Reactive Dogs: Let’s Not Judge

If you’re a dog owner then it is more than likely that you have come across reactive dogs on more than one occasion. A reactive dog is a canine which overreacts to certain stimuli with behaviors like barking, lunging, growling, showing teeth and maybe even snapping.

This reaction is often set off by the sight of other dogs, but it could stem from any kind of stimulus from certain groups of people (some dogs are reactive to men, but not women for example), children, noises or specific places or circumstances.

Dog reactivity can occur for a couple of reasons. The first is a lack of socialisation. If a dog is not socialised as a puppy or doesn’t have it’s socialisation continued through adulthood, then they may become fearful of certain things, people, dogs or circumstances, and react to them unfavourably. This is why socialising your dog is far and above the most important thing you need to do when you get a puppy.

The second reason is due to a traumatic event which the dog has been through. This may have been being attacked by a dog, abused by a previous owner, frightened by a loud and excitable child or even startled by the sound of a motorbike.

sad chihuahua

When I first got Bruce, I would frequently come across an older man with a very reactive Jack Russel Terrier. We could be quite far away, but if this little dog saw Bruce then all hell would break loose. In an instant, the dog would change from walking happily along to snapping, snarling, barking and lunging at the end of its lead. We would never get close, and I would always take Bruce as far away as I could for them to get past us, but I always had the same thought and it’s one that I am deeply ashamed of… ‘what a badly trained, unpleasant dog’.

It’s not easy for me to admit to that. Frankly, I was completely ignorant of the challenges that come with owning a reactive dog, and the history that is behind a dog exhibiting such a shift in mental state.

It wasn’t until I started doing deeper research into training, and also educating myself more about dog rescue, that I started to fully understand reactive dogs. It was one particular case of neglect which gave me my lightbulb moment. A small female terrier had been rescued from overbreeding at a puppy mill. She had been tied up and mated repeatedly against her will every time she was in season.

battle quote

As a result, and unsurprisingly, she was terrified of all male dogs, and would do anything to protect herself from them and get them to back off. The rescue was looking for a new family for this horribly abused young pup, which would be able to cope with her aggressive reactions toward male dogs.

What happened to her, I sadly don’t know. However, hearing about her story made me realise the obvious.

Without knowing the background of a dog you are in place to pass judgement. Not on them or their owner. You don’t know their history, what they’ve been through or been subjected to in order to make them fearful, and chances are their owner is doing everything they can to lessen their stress, help them overcome their demons, and live a happier more content life. They may have even rescued them from unspeakable hell.

reactive dogs

What to do When you Meet Reactive Dogs

There are going to be times when you and a reactive dog cross paths, and there is one course of action I recommend.

Give them space.

Don’t take it personally if a dog is afraid of your or your dog. Get out their way, turn away from them, and walk in the other direction. If you need to walk past them in order to get to where you’re going, then instead of powering on through and getting past them, just step aside as far as you can, turn you and your dog away and wait for them to pass. Walking towards them to get past is like a spider walking towards an arachnophobe – absolutely terrifying – while allowing them to walk past you gives the reactive dog some sense of control.

Needless to say, you want to keep your own dog calm, under control and away from the reactive pup. Similarly, don’t approach the dog yourself – don’t look at it, talk to it, or even smile at it. Act nonchalant.

Finally, give the owner a nice smile. Owning, fostering and rescuing reactive dogs is tough, and it can be embarrassing if you feel like you’re being judged for it. A smile will let them know that you get what they’re dealing with and you respect them for it.

About me

Joy Jewell is a London based dog obsessive and style connoisseur. Joy has worked in the fashion and beauty industry as a writer for nearly a decade, and decided to fuse her two loves – style and canines – to create Paws and Prada in 2014.

If you would like to talk to Joy about anything from blogging to puppy training then drop her a line at [email protected] or find her on Twitter @PawsandPrada.


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Reply February 1, 2016

This is so true.

My dog as a puppy was attacked by three staffies at once. The man who owned them was terribly ashamed of what his dogs had done but now my dog is scared of all staffie looking dogs even America pull dogs which are so much bigger. My dog will bark if he has to pass. If he's off lead in the park and he see one he runs away.

The only one he likes is a staffie cross that he met before this happened.

My dog is a Gold Retriever.

    Reply February 1, 2016

    I'm so sorry to hear that your dog was attacked as a puppy and has some fear issues resulting from it. It's so much more common than many of us realise. Hopefully this will raise some awareness of what dog reactivity is, because I think a lot of dog owners don't know much about it unless it happens to them and their own dog. Thanks for your comment Rachel, and cuddles to your golden!

Reply February 1, 2016

I am a person who HAS a reactive dog, and I am definitely always worried they will judge me like you mentioned (I mean, I accidentally sometimes judge others, too). I'm not 100% sure why my dog is reactive -- but probably from lack of socialization with dogs bigger than him. I think your advice on smiling at the owner is incredible because I often feel like people are angry at me, but I really am doing the best I can! We are even in training classes learning how to deal with these behaviors as well as interacting with more dogs to try and get used to it. It's still a work in progress, though. Thanks for the good read!

    Reply February 1, 2016

    Thanks for your comment Elainea, and it sounds like you are a wonderful dog parent. Keep at it, stay patient, and you will get there. Try not to worry about other people - you do you!

Reply February 2, 2016

I only walked past a dog like this the other day. It was with it's lovely owner who was also pushing a pram. It was a mammoth task for her to get past us even though we took a wide berth around them and dint even make eye contact or made any noise. I felt for her as it made walking the dog which is something pleasurable into a full on work out. Loved the article and I understand so much more now as to why they react like they do. Thank you Joy x

    Reply February 2, 2016

    I agree Sonya, it must be such hard work walking a reactive dog, and probably not the sort of thing you imagine happening when you are adding a dog to your family. I don't know what I'd do without my relaxng dog walks!

Reply February 2, 2016

My little foster SAMMI has had a fractured skull at some time in his life. He is reactive to everything, and other dogs especially. What amazes me, is that they all the vets he's been to. Had teeth removed, desexing microchipping, no one has ever noticed his skull fracture and no one reported he has petit mal seizures. Or a weird over balancing gait. What an indictment on dog welfare.

    Reply February 2, 2016

    Oh bless him, poor guy!

Nina @ What's for eats?
Reply February 2, 2016

Thanks for this post. I have never been a dog owner and I will admit I have been judgmental of OWNERS in the past when I have seen what appears to be a badly behaved dog. I guess just like we shouldn't judge whether a person is healthy based on the size of their body, we should also not judge dogs based on their outward demeanor.

    Reply February 2, 2016

    Exactly, Nina! Of course, there are people out there who aren't good dog owners - but the majority are doing what they can with a dog that has been through trauma, has health problems or had a poor start in life. Thanks for your comment!

Reply January 11, 2017

This is so true about reactive dogs. We should never judge the dog and the owner, like you said we have no idea what the dog has been through in the past. I really enjoy your blog Joy, it's a joy to read. Glad you're back on the grid because I'm looking forward to following your work. From one dog blogger to another my dog is sending wet kisses to you and yours!

    Reply January 12, 2017

    Thanks Tania, I'm so glad you enjoy it. Thank you for your lovely comment!

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