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.
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.
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.
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.