Laura Patton, of the Silas the Sprinter duo, shares the challenges, lessons and rewards of living on the road with Star. 

Star (Silas the Sprinter)

About a year and a half after adopting my first dog, Titan, I went to the shelter to find him a buddy. Titan had adapted perfectly to my active lifestyle. He loved coming along on my frequent road trips, and I was excited to add another dog to the pack. I was immediately drawn to Star, a beautiful, quiet dog, with deep soulful eyes. She and Titan were fast friends during their introduction at the shelter and she was quickly on her way home with us. It didn’t take long after bringing Star home to find out that she had a strong reaction to seeing other dogs while she was on a leash. On our walks around the neighborhood, I struggled to control her wild outbursts of barking and lunging whenever another dog entered her sight. I noticed that at first, Star would only react this way when she was leashed. When she met other friends’ and family members’ dogs, or when I took her hiking or rock climbing with me and let her roam the crag, she socialized politely and quietly and mostly kept to herself. However, as the years passed, Star became more dominant and less predictable. I began to feel uncomfortable letting her off leash, and still hadn’t been able to calm her on-leash reactions, despite sessions with many different trainers in both group and private settings.

As someone who leads a very active lifestyle and is constantly traveling to new places, I found myself in a bit of a pickle. Because I spend large portions of the year living out of my vehicle and traveling the country, my pups are with me 100% of the time. Most of the time there is no way for me to ‘leave Star at home’ for the afternoon, while I go do an activity where other dogs are present. Ideally, I spend each day being active outside with both my dogs, whether we are hiking, climbing, biking, snowshoeing, or canoeing, and there are almost always other people around with their dogs. The more I thought about Star, and wondered if she might hurt another dog, the more stressed I got, and the more I began to isolate us. We no longer went places on the weekend, when it was likely that more dogs would be around. We started avoiding popular climbing destinations and looking for more obscure ones. If I saw another dog on the trail, I would turn Star around and head in the other direction. I was embarrassed by her reactions and wondered what kind of owner people thought I must be when they saw me trying to control her.

Star (Silas the Sprinter)4

Eventually, I began to realize that my whole lifestyle was being affected by my stress. I sat down and looked at the situation rationally, and decided that I needed to make some changes. I knew these truths:

  1. Star LOVES being outside more than anything.
  2. I also love being outside more than anything.
  3. I needed to stop letting my fear get in the way of us enjoying the outdoors together.

Star (Silas the Sprinter)2

I didn’t make one plan that changed everything, but over the years I tried many different things to find out what would work for us. I taught myself to be patient in the process and to try as best as I could not to let others’ perceptions affect me. I always made sure that Star wasn’t too stressed and was having a good time while we were out together. The first thing I decided was that I would keep Star on a leash anytime we went out and there was a chance another dog would be present. This decreased my stress dramatically because I always had physical control of Star and wasn’t constantly wondering whether there might be another dog around the corner and whether Star would come when I called her. I also worked on Star’s basic obedience. The whole time I owned Star, the only training I had done with her had been focused on getting her not to flip out when she saw another dog. I had never taught her sit, stay, come, etc. With this training, Star became better behaved overall, took me more seriously, was able to focus better, and her reactions to other dogs became shorter lived. If I see a dog before Star, I can get her focused and under control and she won’t react, which is a huge step forward. In controlled situations, Star is able to meet new dogs, and perhaps one of the most effective things I’ve done is started admitting to other dog owners that Star isn’t friendly. While this is not something any dog owner wants to say, and isn’t even a full truth – Star really likes most of the dogs she meets, enjoys playing with them and interacting with them – it gives me the time and the space I need to work with Star and keep her comfortable and safe. While most dog owners respect this, and leash their dog or call them off when we pass on the trail, there is always a chance that an off leash dog will approach. With the practice that Star and I have had, I know without a doubt that I can control her if that situation arises. If I didn’t have that confidence, I wouldn’t be able to take her out.

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One of the hardest parts about having a reactive dog is trying to practice seeing other dogs. Other dog owners tend to balk at your dog and you can’t very well ask them to sit tight with their pup while you practice walking by until you can do so without a reaction. But every dog is different, unique in his or her own way, and that is what makes them special to us. They deserve the best that we can give them. The learning process that Star and I are experiencing is not one that will ever end. We will constantly get out there and live our life and find new ways to make our experiences better. I’ve made plenty of mistakes in this learning process, which was disheartening at the time, but I now know that I have to be vigilant and cautious with Star 100% of the time, and if I am, we can have a fabulous time together.

