I often refer to Maddie as my “wild child”. At times she is a very soft and sensitive dog, attentive and eager to learn. She excels at working with the clients in our therapeutic programs participating with them in obedience and agility or at other times just walking with them. She is calm and patient in her job and shows no evidence of the anxiety and fear that she carries with her throughout every other moment of her life.
In the dog world Maddie would be described as a “reactive dog.” These are dogs who react intensely and emotionally to one or multiple stimuli. Common triggers are other dogs, humans, noise, skateboards, bikes, traffic, any new situations. The list goes on and on. Anxiety and fear cause reactive dogs to bark, growl or lunge as they try to create distance between themselves and the source of their fear.
People who have happy, social dogs cannot begin to understand what it is like to live with a reactive dog. I took Maddie to professional trainers who didn’t seem to understand either. Even living with her and knowing her issues I was blind to how serious it could get until the day it all blew up.
I was out in the backyard with Maddie and my other two Aussies, Annie and Rosie. My husband had gone off to town to pick up some groceries.
When he returned an hour later the first thing he saw was the blood. There were pools of it on the bathroom floor and more spattered on the kitchen walls and the glass doors of the sunroom. Maddie was in her crate and Annie was on the couch. There was no sign of Rosie and I.
A few years ago when I decided to purchase a second Australian Shepherd I was told by a trainer that I had a fifty percent chance of ending up with a “reactive” Aussie.
Well I managed to beat the odds, (a pretty amazing feat considering we ended up bringing home not one but two puppies). My other two Aussies, Annie and Rosie (the impulse purchase), are pretty well-adjusted, socially appropriate dogs who take life in stride. That’s a whopping 66% success rate in my pack.
I knew the day I brought Maddie home that something was just not right, despite the breeder’s assurances to the contrary. I sensed a lack of confidence, but as months went by she and Rosie both seemed to take life in puppy stride. As we run a busy riding school on our farm they met many adults and children and developed into very people friendly dogs. They were introduced to friends’ dogs and played happily with them.
The cracks began to show just past six months. I enrolled Maddie in a life skills class. She was a little nervous but otherwise well behaved in class. One evening after our class finished we headed over to watch the agility class in the outside ring. As we stood off to the side two of the waiting participants were let off leash to play. Events quickly spiraled out of control and one of the dogs leaped on Maddie flattening her. Maddie reacted with frenzied barking and lunging.
After that event Maddie’s response to the sight of any dog at any distance was loud and ferocious. Within our pack however she was happy to play games and run in the yard with the others. There had been some spats over food but we reasoned that with three female dogs there would always be moments of friction. We knew that Maddie was starting to resource guard with food so we were very careful to limit everyone’s access to any source of food, hoping that would prevent further squabbles.
There was nothing out in the yard that day that made me think there would be a problem. I was some distance from the dogs, so there was no competition for my attention. I went back to the spot later and found nothing that would have triggered the aggression. For all I know it could have been a single rabbit poop or a scent in the grass. I heard the snarl and turned around to see Rosie and Maddie locked together, seemingly bent on killing each other.
Knowing that I had no choic,e even though I was without doubt going to be bitten myself, I jumped in to separate them. It took several attempts and what seemed like an endless amount of time as they were both in a frenzy beyond rational thought. Blood was pouring out of Rosie’s head and I thought she had damaged or perhaps even lost her eye. I managed to pick Maddie up and manhandle her into the house to her crate. I then grabbed up Rosie and raced off to the emergency clinic.
I know that this description may sound overly dramatic but dog fights between females in a household are in fact very dramatic – violent, aggressive and intense. They do not usually end without intervention and sometimes result in fatalities.
Rosie and I both recovered from our various physical wounds but it took quite a while for everyone’s stress levels to come down. Gates were installed throughout the house and dogs were completely segregated until we could calm down and take stock of the situation.
And then life went on. We created a new plan that would keep everyone safe and yet still provide a full and happy life for all our dogs. We now seem to have a system that works for everyone. But, we are always paying attention and we never let our guard down.
Reactivity is not an insignificant issue. There are over 10, 000 members on the Reactive Dog FB page. As a dog trainer I hear about or speak to people with reactive dogs on a daily basis. Most of these owners are very stressed and completely lost about how they can help or even live with their dogs. There is a lot of information out there about treating reactivity; some of it is good but a lot of it is downright scary.
I was lucky in that I had great support and advice from my very skilled and knowledgeable coach who also owns reactive dogs. Perhaps this post, and the posts to come, about my experiences with Maddie can offer the same help, support and hope to other reactive dog owners. Paying it forward.