Rehabilitating A Reactive Dog: Topher’s Story

Rehabilitating a reactive dog: Topher's story.

My dog Topher is reactive. When I talk with people about our lovable, goofy, soon-to-be-3-year-old American Bulldog, I try to lead with that. Topher is a work in progress, and one I’m dedicated to sharing, because of the circumstances that created much of Topher’s reactivity.

The morning of New Year’s Eve, 2013, started like most others. When my dog Topher and I set out for our walk, it was the middle of the morning, but very few people were out. We took a well-traveled route, down towards a park at the end of our neighborhood. Unfortunately, that was where the similarities to our other walks ended, and suddenly my dog and I were starting the new year on a very different path than we anticipated.

As we rounded the corner near the park, I spotted two dogs. They were in the road several yards ahead, seemingly accompanying a man. Both dogs had collars, but were also off leash, walking with the man as if they knew him. I stopped at the corner—I think I was hoping they would pass without seeing us, or that this man was their owner, and would corral the dogs and keep them from misbehaving. Neither of my hopes came true. The two dogs spotted us and charged, full speed, towards us.

I have always read not to run away in situations like this, so I backed away as calmly as possible, while trying to entice Topher along. He was anxious to greet the dogs coming our way.

Everything happened very quickly after that. Not more than a second or two passed between the two dogs reaching us and their first snap at Topher. I tried to kick at them, break them away so we could try and run, but with two of them we never got more than another foot before they were latched back onto him. I remember screaming at the top of my lungs the entire time. I remember the man who was with them, standing at the top of that street watching while I screamed for help and doing nothing. I remember the garbage truck going by just as the attack started and I remember the agonizing few seconds where it seemed that they too would do nothing. I remember the only thoughts running through my head the entire time: that these dogs would kill my dog, that I wasn’t sure I was strong enough to carry his body home by myself.

But the men collecting trash that day did in fact step in, chasing the dogs off and then keeping them from following after us as we made our escape. We made it home as fast as possible and I immediately packed Topher into the car. He was bleeding from both of his eyes. Though we’d manage to keep Topher from completely losing an eye as a 1-year old pup, he would still end up blind in his right eye by the end of that week.

Rationally, I know there’s little we could have done to prevent this—we were walking during the day, obeying leash laws, and did nothing to provoke the attack. However, I still feel guilty for “letting” this happen to my dog.

I don’t write any of this to scare people. However, the truth of the matter is that sometimes, awful experiences like this happen, and sharing means maybe it can be of use to someone else if—god forbid—they end up in a similar situation. This is our story. I tell it now, even two years after it happened, to show people that while training takes time and patience, it’s worth it to help your dog.

We’ve been training with and rehabilitating Topher for a year and a half now, and I imagine we’ll be at it for awhile. But if we can get Topher to a place where he understands he doesn’t need to fear other dogs, on or off a leash—a goal that means our dog feels safer and happier? That’s worth a lifetime of work. And after that, who knows? Once we tackle this hurdle, the rest might seem pretty easy.

So if you’re someone in the trenches with us, the owner of a reactive dog, I want to hear your story. We’re all in this together, working to help our dog’s lead happier lives. One day, I hope we can get Topher graduated from reactive dog training classes; I hope one day he’ll even make some dog friends, and overcome this incident once and for all. And after that, who knows?


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Positively Expert: Lucy Bennett

Lucy is Co-Founder of Good Dogs & Co., a website celebrating the ups and downs of dog ownership. She's on a mission to help her dog Topher overcome his dog reactivity, after he was blinded in one eye by a dog attack.


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