If you have a reactive dog, you’ll know what I’m talking about. And if you don’t, you’ll probably be judging us like a bad haircut. Here’s the inside scoop of what it’s like to have a reactive dog. And the four things we want you to know.
Have a reactive dog? You’ve got a hands-on, front seat, deep dive into canine behavior and management. And an opportunity to build a firm relationship of trust. No experience with reactive dogs? Keep an open mind and count your blessings for that easy pupper you’ve got there! And remember to go easy on the rest of us.
Would it surprise you all to know Chloe is a reactive dog?
And do you know how extremely hard it is to be honest and admit this to the world at large?
When it comes to other canines, she is termed ‘dog selective.’
She wasn’t always this way. She started out life like most puppies; happily playing and tolerant of every dog she met. But somewhere along the line, Chloe began to be a bit more choosy about the dogs she wanted to be around.
Maybe it was a couple bad incidences at the dog park (one reason we are not fans.) Maybe it was after her spinal injury began giving her some worry about being hurt. Maybe she just didn’t trust me enough as a leader to protect her in scary situations. Maybe it was just her maturity.
Whatever the reason or combination thereof, Chloe began to be v-e-r-r-r-y intolerant of certain dogs and their behaviors.
Does she react badly with every dog she meets?
No. Chloe and I can hike a trail and pass dozens of dogs with no incidences. She may stop for a quick happy greeting. She may pass dogs and totally ignore them. She may meet that special dog where they both get crazy zoomies. And then there’s just one dog that triggers her. Her ears go flat, she gets that cold, hard stare as they approach and I know it’s time for distraction and a quick pass-by.
The worst part for me, the thing I struggle with the most is this:
Owning a reactive dog when you both are the faces of a local dog-friendly website. When people meet you and expect that your dog will just love greeting their dogs at local events… Yeah, it can get about as embarrassing and uncomfortable as you can imagine.
I’m going to get real with you – I remember every single incident in which Chloe’s reactivity has asserted itself.
And I relive them over and over in my mind, trying to work out what went wrong, what mistakes I made, what could I have done differently for a better outcome… And worrying over the other dog owners’ opinions of us.
Let me tell you about this afternoon…
We were at our local greenway, enjoying a walk in the fresh spring air and taking photos for an up-coming blog post. Chloe was having a great time jumping on a fallen tree and walking the trunk while my daughter snapped photos. I saw a man and a woman with their dog approaching us in the distance – border collie mix, off-leash. Drivey, direct energy. Typical border collie.
We finished our photos and Chloe was waiting at a sit-stay for her reward treat. Suddenly her eye contact broke and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the border-mix (now on a long line) heading directly at her in the border-collie full speed ahead drive. Chloe immediately dropped low and pulled past me trying to intercept him while the owners asked “Can they meet?”
You know how you have that gut-feeling when things might go south quickly?
I had one of those.
I heard myself answer honestly “Well, I don’t know…”
At this point I was struggling to control my own dog. I needed time to evaluate the situation. Two high energy dogs heading straight at each other for a greeting is NOT a good scenario. But both dogs seemed like they wanted to greet each other. And Chloe has a tendency to get along well with other herding breeds, so…
I asked Chloe to settle and sit first so she could calmly greet the border mix. The other people were trying to control their very enthusiastic dog without much success. But when Chloe sat still for a bit, I let her approach.
Nose-to-nose greetings are not optimal for strange dogs meeting for the first time. Usually if both dogs break quickly and move on to sniff each other’s’ rear-ends, things will be okay. Then it’s time to have the dogs move apart. Five second sniff rules.
This time, however, it didn’t go down like that at all.
Instead of sniffing, the border-mix dropped down and began rolling and Chloe dropped down to sniff him. And then she began to snap at him.
It was only a second or two and we quickly moved them apart.
The border mix was offering all sorts of appeasement behavior “Hey bae, I’m just excited to get to know you, you feel me? Why you go all crazy-ass on me?”
And Chloe was eyeing him coolly with a “Go ahead punk – make my day” glint in her body language.
To say the owners were upset with her is an understatement.
To say I was upset with her is an understatement.
But mostly, I was upset with myself. Because I didn’t trust my intuition. I didn’t trust that gut assessment for the feel of the energy between the two dogs. I knew a greeting at the moment was a “no” and instead I said “yes.”
So – to the owners of the drivey border collie mix who we met on the greenway today, if you happen to be reading this I offer my sincerest apologies. Not for my dog’s behavior, but for mine. I hope you forgive me for making a wrong call.
All of us have encountered reactive dogs. I can imagine how you’ve felt. We’ve had run ins with them, too.
Here’s another truth bomb:
I used to be as critical about reactive dogs as most people are. l passed judgement Big Time.
- What a BAD dog!
- I can’t believe they bring that dog out in public!
- That dog is dangerous; I hope they have her under control.
- They need to take that dog to a professional trainer.
- Thank goodness MY dog is well socialized.
- I would NEVER want a dog like that.
I am cringing when I remember thinking these things.
But you know what? All it takes is having a dog of your own display reactive or intolerant behaviors and all the things you thought you knew fly right out the window.
Of course, this was all before I had delved more deeply into canine behavior…
Before we go any further, let me lay out the definition of reactivity. Reactivity in a dog simply means your dog is reacting to things in his environment.
