Leave the Light On: A Real-Life Reactive Dog Adoption Story

Note from Jake: this is the first post on this site not written by me! Everyone, meet my wife, Erin:

By Erin Buvala

It was one of those summer days when, the minute you open the car door, the strength of the hot air rushing in makes your eyes hurt.

My housemates and I tumbled out of the car, and we made a bee-line across the hot road, hopping as fast as possible before it could melt the bottoms of our shoes. Personally, I’d forgotten all about the bottoms of my shoes, or the fact that my air conditioner back home was broken.

Because today I was FINALLY getting a dog.

My own dog. Not a family dog, not a dog I’d had to negotiate with my mum about and beg for, not a dog that was supposed to be “mine” but whose ownership instantly got whisked away whenever the adults were in the room. This dog was going to be mine to bond with the way I chose, on our terms and no one else’s.

I’d been preparing for this for months, and I’d already picked out a dog on the shelter’s website. Emotionally, I’d committed to this particular dog, but I knew my housemates would love to give a few other dogs some attention. So we split up and wandered the adoption centre aisles.

I watched a little black kelpie play an endless game of fetch with her shelter volunteer. The girl would pick up the tennis ball, and the dog would drop to the ground with silent, graceful speed and focus. She wouldn’t even blink until the ball was thrown, when she’d skim across the kennel floor like a figure skater.

She was the slickest thing for miles, and I sighed as I walked away, feeling smug that I’d managed to exercise some self-control; I didn’t have the resources for a beautiful creature like her.

I rounded the corner and saw a long, wiry, brindle dog who looked as if the last little light he’d had, had just now gone out. He didn’t get up when I bent down to say hello. He looked up at me with huge brown eyes, with no interest whatsoever, and I could hear his sad voice in my head saying, “what do you want?”

When I failed to answer him in a way that gave him any hope that I was different from all the others, he sighed, and stared at the wall.

All I wanted at that moment was to give him his light back. He’d given up on the idea that any of the people cooing lovingly at all the cute little dogs in the enclosures around him would ever pick him. I already knew what dog I was taking home anyway, so what was the harm in also taking this guy outside to show him that not everyone would look him over?

I wrote his name on my list, and went to find a member of the shelter staff to begin our meet-and-greets.

After an anxious wait, a volunteer walked one of the biggest dogs I’d ever seen in real life out the door towards us. His name was Luther, and he was the dog whose picture I’d been staring at and whose description I’d been reading over and over again for the past week. We gave him an enthusiastic greeting, which he seemed politely thankful for, and unsurprised by. Not that I could blame him; he was a handsome dog that I’m sure had met his fair share of people.

The volunteer began Luther’s introductions: he was a popular guy who seemed to get along with just about everyone. Except cats, which he hated with the fire of a thousand suns.

My heart dropped.

“I have a cat. You don’t think there’s any way Luther could learn to live with her?” I asked hopefully.

“Not a chance.”

So that was it, then.

The volunteer took Luther back inside. This seemed entirely predictable and acceptable to him.

I waited on the bench in the shade, because we had asked to meet another dog. But I knew I’d be going home without my new best friend.

I lamented to my housemates, who said we could maybe try another shelter. I looked up to give them a thankful smile, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a new volunteer being dragged down the hall by what I can only describe as an enormous smile with four legs. I stood up, astonished. This poor volunteer was about to be launched into space.

It was the sad brindle dog, not so sad anymore. He saw me, and his eyes went big and bright as he yelled, “it’s YOU! You came back!”

As far as textbook meet and greets are supposed to go, he was a delightful, delighted nightmare. I don’t think he stopped to acknowledge me the entire fifteen minutes we were outside.

In games of tug, he snatched toys away with the snap of crocodile jaws that threatened to take our fingers off.

He did zoomies the entire time we were together. My friends laughed raucously as he splashed in the kiddie pool, and he laughed with them. I looked at the volunteer.

“We’ll take him, please.”

Happily ever after! …or not

In hindsight, this was a terrible way to make this decision.

And it was also the best way.

Things just kept falling out of the sky and slotting into their place in my world like they’d always been true: his name was Bear, he looked great in green, he was getting in my car, and we were going to help each other.

As I filled out the paperwork, the staff told me Bear’s story. Judging by his age and breed (bull arab cross wolfhound), they suspected he’d been dumped in the bush as a pig-hunting dog failure.

He was a favourite with all the staff, and everyone described him as a gregarious, clumsy bundle of love. They warned us that he could pull on lead (no kidding!). I thanked everyone, pleased that my emotions had clearly picked a loving, joyful dog that just needed a training refresher, and we skipped off into the sunset together.

…That was, until we took him to a local creek for a swim on the way home, and he almost knocked us over playing fetch, pulled us down the steep bank as he chased after bush turkeys, and drew blood biting our arms when he played and couldn’t calm down. It was all a bit of a slap from reality, but I put it down to adoption jitters and moved on.

And then he met my cat, Josie, and almost broke the glass in my bedroom door trying to kill her.

