Walking a Reactive Dog

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!

Walking a Reactive Dog

Walking a reactive dog

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

Walking a Reactive Dog

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

Walking a Reactive Dog

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.

Think Positive

Walking a Reactive Dog

A walk should be relaxing and enjoyable for you both

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

Walking a Reactive Dog

A smiling face and a wagging tail are anything but nice to see when you know your dog is going to react negatively

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.

Walking a Reactive Dog

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?

 

 

Author: Kelly Harding with Edie The Pug

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50 Comments

  1. Hi, interesting article. I’ve always had dogs growing up, mainly from breeders and pet shops (so since they were puppies) and never had problems. However, my husband and I decided to adopt an older dog from a shelter. She’s a gorgeous dog in a lot of aspects and very laid back. However, she is a reactive dog (only to other dogs when she’s on the leash) and I do have a lot of anxiety when I walk her, I’m aware of that and have been working hard to change it. However, as I was reading through your article I did disagree with the “making excuses about shelter behaviour, as it’s usually not the shelter” I do agree that’s it’s usually not the shelter that’s caused the anxiety or fear, but these dogs have had a whole other life before coming to their new owners, a life that we have no idea about. I can tell with my dog she’s fearful about dogs sneaking up behind her and she gets very aggressive towards dogs who chase after her. She has scars on the back of her legs, so I guess you can make conclusions about that behaviour. But when I explain to people “sorry, she’s a rescue” it’s more to say, she’s had bad experiences in her past. And I know you’ve said that turns people off rescues, but whenever I’ve explained her background it actually makes people more understanding. Dog people do have a tendency to be very emphathetic, they then want to hear all about my dog and her story.

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    • Thank you for sharing your story. I agree that it’s not necessarily the shelter, but the unknown of what that dog has experienced before arriving at a shelter. Dog people are very empathetic towards dogs and understanding of their backgrounds. I wish you all the best!

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  2. Great post. My first dog is a reactive dog. The first step to making walks less stressful for everyone, was realising that we needed to fit in her box and stop trying to make her fit into ours. Today we are walking in Muffin’s favourite place. We have been able to practice sitting calmly outside of a cafe here, even with other dogs (on the lead) around. We are going to try going in today, for the first time. As always, we will be guided by her.

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    • I wish you and Muffin all the best and hope each day is an improvement and less stressful for her. I like how you say we must try to make her fit, instead take her lead as to how she feels in certain situations.

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  3. I have a fearful reactive dog. He’s such s funny smart good at home! Walks are super stressful for us but he still enjoys them. I find putting him in a sit and wait position helps him loose a bit of focus on an approaching human, he is still not okay with pets though.

    I have taken him to training numerous times and the end results are the same. This is who he’s is, and I am okay with that.

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    • I like your last line “This is who he is and I’m ok with that”.

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  4. Henry and Reese are reactive with certain dogs. This only happens when they are on a leash.

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  5. If only more people understood that the leash can transmit your nervous energy to the dog who then reacts picking up on any anxiety you may be feeling. It takes considerable amount of work but in the end it doe spay off

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    • Indeed, our dogs can “feel” our energy thru the leash and it’s important to be mindful of what signals we are giving our dogs. It does take a lot of work and patience.

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  6. If more people understood this, learned proper management techniques, and looked out for their dog in the ways you mention. It would be such a better world for dogs.

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  7. Mr. N is reactive but out of excitement. We got charged by a Golden twice today and the second time Mr. N made clear he did NOT appreciate it.

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    • I hope Mr.N was ok.

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  8. One of my dogs seems to be reactive. He often barks at strangers when we go for walks. Other times he completely ignores them, I haven’t been able to figure out what the triggers are. This is something I need to work on more.

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  9. What a great story you shared here. My last Cocker was fearful of so many things. She was a puppy mill rescue and my first dog as an adult on my own. I look back and wish I knew these things then that I know now. She was an amazing little girl.

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  10. I was just at reactive rover class this afternoon with Walter! We talked a lot about what is mentioned here – confidence of the handler. I tend to tighten the leash when I see other dogs even though with food I have total control of my dogs. I know they sense this and we practiced NOT doing this today — not easy…

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    • The hardest thing I found was to be calm, relaxed and light on the leash, especially when I knew we were in a situation that could potentially set of my dog. But the dog “feels” your tension right through the leash. I wish you and Walter all the best!

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  11. Great information. I thought my sister’s Australian Shepherd was being reactive because he bit some people and we couldn’t figure out why. Turns out, he needed open space to run and expend his energy. They moved to a 31-acre farm and he’s great now.

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  12. An optimistic post. My dog is highly reactive but he looks so cute and is a total love bug if he knows you and if you don’t get between him and what he wants. That is probably part of the reason he had 4 homes by 2. Then having limited socialization, being mistreated, being attacked in the park by another dog, not getting trained properly and not getting structure- that didn’t help. I definitely say he is a rescue as people immediately judge less and feel empathy rather than horror when he reacts- it is not pretty. Luckily most people ask before they lunge to pat him and he is small and very treat friendly. Luckily he gets access to amazing trainers and he is loved. He has made incredible progress.

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    • Many fear reactive dogs end up having many homes. Proper and positive socialization at a young age is so very important. I’m so sorry that Kilo had such a terrible start, but very happy that he is now with you, being loved, helped and understood. Well done Kilo on your progress!

