What does it mean when a dog is fear reactive, does it say that the dog is a mean dog, is it a reflection of the dog owner?
My dogs have always been the happy go lucky kind of dogs. They all enjoyed walks, going to parks, meeting other dogs and people. But then all that changed.
I was faced with a dog that wanted nothing to do with other dogs, and definitely not an off leash dog! The same went for people he didn’t know. He was uncomfortable with strangers approaching and touching him. He could be fearful and unsure in unfamiliar surroundings. I did not understand what was wrong. Was it something I was doing, or not doing? Was there something wrong with this dog? I began to doubt myself. That was until I met a trainer that helped me understand my dog. She taught me that not all dogs like other dogs and that was ok! But the most important thing she taught me that day so many years ago was when she said, “Your dog is not a bad dog, he is a fearful dog”.
Since that time I’ve always felt the need to support those with fearful dogs. I understand when they talk about having to go for a walks at odd hours hoping they don’t run into other dogs or people. And I feel their worry and stress of the possibility of running into an off leash dog.
A big thank you to Amber from UnderstandingIsLoving.com for agreeing to write this post and give us an understanding into these dogs and the humans who love them.
I’m Amber and I write UnderstandingIsLoving.com. I’m currently finishing up my second bachelor’s degree in Animal Behavior working toward a master’s degree in Anthrozoology. One of my main interests is in fearfully aggressive companion animals. I have a reactive dog myself and I know how hard it can be to live a “normal” life with him. Inspired by his unlikely love and trust, I want to open a shelter dedicated to rehabilitating dogs who would otherwise be deemed unadoptable. In the meantime, I use my website to help pet owners handle common behavior problems. That’s why I was so excited when Kelly and Edie reached out to collaborate on this post. If you struggle with getting out and about with your dog I hope this article helps! Good luck!
Just like people, dogs are individuals. It doesn’t matter what breed or mix of breeds you have or if you got your dog from a breeder or shelter, they’ll have their own preferences and reactions to the many stimuli they’ll encounter over their lifetime. For some dogs, fear is a very real part of their existence to which some will react aggressively in an attempt to control their surroundings. Because their reactive tendencies don’t fit into the social stereotype of how people view dogs, they’re often written off as bad dogs and sometimes their owners are even deemed irresponsible. As an owner of and advocate for reactive dogs, I understand the social stigma that goes along with these dogs.
Of course, I wish there was a way to inform the masses that these dogs aren’t bad dogs, but I believe the only way for that to happen is for us, the people who love a reactive dog, to stop hiding and start talking. Here’s what we should be saying:
Out on Walks
One of the many joys of owning a dog is the long, meandering walks you’ll share together. I love everything about nature and my dog, Gremlin, makes sure that I never miss a single squirrel. I can’t imagine avoiding taking a walk for fear of running into other trail walkers. Instead of avoiding the trails, I make sure to watch for body language that tells me the person is going to try to get too friendly with Gremlin. As they approach I warn that he isn’t a fan of strangers and they usually slow down. If they don’t, I pull Gremlin back to make it clear that this meeting should be slow and on Gremlin’s terms.
If the person is still interested in allowing Gremlin the time he needs to meet them I am more than happy to let him try to say hello. I think this is an important part in having a reactive dog. You should know and respect their boundaries but also allow for the right kinds of situations to help your dog explore those boundaries and hopefully push them in a positive way. My husband isn’t a fan of me doing this, but I firmly believe that a good experience is a step in the right direction. It’s important to note that a bad experience is five steps in the wrong direction, so it’s imperative to try to anticipate what kind of situation you and your dog are in before it gets out of hand.
No More (Bad) Excuses
People love to talk about their dogs and you should be no exception. Too often we’re making excuses and apologies for our dogs when we should be proud of them for everything else. Understandably, this can be hard when you are trying to take control of a situation where your dog is reacting poorly. Once I gain control over the situation I always make it a point to tell people that my dog was adopted after being homeless for so long that he stopped trusting people. Then I tell them that he’s a great dog at home and is very loving toward us, but that he’s still having trouble with strangers. I’ve found that most people empathize with him and some even go so far as to be proud of his progress despite scaring the daylights out of them only moments before!
It’s important to never blame your dog’s behavior on having been adopted. I’ve heard so many people excuse their dog’s bad behavior because they’re from a shelter. It’s better to tell people about your dog’s history before they ended up in the shelter, since its very rare for their shelter experience to be why they’re reactive. We want dogs to be adopted, but if we tell people that our dogs are bad because they were adopted we’ll discourage potential adopters.
When my husband takes Gremlin out on a walk he almost always comes back with a stressful story, but when I take him out we almost never have a bad encounter. The attitude of the handler will have a huge impact on how the dog will respond to it’s environment. When your dog is reactive even just thinking about a walk can send your heart rate through the roof with anxiety. Instead of tainting your walk before it even begins, take a few breaths and think positive thoughts. Go boldly. Your dog will feel your confidence – even if you’re faking it – and will mirror it. Make this a habit until you and your dog really are confident that your walk will be a positive experience.
What We Want from Strangers
Dogs are supposed to be a social lubricant, but when they aren’t they really aren’t. With Gremlin I’m a lot less social than I would otherwise be because I know he can’t handle it. Even though I don’t personally avoid taking him out on walks, I do sometimes cringe when I see someone coming. I know other owners in my shoes can agree when I say that all I want is for other people to stop assuming my dog is friendly and wants to meet them and their dog. If people can stop making that assumption I think we can be more successful in having more positive experiences than negative ones.
All dogs are good dogs and just need the right families to understand and care for them. It should be extremely rare for a dog’s temperament to exclude them from finding a loving home. Reactive dogs deserve to love and be loved. By practicing these tips you should notice more confidence in you and your dog and hopefully you’ll inspire others to be more understanding of dogs like ours.
Have you ever experienced life with a fearful or reactive dog?
What helps make you and your dog comfortable and relaxed?