My first dog was thrilled to go anywhere and meet anyone. Crowds, children, traffic: she was calm in the face of it all. So I could not understand what was wrong with other dogs or, more to the point, their owners.
You know the ones I mean: their dogs jumped and barked and were out of control when we walked by on the other side of the street. What was wrong with those dogs? Why didn’t those people do something about their dog’s behavior? Why would anyone even own a dog who acted like that?
Then I got my current dog, and now I’m sure everyone’s thinking that about me.
I understand those long-ago neighbors a lot better now. Reactive dogs aren’t bad dogs, and their owners are probably trying harder than you think. And there are ways you can help them that are good for your dog as well.
Fear and Thinking
Why do reactive dogs act that way? “A reactive dog is often feeling fear, anxiety, or stress,” says Tammy Bourgoyne, a Fear Free certified trainer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “The behavior displayed is often the dog’s desperate attempt to communicate that he or she is upset and desperately needs space.”
Fear is a tricky emotion to work with because it interferes with learning and can swamp everything else going on in a dog’s mind. “Even a well-trained dog can appear out of control when upset,” says Bourgoyne. “Trained behaviors are controlled by the dog’s ‘thinking brain’ and are a choice. When a dog is upset, the ‘emotional brain’ is in control. The ‘emotional brain’ overrides or blocks the ‘thinking brain’ so the dog is unable to do what is asked.”
The owner of that reactive dog may actually be working very hard on their dog’s behavior. I can guarantee that they are constantly thinking about how to avoid their dog’s triggers: making calculations about what time they walk, where they go, when they need to make a sudden change of plan. It’s not the relaxing stroll that you may get to enjoy, but people do it because they love their dogs and want them to get the enrichment and exercise of walks despite the challenges.
How to Help That Dog by Helping Yours
It’s frustrating when other dog owners seem to just stand there letting their dog jump and bark back while I’m trying to get my dog’s attention and calm her. What I wish I could tell them is that this is bad for their dog too.
In a situation like this, says Bourgoyne, “both dogs are responding to a perceived threat. The only difference is in what feels threatening to each dog.” The reactive dog feels threatened by seeing any dog. The non-reactive dog feels threatened by the behavior of the reactive dog–understandably, since the purpose of it is to make him want to go away.
Letting your dog react to the reactive dog is a problem for him, too, because he’s feeling stress. Frequently repeating this behavior can cause him to develop reactivity also.
“Practicing a behavior will often make it stronger and more challenging to change later,” she says. “This is especially true when behaviors are motivated by emotions, as in the case of reactivity.”
Teach your dog to offer attention while walking and you’ll not only help your neighbor, you’ll head off potential behavior problems, and have a better experience no matter what other dogs are doing.
Treat for Attention
Bourgoyne likes to do this with a clicker. “The simplest way to teach attention is to play the name game. Say the dog’s name. Click when the dog looks at you. Treat. Repeat. Do this at home, with increasing distractions, then take it on the road.
If you’re not comfortable with a clicker, good timing of treats will work; you can also use another cue, such as “Look.” The goal is to be able to get your dog’s attention while walking, in increasingly challenging situations.
Then you can use this skill to get your dog’s attention away from another dog. Also, once your dog gets used to being asked to look at you while walking, he will probably start doing it when you’re not asking as well. Start treating when he looks at you on his own, and eventually you’ll have a dog who is used to checking in with you regularly–who’s really walking with you. “A dog that stays connected even when distracted is a more enjoyable companion,” says Bourgoyne.
Dogs in Yards
The most problematic neighbor for a reactive dog is the dog who’s left out in the yard alone and barks at anything that walks by. This can make whole blocks no-go zones, and it’s worse than encountering a dog on a walk because there isn’t the faintest hope the owner will intervene.
In fact, leaving your dog out in the yard to bark at passers-by might not be as much fun for him as you imagine. “Just as in reactivity on leash, often the dog is uncomfortable or fearful with people or dogs passing and is reacting with barking and other behaviors,” says Bourgoyne. “Again, the dog is asking for space.” Since everyone who walks by does go away, the behavior is reinforced and is likely to escalate over time.
It’s worth noting that research has shown that dogs left out in yards don’t actually get much exercise. They also don’t get the enrichment of seeing new things on a walk, or time with their human, which is important to dogs. So do everyone a favor: bring the dog in and find some time to play or walk instead.
Be Considerate About Approaching
Some dogs are so reactive that it’s obvious from a block away. If you’re in the mood to do a good deed when you see that, consider changing your route or waiting till they get far enough away before following. The reactive dog’s owner won’t be able to get close enough to thank you, but you can be sure they appreciate it.
But you can’t always tell from a distance that a dog is uncomfortable with strange people or dogs. Take your cue from the owner and don’t be that “Don’t worry, my dog is friendly!” person who keeps coming when someone is trying to wave you away.
“Every reactive dog has a threshold distance or ‘comfort bubble’ in a given situation. That bubble might be huge and reach out 100 yards, or it might be small and reach out two feet,” says Bourgoyne. “Stay outside that bubble, and the dog may appear to be calm. Enter that bubble, and the dog may appear to suddenly erupt.”
When Bourgoyne first got her dog Hillary, she would panic at the sight of a jogger two blocks away. Hillary has improved a lot, through patient work. She looks so calm and approachable that people often ask to pet her. Some can’t take no for an answer and Bourgoyne has to step in front of her dog to block them.
“Often the response is, ‘It’s okay, I love dogs,’ as the person continues to approach,” she says.
You know what? That’s not loving dogs. Don’t think you know better than the owner how their dog will react to you or your “friendly” dog.
“The calm appearance may be the result of hours or even years of hard work,” she says. “Be a part of that dog’s success by respecting a request not to approach or greet a dog.”
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Linda Lombardi writes about the animals that share our planet and our homes for magazines including The Bark, websites including National Geographic and Mongabay.com, and for the Associated Press. Her most recent book, co-authored with Deirdre Franklin, is The Pit Bull Life: A Dog Lover’s Companion.
Published September 23, 2019