Josie was relegated to sleeping in the en suite bathroom. Which I reasoned wasn’t so bad, since the tiles were nice and cool and she was close enough that I could check on her often. For the first night, that reasoning worked. But by the time nothing had changed on the second night… or the third, or the fifth, or the tenth, the guilty feeling that had been quickly strengthening its grip around my chest broke into a panic:

Had I picked the wrong dog?

Could I do this? Did I have what we needed to make this work?

I thought about the black kelpie, and how proud of myself I’d been that I’d recognised that I was ill-equipped to give her what she needed, and suddenly I didn’t feel so proud anymore.

About two weeks after Bear came home, I stood on my balcony as the sun went down, and I couldn’t even look at my best friend, Sam, as I said to him, “I think I have to take this dog back to the shelter.”

I expected him to rebuke my fevered decision to adopt a dog like Bear, an adolescent with poor social skills and a mystery past, possibly bred and raised for a violent purpose. I expected him to agree that I could not do this, and I’d only make Bear worse.

Instead, Sam said, “If you really think you need to do that, I’ll support you. But I’ll also think you’re an idiot. This dog is wild, for sure, but he also loves everyone. He wants to make you happy, and that’s all he needs to be able to learn. You just need to actually teach. He doesn’t need to go back to the shelter, mate, you just need to see him.”

I stared into the drink I’d been nursing, thinking about how much of Bear I’d lost sight of, too consumed in my own self-doubt to notice that he just needed guidance.

As I gave Sam a slow nod of triumphant acceptance, we heard a strange noise in the dining room behind us, and turned around to see Bear joyfully peeing on my favourite indoor plant.

…And cue montage! Right? Isn’t this the part where our protagonist gets a look of steely determination and we fast forward through softly-lit moments where the two unlikely heroes work together, and laugh, and even our setbacks are comical?

If that’s the story you came here for, I’m very sorry.

There are a lot of stories like that out there. I know, because I trawled through them while I lived my seventh-circle-of-hell version, and wondered whether anyone else in the history of dog owning had ever successfully survived an experience like this.

Very occasionally, I found a mention of how “things were rough there for awhile.” But frustratingly, no one ever seemed to want to talk about just how rough. And more importantly: when does it get better?

Well, for all of you out there in that very same position, let me tell you:

There was no montage and our setbacks were anything but comical.

Bear and I had a lot of work to do.

Over the next few months, I learned a lot about him: I learned that he had extreme separation anxiety and would regularly scale the backyard fence and drop a perilous four meters (thirteen feet) to the driveway so he could frantically search the neighbourhood for me, speeding cars be damned.

I watched him completely ignore treats and praise, or shouts of worry and warning, and drag my entire bed frame – which he’d been tied to in a desperate effort to keep Josie safe while we trained Bear – through the house as he chased my terrified and exhausted cat, barking maniacally.

I also learned that Bear was dangerously reactive to other dogs.

This was a shock. He’d been so loving towards everyone we met, we lived with another small dog and hadn’t seen any sign of an issue, and I’d never dealt with a dog that showed such aggressive behaviour before.

I’d be lying if I said it didn’t scare me, but what scared me even more was my reaction.

The day I learned this about Bear, I’d decided that after a few weeks together, it was time we went on an adventure beyond our neighbourhood, so I took him to a lovely boardwalk track along the Brisbane River, right at sunset. We were ten minutes into our walk when he encountered his first dog: a little terrier, walking towards us on the other side of the narrow boardwalk.

Bear went stiff and stared.

Suddenly, he erupted into a lunging, snarling, barking monster.

I quickly pulled him to the side of the path, where he continued his display as I held him back and gave apologetic glances to the woman walking the terrier. When they were gone, I took a now-calmer Bear to a grassy hill next to the path, in the hopes that we could cool down.

But wave after wave of dogs and their people strolled past, and Bear’s reactivity got worse. When it became clear this was an exponential situation, I opted for escape.

As we walked back the way we came, Bear almost broke his collar lunging towards the sea of dogs around him, and all the embarrassment and frustration and disappointment in me just… snapped. I turned on him and yelled him down, standing over him, pointing menacingly at him, threatening him with my whole body. He flattened himself to the ground immediately and even after I’d realised I’d lost my temper and tried to take it back, he wouldn’t move.

He wouldn’t walk with me, or come to me. He wouldn’t even look at me, and my heart broke when I finally caught his eye and saw nothing but fear.

He was afraid of me.

He was confused, and frustrated, and over-stimulated, and now the one person he trusted was scaring him and he was alone in the world again.

I knew something about our relationship had to change. I couldn’t dominate my way into this dog’s world, and press him into the shape I wanted. I needed to get rid of this idea that I could go from not having a dog, to having a dog that behaved exactly the way I wanted, instantly.

So we tackled one problem at a time.

One foot in front of the other

I tried to respect his limits, and to slowly detox myself from the notions of perfection and shame that I hadn’t even realised were pervasive throughout my idea of a relationship with an animal.

