Diary of reactive dog | What is reactivity and how to help the dog overcome reactivity and become resident / (C) Natalia Ashton, Perfect cocker spaniel dog blog

Re-activating happiness | The beginning | Walking into disaster

Fred was named after Mercury. But he turned out to be my Beethoven. No, not the movie giant… The composer. My favourite composer of all times, if I am to be precise.

Far beyond the similarities in hair style, Fred resembles Ludwig in the way he acts… From the gentleness and sensitivity of a being able to compose Moonlight Sonata to mourn the love that was never meant to be, to the madness and outbursts of a man slapping the piano lead, declaring “For such pigs, I do not play !” and storming out of the room.

That’s my boy… The loving, intelligent little boy who became reactive in August 2018…

It took me such a long time to share this. People asked. A lot. And I thought about writing notes for months, too. But a part of me did not want to dissect my pup’s life like a case study because I didn’t want people to misunderstand and perceive him as a “troubled” dog.

And then I realised that whilst I knew what I was dealing with, there were a lot of dog parents out there who had no idea of reactivity or ways of managing it, making dogs feel worse, not better.

I also felt that my diary might be helpful for people who found themselves in a situation similar to ours and are doing their absolute best to get through it, without feeling isolated and alone.

It will take me a few posts to cover everything we’ve done because dealing with reactivity is a multidimensional process. I am not even going to constantly refer to it as “reactivity”. Instead I will focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. The positive ray of sunshine however faint and remote. It’s out there. Hence, it’s not about “going through reactivity” but “re-activating happiness”…

In your dog, in you you, and the life you share together.

So let’s start from the very beginning…

The day it happened… I still remember it. We decided to explore a new beautiful walk, with the woods and the views. The utter perfection in every way. We had such a wonderful time.

We headed back. Excited, happy, tired… Boys were on their leads because we didn’t know the area well. We took the path stuck between a steep, almost vertical heel on one side and a fence – on the other.

The dogs appeared suddenly. Three labs and a boxer. Off lead. Sprinting towards us, no owners in sight. They quickly formed a circle around me and the pups and started bouncing, trying to push the boys to the ground. I tried to cover them with my body, but it wasn’t enough… My husband tried to pull the dogs away, but it was impossible, so he run off to find the owners.

There was growling, but luckily, no biting… And then I heard Fred scream… Like he never screamed before.

Next, the owners run into the scene, still staying away and calling the dogs, “come! come!” – not making any effort to get closer. The dogs ignored them, yet again, so eventually one of the women came over, held them by their collars and told us not to worry because “they wouldn’t bite”…

It was over in a matter of minutes, but that moment changed everything…

We got back to the car. Fred seemed back to his normal self, Coop was breathing heavily and I felt like I could do with a drink, or two, or a sedative… At that point I thought Fred would be find because the boy was so resident and acted relatively calm. I was afraid for Coop known to be extremely sensitive. And deep inside my brain was pulsating three words… “The fear period”… The time in life of every pup aged 8-10 months when any ordinary thing can suddenly look scary… Fred was 9…

As we drove home, I ordered some calming remedies for the boys, just in case we needed them. Upon return we crushed on a sofa, the boys relaxed and fell asleep.

The morning that came seemed no different from any other morning. And so was the next one. In the afternoon we went for a walk and saw our friends with their dogs. Just as usual, we rushed over to say Hello… As we got closer, Fred suddenly stopped and screamed, then barked… and barked again… He tried to hide behind me. The boy who loved his furry friends suddenly felt afraid of them…

It was frustrating, it was frightening, it was very, very upsetting… It was the moment I discovered reactivity. And from that moment on I had to find ways to deal with it.

To be continued…


Photo credit: this photo was taken by me during the walk that lead to the disaster…

Perfect cocker spaniel featured in Edition Dog magazine June 2020 issue / English cocker spaniel articles & features / Natalia, Cooper & Fred as experts for Cocker spaniel feature / Perfect cocker spaniel guide to the breed, dog blog, how to groom English cocker spaniel, cocker spaniel diet, health, training, puppy tips / written by dog expert, author & canine nutritionist / (C) Natalia Ashton

As featured in Edition Dog magazine

I feel very privileged to be featured in the latest editions of Edition Dog magazine. The April 2020 issue included a photo of Fred that I’ve taken last year. It came as a total surprise and made me feel so proud as a photograher – and also very happy to see my wonderful boy smiling at me from a glossy page. It’s always been one of my favourite photos of him, so this is extra special.

Last week I also got a June copy. They featured English cocker spaniel as the breed in focus and interviewed me as an expert for the wonderful article. It was such a pleasure to chat with Paige Nicole who wrote the piece and spent time with me talking about dogs, my boys, Oscar, Perfect cocker spaniel, puppies and life in general.

If you fancy a copy, the mag is sold in shops and can also be ordered online, which is particularly useful if you’d like to grab back issues or prefer to go digital.

