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Is Your Reactive Dog Making You Grieve?

Updated: Apr 24

When I first brought home Dougal, my own reactive dog, I was not prepared for the emotional rollercoaster I was about to embark on. I spent hours crying in the car, crying on the floor, crying over the phone to my mum - you get the picture. It's only now that I can look back and recognise those emotions for what they were: symptoms of grief.

Reactive dog and Alyssa Ralph sit on sofa, looking visibly tired. It's normal for reactive dog owners to go through grief.

Now, several years on, I've worked with hundreds of reactive dogs and their owners, and I know that I wasn't alone in my feelings. Most of the people I've coached have been through those exact same emotions. But why?

Their dogs are all alive. It's not because their dog has any terminal health issues. Grief is all about loss, and they've not really lost anything.

But they HAVE lost something. That something isn't tangible, but it is real.

They've lost the dog they were dreaming about. The dog they wanted. The dog they could take with them on their adventures, going on long countryside walks and retreating to a warm cosy pub afterwards. The dog they could introduce to their friends without having to worry.

This is certainly what I felt I had lost.

So, what does this grief look like?

Grief is an intense emotion that has been researched for decades. The first model of grief was described in the 1960s by Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, and outlined five core stages. These stages aren't linear, and someone experiencing grief may dance between stages, repeat a stage numerous times, or skip a stage altogether. The stages are:

  1. Denial

  2. Anger

  3. Bargaining

  4. Depression

  5. Acceptance

Since the 1960s, this model has been built upon and recreated numerous times, but each one of these models has a significant degree of overlap. My favourite one involves 10 stages of grief, outlined here by Dr Brooke Dean, which also discusses the huge role of guilt and hope. But we'll get to that later 😉

First of all, let's look at how each of these five stages can look for reactive dog owners. I'll be talking about my own experience a lot here, and I'd love for you to comment below with your own.

Stage One: Denial

Dougal came from a rescue centre, but I hadn't been forewarned of his reactivity to dogs. I knew he had issues with children, but that was workable for me. Dogs, however, would be a lot harder.

So, when Dougal first started lunging and barking at other dogs, I was in shock. I hadn't expected it at all, and I'd had him in my life for a couple of weeks at that point.

Reactive dog and owner on a training walk

I told myself it was probably down to him feeling under the weather. Maybe he was in pain. Maybe it was the storm from the night before putting him on edge. These are all valid things to ask but, at the crux of it, I was trying to convince myself that this wasn't long-lasting. That his reactivity was short-lived, and he'd be back to "normal" tomorrow. No need to tell you that one didn't happen. I was, without realising it, in denial that I had a reactive dog.

Stage Two: Anger

The days went on, and Dougal wasn't improving. I had to come to terms with the fact that he was reactive, whether I liked it or not. I'm not typically an angry person, but I felt anger at this point. I felt it towards the rescue centre. I felt it towards myself. And I felt it towards Dougal (thankfully he can't read, so he'll never know that).

Reactive dog owner holding up two fingers to reactive dog in jest anger

I was angry with the rescue centre for not telling me the true extent of his problems. In hindsight, and with a lot more wisdom and years, I know this wasn't their fault. Many dogs suppress their true selves in a rescue setting, so they may truly not have know about it all. But, at the time, I was incensed.

I was angry at myself because I'd completely flipped my life upside down, unwittingly. I'd wanted a canine companion, a dog that could keep me company on walks and go exploring with me, a dog to broaden my horizons. Instead, my world shrunk down. I felt trapped because of all the places I couldn't take him. And I could only blame myself for bringing him into my life.

And, yes, I was angry at Dougal for simply being the way he was, and feeling the feelings he had. With a much deeper understanding of reactivity now, I know it was never his fault. He didn't ask to be like that. But, I still remember selfishly asking him if he couldn't just be a normal dog, for once.

Stage Three: Bargaining

Bargaining is the stage of "what if" and "maybe". For me, this tended to take the form of me wondering what his life before me looked like. Questions like "what if he hadn't been castrated?", "what if he hadn't been placed in a dog-heavy fostering home?", and "what if I'd had him from a puppy?" went round and round in my mind. I've also found that this is where a lot of people's reactive dog journeys come to an end, as they ask "what if I took this dog back and adopted another, or bought a puppy?". Personally, this was never an option for me - so I tormented myself with other questions instead. It took me a long time to stop these questions, and I wish I could have done it sooner.

At the end of the day, these questions mean nothing. The past is the past, and no one can change it. Honestly, though, this whole stage gave me a firm belief in the phrase "you don't get the dog you want; you get the dog you need".

Stage Four: Depression

Being someone who also struggles with clinical depression, I cannot begin to count the number of times I've been depressed about the whole "reactive dog" situation on my journey with Dougal. It's incredibly easy to sink into bleak nothingness when your life is constricted down to empty fields and being at home.

Reactive dog looking depressed, wrapped up in blankets and napping. It's common to feel depressed when you have a reactive dog.

I lost a lot of my social life, giving up pub quizzes (even though the pubs were dog friendly) and other outings you'd normally expect to be able to take a dog to.

I got filled with anxiety and a sense of dread at the thought of leaving the house.

Every time I saw a dog, regardless of if Dougal was with me or not, I got shaky with adrenaline and felt I had to walk in the other direction or hide behind a car.

I lost sleep worrying about what might happen if he bit someone.

I told myself the training wasn't working, that everything I had learned must be wrong (this led to me trying out 'traditional methods', using lead corrections. I felt horrendously guilty after this, and soon after realised that the initial way, a more gentle, understanding approach using various counter-conditioning techiques along with allowing choice and control, simply needed to be troubleshooted).

And all of that takes its toll. It takes a certain amount of resilience to gather yourself in these situations and push forwards with training. That's one of the many reasons I'm incredibly proud of all my clients who keep on keeping on, and putting in the effort with their dogs. Often, it's the last thing you want to do, but digging deep at those crucial times really pushes you and your dog forwards in your journey together.

Stage Five: Acceptance

If I'm being totally honest, I only reached acceptance recently, after 5 years of Dougal being in my life. Not accepting it before now is what I think has made me a better trainer - I've constantly been researching and trialling methods to resolve his reactivity.

Reactive dog and owner share an emotional hug. Accepting your reactive dog for who they are is an important part of the journey.

His reactivity is still there, albeit massively reduced, and I'm not stopping training him any time soon. But I accept him for who he is and, if that never changes, I'm okay with that. And that feeling is incredibly freeing.

For the first time, I'm able to go out on a training walk with him and not feel stressed. I don't worry when I see other people and dogs on the horizon. I enjoy him for who he is, and am proud to support him in everything he needs. The moment I realised I'd moved into this stage, I got a renewed passion to help other reactive dog owners work through their own grief, so they could feel this free, too.

In Summary

The grieving process is never straight forward, but it is natural: when you bring a reactive dog into your life, it's normal to grieve for the dog you wanted and imagined.

It's important to treat yourself with care, love and compassion through this process, just as much as you treat your dog with such. After all, a reactive dog journey is one of partnership, and is all about the two of you working together to get to that goal of calmness.

To paraphrase one of my favourite cliches: if you can weather the storm together, you'll come through the other side stronger, but also having learned to dance in the rain.

If you need guidance on your reactive dog journey, don't forget to sign up to my free mini-course, 7 Steps To CALM. In it, you'll discover my go-to training techniques, why your dog may be reactive in the first place, how to feed your dog for better behaviour, and more!

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