There was still no montage, but there were small wins smattered about the disasters:

He attacked the inflatable pool unicorn and covered the backyard in its sparkly pink remains. But he also learned to sit. He barked at the cat, and at everybody who wouldn’t let him eat the cat. But he also learned to look at me for a consolation treat when he saw her tiptoeing down the hall. He jumped up on people, and play-gnawed on our arms so much we all had welts. But he also learned a little bit of bite inhibition, and to not pee inside.

I did not magically become an owner with Zen monk-levels of patience and understanding overnight.

When I came home from a short grocery shop one day to find that Bear had eaten my housemate’s couch (for long-time followers of 3 Lost Dogs: oh yeah. That was me. That was my story), I was not patient or understanding.

And no, I don’t mean he ripped some stuffing from the couch cushions and did a bit of redecorating.

I mean he ate the whole couch.

He took apart the wooden frame and chewed it into splinters in the middle of my lounge room, and then collapsed in a snoring heap amongst his destruction.

I still got angry with him, and miscommunicated, and asked too much of him. And he still forgot his manners, and told me no, and overreacted. But there’s this great lyric from a Maggie Rogers song that comes to mind:

“If you leave the light on, then I’ll leave the light on”

Sometimes we don’t turn up for each other. Sometimes we turn our backs and say “not today”. And sometimes we straight up storm inside and slam the door in each other’s faces.

But we leave the light on. We take a deep breath, we come back tomorrow. We keep learning, and we never give up on one another.

Where are they now?

Today – about three years later – Bear and Josie sleep on the same bed.

Bear still has leash reactivity and poor social skills with other dogs, and though he’ll never be a dog-park kind of dog and I’ll be carrying a pocket full of nervous sweats and hot dog pieces on every walk we ever take together, he’s come a very long way, and so have I.

I accept him for who he is, and we find ways to live our life together in a way that works for us, not in a way that’s supposed to work according to well-meaning observers.

And it was because of this understanding that we did something that I’m sure any of those well-meaning observers would have considered entirely insane:

We adopted a puppy!

(I should make this clear: don’t try this at home – at least, not without doing a lot of behavioural assessment with your reactive dog, and being confident that you have the skills to accurately assess body language while dogs are interacting and safely break up or manage an altercation. All whilst being wholeheartedly prepared and aware that it may not work out.

Reactivity is in a different ball park to seriously aggressive behaviour. I chose to do this with Bear because he had never harmed another dog. When under-threshold, his behaviour was more like a socially awkward adolescent. If I’d ever thought he may attack a dog unprovoked, I would never have considered this. More on this topic in our next post)

Bear has had a dog-shaped hole in his heart for probably his whole life. It always broke my heart when we would walk past the dog park, and he would watch all the other dogs playing, and he would cry.

Though this is incredibly anthropomorphic of me, I felt that having a friend would fulfill something for Bear that there was really no substitute for.

And one day, whilst volunteering with the behaviour team at a local shelter, I met Flower, a little kelpie cross heeler puppy. I fell in love with her on sight.

I was more nervous than I’d been in a long time taking Bear down to meet Flower at the shelter, hoping to high heaven that he could hold himself together.

He did fantastically. I have never been more proud of him.

And it turns out that that dog-shaped hole Bear had in his heart was actually a specifically Flower-shaped hole, and they now get on like a house on fire.

Bear’s reactivity has improved since adopting Flower: the frustrated desperation I used to see from him as his heart ached, is now melted away.

It wasn’t all butterflies and unicorns. There were some shaky moments, and at least one tearful call to Jake, sobbing about how I’d obviously made a huge unforgivable mistake and ruined EVERYTHING. The nerves of being a reactive-dog owner never really leave you, and sleep deprivation takes them all into a whole new dimension.

Bear will never be perfect. He still regresses. He forgets things he’s been taught, and stops listening when he’s too distracted.

But, holy moly, does he try super hard. He doesn’t say “no” to me anymore; he says “I don’t understand”, and “I don’t know if I can do that”, and “I’m scared”.

He’s got a soul made of gold, is utterly devoted to love, and he learns every day.

I also regress sometimes. But I’ve learned a lot too, and Bear will never have to look at me like he’s alone in the world ever again.

Life together has been hard at times, but nowhere near as hard as it would have been without him with me. We still tackle one problem at a time, and I’m still waiting for my montage. But those small wins are starting to look pretty big.

[Jake the Editor’s note: While he’s not completely “cured” of reactivity, Bear’s had a drastic reduction in reactive behavior. He’s quite pleasant to walk like 90% of the time. Erin’s done a fantastic job training him. And that’s my professional opinion, not just my proud-husband opinion]

See part two, which goes into detail on Bear’s training:

The Uncensored Story of How I Helped My Reactive Dog Get Better

Erin Buvala is a writer and a huge dog nerd with a Bachelor of Applied Science from Queensland University of Technology and a Bachelor of Journalism from University of Queensland. She lives in Melbourne with two crazy dogs and an angelic little cat. Feel free to say hi on Instagram: @beeandabear.

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