I teach a class for reactive dogs. A reactive dog is one who overreacts to environmental stimuli. Usually, it’s other dogs. Most dogs do not get along with strange dogs and really have no interest in meeting them. Sometimes, dogs react to people. They may have had a negative experience with someone in the past, or maybe they have not met many strangers and are afraid of how people move and act. A lot of dogs are more afraid of men than women. This could be because among humans, men are larger, have larger movements, speak in lower tones, and may be more likely to hide their faces with hats and beards.
Different dogs react to different things, but typically, their overreaction is due to fear. When a dog overreacts, it sometimes looks aggressive to us. Ears can go back against the head or point forward. The tail may go up or down or even wag. The hair might be raised along the back and neck. Perhaps, the dog is lunging and barking or air snapping. These are all signals that your dog wants distance from whatever is bothering him. He looks scary and that’s the point. “Get far away from me!” he is saying.
So, what is happening with us when we are walking our dogs and they start to overreact to a dog or human? First, we might feel annoyed. “Why can’t my dog just be normal? Why does he need to act so crazy? It’s just a person!” Then, we get embarrassed, for ourselves and for our reactive dogs. “That person probably thinks I have a bad dog,” or “That person thinks I am a bad dog owner.” There is a lot of emotion happening in us when our dogs overreact and appear aggressive. Maybe the only thing we know how to do is apologize and drag our dog away.
You can do one thing that will really help both you and your reactive dog. Be an advocate. Your dog is afraid, or anxious, or nervous, or uneasy. Help him and help yourself by recognizing that and then changing the environment for him. There are all sorts of signals a dog will offer to tell you they are bothered by their environment, but even if you don’t recognize the subtle signs, you do recognize the loud ones, right? Help your reactive dog by acting as his advocate.
Five Ways to Be Your Dog’s Advocate:
- Refrain from yelling at your dog or tightening the leash. Both are natural reactions, I know, when we feel scared or angry with our dogs. But, your yelling will not help you or the dog. It doesn’t help you stay calm, and it definitely will not make your dog calm down. Unfortunately, yelling at our dogs increases the tension of the situation and can make them feel like they have good reason to be upset. The same is true for tightening the leash. It adds tension to the environment, which is one reason I do not recommend using prongs, chokes, or shock collars.
- If a person is approaching you or your dog, ask them to stop. Sometimes, I hold my hand up to show them my palm and say, “Please Stop. I am training my dog and he is afraid right now.” If the person tells you they are great with dogs or that dogs love them, ask them again to stop, and if they do not, tell them your dog is contagious! This will stop them most every time. It might feel embarrassing to say that, but keep in mind, it’s about protecting your dog.
- Do not walk your dog if he seems agitated during the walk. Walks should be fun and relaxing. A walk that is stress-filled and bothersome can counteract any benefits of the physical exercise the dog is getting. You might feel like running on a treadmill at a gym is good exercise, but if the gym is dirty, falling apart, or feels dangerous, how beneficial is that exercise for you? You would finish your run feeling more stressed than when you began!
- Stay away from dog parks. I am not a fan of them, myself. Even if you feel like your dog is not aggressive off-leash the way he is on-leash, those fearful feelings can appear quickly and you don’t have the leash to help move your dog away from the environment.
- Move your dog away from the environment. Again, if your dog looks uncomfortable and you are able to remove him from the area that’s bothering him, do that. You are helping to remove the stress he is feeling.
I know none of these things may be easy, but they will really help both you and your dog. Of course, every dog is an individual and has unique needs. A great general rule to follow is: If your dog is telling you that something is bothering him, listen to him and help him. You truly will be helping yourself.
If you are interested in training for your reactive dog, please visit my training page: https://theproficientpup.com/private-training/
Lynn Webb, M.A., KPA CTP, CTMT