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Star is one of the sweetest, silliest, smartest dogs on the planet. She enriches my life on a daily basis. That’s the side of her I want everyone to know. I love her and want to give her the very best life possible. I was fairly young when I adopted Star and we’ve really grown up together over the last 5 years. We’ve traveled to about 40 states, and 5 or 7 Canadian provinces. We’ve completed a 170 mile through hike of the Tahoe Rim Trail and a 250 mile bike tour in Alaska. We’ve gone on overnight paddling trips, spent countless days at the crag, skijored, stand up paddleboarded down a river, camped under the stars, and enjoyed exploring the outdoors together. And, we are fortunate enough to travel to some remote places where Star has the opportunity to run free off her leash. She and Titan are my best buddies and the life we have together is better than anything I could have ever imagined.

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Disclaimer: I am in no way an expert on this subject, dog behavior, or dog training. This is just a story about my personal experiences with Star. Each dog is different and the things that have worked for me won’t work for everyone! The important thing to remember is that you are not alone and that you are doing your best!

–Laura

Follow Laura and Star’s adventures on Instagram and Twitter: @silasthesprinter

9 thoughts

  1. So much of your post resonated with my experiences with my dog! I have been working on my dog’s reactivity but also don’t want to have him be isolated since both he and I love the outdoors. Your story is super inspiring! One challenge is figuring out where to go that is pet-friendly but not filled with dogs. I live in CA and am planning a road trip with my dog to the Pacific Northwest. I’m wondering if you (and other readers) wouldn’t mind sharing some of the places that have worked well with your reactive dog?

    1. Hi – Which areas in the Pacific Northwest will you be traveling? We’d love to help, and I’m sure our friends in the PNW would love to offer suggestions as well!

  2. Thanks for the great post. We struggle with minor reactivity and defensiveness from our little dog Robin, and it’s valuable to see the issue discussed like this. Many people assume that reactive dogs are poorly trained but that’s not always the case. You’re doing great work with Star and what successes you’ve had so far!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your story! Star sounds a lot like my Wally. He’s only reactive on leash, but I live in an apartment, so that’s his daily routine for outdoor time. He’s also deaf, so dog parks aren’t a great option for him since he can miss audio cues and unintentionally provoke other dogs. I’ve had him for about 7 months now and I love him dearly. When we are home, he is as close to perfect as I could hope for in a dog. However, as his reactivity increased, I noticed that my nerves were frayed, I was stressed, and just as jumpy as he was trying to scan the horizon for any dogs that might cause a reaction. I shortened our walks and tried to time them during the day when I thought we might not run into as many dogs. It’s exhausting. And I noticed a lot of the same guilt and self-consciousness that you mentioned above. It’s still a work in progress, but I’ve mostly got over feeling the need to defend or justify my dog or myself when we are out on leash. I’m doing the best I can for him and I know that I’m doing the best I can for him. Nothing else matters. Again, thank you for sharing your experience and opening up space for a community of dog owners in similar situations!

  4. Thank you for this article! It’s very encouraging. I have a reactive dog, but he’s reactive to people. I call him “socially awkward”. 🙂

  5. Thank you for being a dedicated dog owner! Star is very lucky!

    You definitely learn a lot with “difficult” dogs. I foster dogs, and I have had dogs just like Star. You learn. I found with my first foster, a very reactive pit mix, that playing the “look at that” game with her and other dogs really helped reduce her reactions while walking by. You basically give the dog a treat for looking at other dogs. It helps them to associate other dogs with something good and also brings their focus back to you. Really helps! It won’t make your dog a social butterfly, but when your dog normally goes nuts at the mere sight of another dog, you’ll take anything. That’s what helped me.

  6. Great post! We struggle with the same thing with our girl. I avoid areas where we might run into off-leash dogs for fear of an altercation.

  7. Thanks for your post Laura! We have a shy (yet brave when he reacts) little 5 month old that we are working with too! Your post has been very encouraging! Especially the part where you talked about getting a bit disheartened when things don’t go perfectly all the time, but then realizing that you shouldn’t give up! Also very encouraging reminder that we are not alone and we are doing our best! 🙂

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