While my husband was getting a haircut, he and the stylist made small talk. “What kind of dog do you have?” she asked.
Angus is a mix, Doug told her — border collie, cattle dog, German shepherd and AmStaff. To which the stylist asked, “Oh, is he reactive? My sister’s dog is a lot of those things and he’s really reactive.”
She was, Doug told me later, completely matter-of-fact. As if being reactive is a totally normal thing for a dog.
What a wonder.
Until a year ago, I had never heard the term “reactive dog.” But once I started consulting Mr. Google about Angus’ troublesome behaviors — barking at people and dogs, flinching at the sound of trains thundering past, growling at our veterinarian — every Google search led me to that term.
I resisted it for a long time. A reactive dog, I thought incorrectly, is a bad dog. A poorly trained dog. A dangerous dog. That’s not Angus. Angus is just ... excitable.
But I kept googling. And eventually I came to accept that Angus is, indeed, reactive, and that reactive dogs are not bad and only a very few are dangerous. They are dogs that need a lot of training in order to calm down and get safely through life.
All dogs react — they bark at squirrels, or they jump on house guests, or they chase cats. A reactive dog is one that overreacts.
That’s definitely Angus, who bumped into an open cabinet door just last night and whirled around in a panic, as if he’d been attacked. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
Take it easy, buddy! Life’s not that hard.
But life is that hard for Angus. He’s overwhelmed by just about everything.
Reactive behavior is actually pretty common, and it has been a relief to learn this, to put a name to Angus’ problems. While some dogs become reactive due to trauma or abuse, many others are simply born that way.
As far as we can tell, Angus was born this way. We have had him since he was 7 weeks old, and he’s never had anything bad happen to him. But somewhere around 4 or 5 months old, he suddenly started reacting.
One morning we walked out the front door, he spotted a person waiting at the bus stop — the bus stop where there were always people waiting, every morning — and he started barking. And that was it. He’s been a nervous wreck ever since.
Living with Angus will always be an adventure, but it has great rewards. I am more in tune with him than I have been with any other dog. I pay attention, watch for triggers, try to exude calm, offer treats, give commands and, if all else fails, I drag him away.
Google has been helpful. The Facebook group “TC Reactive Dogs” has been helpful, as well — it’s one of those rare places on the internet where people are not snarky but are supportive. And, of course, all of his trainers and classes have been more than helpful — they’ve been crucial.
Every morning, Doug gives me a recap of his walk with Rosie (“She was perfect”) and I give a recap of my walk with Angus. Here is this morning’s report:
“He was great. He hardly pulled. I got him to sit and look at a squirrel, and he noticed but did not try to chase about a thousand rabbits. A bicyclist came up behind us, way too close, too fast, and though I jumped, Angus didn’t even turn his head. What a good boy!”
Other days, the report is more fraught, but after more than a year of constant training, the cheery reports have taken a solid lead. He can now (I can hardly believe this) ignore a barking dog.
Because while being reactive is totally normal for a dog, it is also totally normal for a dog to learn and grow and change.
Angus won’t always be a nervous wreck. Teaching him is my job. My job, with the help of my friends Facebook and Mr. Google, as well as Father Time.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. • 612-673-7302 @StribBooks
Follow all of Angus’s adventures at startribune.com/puppy.