Cool. But how strongly is he reacting?
Dogs who fall under the label ‘reactive’ are in a state of heightened arousal to stimuli. This may be caused by anxiety, fear, pain, frustration, over-enthusiasm or a lack of canine socialization. Just like most things in life, there are levels in these states of mind and they can escalate quickly into aggressive behaviors.
Your dog may also have some reactive states
- Dogs who are laid-back and easy going but freak out when they hear fireworks? Reactive.
- Dogs who enjoy all types of people but bark at men with beards? Reactive.
- Dogs who walk on loose leash but pull and tug to greet other dogs on leash? Reactive.
- Dogs who rush in and jump all over other dogs at the dog park? Reactive.
- Dogs who guard their chew toys? Reactive.
And as for dog-dog reactivity?
If you have a dog that is totally ‘dog social’ – that’s where puppies start out – consider yourself lucky! According to studies, a super low percentage of adult dogs maintain that level of sociability.
As he matures, your dog will probably start being more selective in the dogs he enjoys spending time with. Just like YOU, right? We don’t become besties with everyone we meet. And some people just downright annoy us. And that’s perfectly normal.
Most dogs fall somewhere in the middle of being ‘dog tolerant’ to ‘dog selective.’ Fortunately, very few dogs fall into the ‘dog aggressive’ range. Dog tolerant canines can usually shrug off rude or aggressive behavior. Canines who are dog selective or over-stressed, injured or tired may not be so tolerant.
So here are four things I wish I could pass on to those owners of the dog we ran into yesterday. These are things I wish they understood about this particular situation. Maybe you can relate on either side of the equation…
1. Sometimes it’s my DOG’s fault.
Dogs are like people. We’re all hard-wired differently and in Chloe’s case, she comes pretty much with high-arousal as standard operating system. Common in herding breeds, but Chloe takes it to a higher level.
And just like people, dogs have likes and dislikes. They have fears and hang-ups. Chloe does NOT like dogs who are pushy or in her face. She doesn’t tolerate rough play behavior and is defensive because of her spinal injuries. If she corrects another dog for this (that’s normal canine communication,) all well and good. But she sometimes escalates beyond a simple growl. That’s not acceptable.
2. Sometimes it’s MY fault.
Chloe is counting on me to be a good leader and to set her up for success. I’m human and I mess up. Sometimes I make a LOT of mistakes. I can miss seeing her body language or cues to know what she’s feeling. And sometimes I give in to the pressure of being social with other dog owners.
Truth is: I want to do my best and help Chloe succeed. I want your dog and my dog to have a pleasant interaction. I want to keep all dogs safe. I’m not going to be able to defuse every situation quickly enough before it escalates. But I will always be doing my best to manage our dog-dog interactions.
3. Sometimes it’s YOUR fault.
Not trying to pass the blame…but c’mon, guys. I am totally dumbfounded by owners who allow their dogs to charge right in to other dogs they meet.
So I get it. What you saw is a pretty Aussie dog playing with her owner. And your dog is excited to say hi. But what you didn’t see was an Aussie that is easily overwhelmed with rough play and big energy.
Imagine taking a stroll through the park. A stranger barrels up to you, sticks their face next to yours, throws their arms around you and shouts: “Wanna play basketball?!?!” I think you’d have a word or two with them. Imagine you also have a shoulder injury that’s healing; it hurts and here’s this stranger trying to hug you. You might even feel the need to defend yourself.
See how this can escalate?
What you also didn’t see was your own doggo being a bit out of control and wanting to wildly greet other dogs. You’re not aware that’s not good canine etiquette. You probably believe that’s him being social. Instead, it’s being pushy and inappropriate.
And straight line, hard stare greetings (also typical border collie and no offense intended) can be misinterpreted by a lot of dogs as a threat. Why do you think the sheep get so intimidated?
4. Sometimes it’s NO ONE’s fault.
Dogs are dogs.
They can be unpredictable. We can never know exactly what’s being communicated between two dogs who meet. What’s going through their minds? What is all the sniffing telling them about each other? It’s a mystery!
For the record, I’ve been on the other side.
- I’ve been the careless owner who allowed her dog to step on a much smaller dog during an episode of happy zoomies. Learning experience.
- I’ve had the scare of a very large (and fearful) GSD on a very thin leash held by a very small person lunge and growl at us as we were walking by. Whew!
- And I’ve let Chloe say hello to another dog without asking the owner first. That dog was not happy with Chloe AT ALL. Mistake.
But when I think back on it, there are many, many times Chloe has not let her reactivity affect her decisions. She has listened and refocused when she wanted to bark back at a loudly barking dog we encounter. She’s offered calming signals (sniffing the ground, turning away) to large dogs she’d rather have ignore her.
She’s used her voice (the loudest bark you’ve ever heard) instead of her teeth to ward off a pushy, aggressive dog who approached her in knee-deep water and growled at her. Most importantly, she has worked really hard to trust that I will get her through a situation.
No one else is aware of these experiences. But I am – and they are what bring me back from the shame and embarrassment that go hand-in-hand with people judging you – and your dog – hard.
Some absolutely brilliant info on dog behavior and particularly on solving issues from one of the best: Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.
Want to remember this? Pin to your favorite board…