Photo credits: covers and pages via Edition Dog magazine, April and June 2020 issues, photos of me, Oscar, Cooper and Fred are by me, from personal collection

Fred, chocolate & tan english cocker spaniel / Perfect cocker spaniel blog & book / dog reactivity, dog behaviour / (C) Natalia Ashton

There is a power in the name

This morning Fred lost it a bit. He did “the growlie” during our walk and it wasn’t pretty. I brought them home, locked myself in a spare room, and had a little cry. It took me a couple of minutes. Then I came out and hugged them, one by one, feeling Fred’s little body really pushing into my chest because his love is so deep and strong, he can hardly contain it within…

And that’s the truth of life. It’s full of ups and downs. It is far from perfect. Even through my dogs really are perfect. Imperfectly perfect for perfection as such does not exist, but I could not think of my boys otherwise.

I am not unrealistic. I am most definitely not oblivious. I simply love my little cockers – and dogs. Mine, yours, everyone’s. For no other reason than dogs really being worth of all the love we can give them.

The whole story of Fred, his birth, his first few weeks, a terrible event that happened when he was 8 months old – all these factors instilled his little brain with reactivity. I was aware of it, I saw the signs. I knew it was either me, someone able to live with it, manage it, dissolve it in time… or somebody who would mistake his emotional bursts for his personality based on a single behaviour… And dealt with it in a way many people do, unfortunately… That wasn’t the life I wanted Fred to live. So I committed to make him happy no matter what.

I worked very hard to help him. And he really is happy. Most of the time. He really is a genius and we achieved so much together. But on a rare occasion the ignition occurs in his brain and Fred becomes my “Damien”. You know, the “Omen” boy.

Every time, for a moment there, I feel defeated… frustrated… upset… I feel that I failed him because I am his world. So I have a moment to myself, then come out and hug my sweet little bum-wagging warrior while he is covering me with kisses.

I may even call him “my darling beastie”… And then we carry on living.

Because this blip, a hiccup, is not something that defines my boy. It can define the situation. It can define a sudden trigger. It can even define my own behaviour. But as far as Fred goes, his response is simply a basic response, an act brought up by chemical reactions and triggers in his little body.

I wanted to share this today because just an hour after we got home, I saw somebody who lives with a reactive dog, also a cocker. And since this occasion was one of many, I needed to address it here and now.

The dog in question became reactive whenever he was approached by strange dogs. One of the most typical situations, really. When you know what reactivity is. Unfortunately this dog’s owner did nothing. She didn’t consult a trainer, read books, study to understand the specifics of this behaviour. Instead she decided that the dog was simply angry, stubborn, lost cause and an absolute pain to walk with…

I tried to explain to her that the boy is reactive and his barking and pulling on the lead stem from fear and anxiety because he is simply trying to deal with something that scares the hell out of him. I tried to direct her to the books and suggested consulting a trainer. “He is just a little sh&t” she replied instead… And it was the name tag that really affected me. “Please stop…” I told her. “Your dog is begging for help, not judgement…” She responded with a sentence that should be censored if printed… The woman already made her choice.

She put a label on her dog’s behaviour and thus she defined him. She made up her mind. And she tuned her brain into thinking that that poor dog was a “bad dog”, an “aggressive dog”, the kind that could do with a “snip”… or a “kick up his bottom”… The dog as sensitive as a typical cocker who was simply trying to communicate his emotions, was now perceived as something he was not.

Sadly, this is more common that you’d dare to imagine. Go to any dog forum or social media and you will see that very “little sh$” label sprinkled around like confetti.

Many find it funny. Others – use it to start a conversation that essentially comes to the point that their dogs are unruly monsters. Worst, and what these people may not realise, it fuels their mind and the perception of people who meet their dogs into thinking that these spaniels really are terrible…

Our brain is a funny thing. If you continously tell it that something is really good and lovely, it will eventually melt in adoration towards that object of positivity. On the other hand, if you constantly drip-feed your mind with negativity towards something or someone, the thoughts will eventually mirror the perception.

If your dog is reactive or exhibits a behaviour that seem puzzling, do not label him “bad” Think about it. Dig into the causes. Ask somebody who understands and can help you.

And in the meantime remind yourself that a certain behaviour never defines your dog as a being. It’s just an emotion, a form of anxiety, a response to the unknown, or inability to address the situation in a way that doesn’t set the soul on fire. It is a sign that something needs attention.

You would not refer to a person with anxiety in any rude way. In fact, most people would feel sorry, try to help and provide comfort. Reactive dogs are no different. They need help, solace and lots and lots of love.

“There is the power in the name…” So sacred and significant that some cultures still choose them as a sign of destiny or never say the names out loud… Think about it next time you are about to refer to your dog as “sh&t” or hear somebody who does. It says very little about the dog – but it does say a lot about his owner. And that’s the thought I am going to leave you with today.


Image credit: Fred photographed by me