn how to manage your time!
Your reactive pooch will want to set some boundaries. Normally they like to have some personal space, especially with other dogs. This doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy cuddling; my Bailey and Chilly love to cuddle together. But once Bailey has enough, she lets him know. She either moves away or starts making sounds of discomfort. Chilly knows this cue and immediately leaves her alone. I got lucky with him; he lived on the street for the first 8 months of his life and he knows the ins and outs of body language. Your dogs can’t take it personally if your reactive one sets a boundary (meaning, letting them know in any way that they need space). I’ve met some dogs who either like a challenge or can’t take the hint. That’s why it is up to you as an owner to make sure all is well and everyone’s boundaries are being respected. If one of your dogs has difficulties understanding personal space, don’t allow things to escalate. You need to be your reactive dog’s support system and sometimes this means teaching your other dogs how to respect the one who needs more space.
The communication with your pack of dogs will have to be even more specific if there is a reactive member in its midst. You’ll have to reassure them in stressful situations, which can occur at anytime. If your reactive dog is having a hard time with something, do let other pack members know what you expect of them, if they need it. This can either mean that you praise their calmness or that you tell them to sit, wait, come etc. Depends on the situation, but mostly if something upsets Bailey I first try to make sure the others are alright, because this is beneficial for her too. Communicating clearly with everyone involved, in any situation, goes a long way and helps your pack retain the feeling of stability.
People say that a chain is as strong as it’s weakest link. While that may work for chains, it doesn’t for dog packs – in my humble opinion. Bailey is the weakest link of our pack and if our pack was only as strong as she was, I’m afraid that wouldn’t always mean very much. The pack is as strong as your ability to communicate, manage and respect all of its members. The pack is as strong as all of their temperaments and mentalities combined. The pack is as strong as you believe in it and allow it to grow.
Don’t miss PART 2, coming next week: How Having A Pack Affects A Reactive Dog!