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  13. Such a true statement: The attitude of the handler will have a huge impact on how the dog will respond to it’s environment…go boldly…your dog will feel your confidence – even if you’re faking it – and will mirror it! When we walk one of our dogs, who can be reactive, I’ve learned that I’m not to react to him, more so I’m to be the fearless bold one and “know” and “show” that all things will be “just fine!”

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    • Yes! Even if we have to fake it, we must be confident and calm. I believe how we feel goes directly from us and through the leash right to our dog.

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  14. I will be more aware of this in others. Thanks for the great post. We don’t have this issue and I forget that others struggle with it. It’s a good reminder.

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    • Thank you for being more aware of dogs and owners that deal with this situation.

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  15. Ruby is occasionally reactive, not always only in certain situations. I have learned her triggers, which helps. I love what you said about the attitude of the handler. Ruby is so tuned into my moods and I know there have been a few times that my anxiety has made her more anxious.

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    • Learning the triggers of what makes your dog uncomfortable is very important and can help avoid a situation. I’m a firm believer that our dogs/pets are very in tune with our feelings and react based on them.

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  16. I’m really very lucky, I’ve never had a reactive dog. Even my fosters were all friendly. These are good tips when your dog is fearful & reactive. I love your idea of a shelter especially for reactive dogs, how wonderful that would be!
    Love & biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

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  17. What a great read. Wish I had it on hand to give to the people that rushed up to Chappie today and grabbed him by the face to pet him even after I told them not to because he was a pup and still learning how to react to strange new people.

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    • Why oh why would someone grab any dog or pet by the face to pet them! I understand that they think a dog or puppy is cute and they want to meet them, but even dogs need their space! Could you imagine if someone walked up to you on the street and did this to you or your child?

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  18. I can imagine a reactive dog would be a mission for someone who loves and cares for a dog AND has experience? The way a nervous cat would need plenty of love and patience. I have been reading about dogs and positive reinforcement training – love and praise not punishment is the way to learn isn’t it?

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    • Love and praise is most definitely the way to go with any pet! It does take a lot of patience, understanding and experience when owning a fear-reactive dog.

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  19. Great post, When walking Layla she is not interested in any other dogs but people yes, same as the park, I let her do what she wants as I feel as long as she is happy that is all that counts.

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    • Walking a reactive dog takes a lot of understanding and knowing what to look for. You have to learn how to read the dog and know what signals they are giving to before they react to a situation.

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  20. What a fabulous article, so interesting. My dog Jack used to lunge at every person or dog, no matter how far away. We believe he was abused, based on his reactions. With lots of training he has improved tremendously, but it’s a work in progress. If I see he’s about to react to someone who’s getting too close I always ask them to ignore Jack and leave him be. I explain he was abused blah blah blah. Most people are very understanding and respectful, others will get closer, lean over him and even as he’s barking stick out their hand. I then tell them that I’ve asked them to leave Jack alone and I walk away because I can’t deal with ignorant people. He now has doggie and people friends, but just as we don’t like everyone we meet, I’m baffled why people expect every dog to love everyone they meet. I take training and schedules very seriously and that does wonders for difficult dogs.

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    • I’m so happy to hear that Jack is improving. I never understood why people insisted on getting closer to my dog and try to touch him, even after you ask them not to! This was a big issue for me and it could put my dog back a few steps in his progress because of it.

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  21. Great tips. My last dog was dog-reactive. It was a life I became good at. Now, with my current boy, a little of the “on” pressure is off. Thanks for this post.

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  22. Great tips – thank you for sharing. And we LOVE your photos, especially that first shot! Such a cool family walk photo.

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  23. I guess my dog is not a reactive dog as you describe, but he does occasionally react. He’s a terrier and is fearless. He generally likes everyone and most other dogs but once in a while he’ll hate one dog – just hateshim and react to him, usually quickly. I’ve learned to watch the signs. Occasionally, there is a person he barks at, usually a man, but in that case I figure Victor knows something about him I don’t and we both steer clear.

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    • It’s interesting how Victor picks out one dog that he doesn’t like or get along with. I feel the same way when a dog reacts to a person, that the dog “knows” something.

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  24. Magic is so darn protective that I have to be very careful with him around strangers. He’s great with other dogs and pets, but noisy and scary around people he doesn’t know.

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    • That was one of the issues I had with my dog, he was extremely protective of me. I’m glad that Magic gets along with other dogs though.

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  25. Great information! I think reactive dogs get such a bad rap and we are sometimes the worst. My girls right now are very much ‘in your face, want love right now’ but other dogs we have had in the past had to meet people on their terms. Walking was stressful at times since they would try avoiding other dogs. It wasn’t that they didn’t like people, but were more like introverts. 🙂

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    • Yes! I like the use of the word “introverts”. Sums it up nicely.

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  26. Great info here! My mom has a reactive dog and she’s always concerned when someone has to dogsit and walk her dog. I will be sharing this with her. Thank you!

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    • Leaving a reactive or fearful dog with someone is always a concern. It’s important that the person caring for the dog understands them and how to handle them.

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  27. Great information, Kelly. Just Pinned on my “Bark About” board. My FiveSibes are not fearful or reactive, but good info to keep on hand and share. Thanks!

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    • Thank you. I’m happy to hear your FiveSibes do not have fear or reactive issues, but I believe this is an important topic for all dog owners to understand so they can give dogs with fear issues the space they need.

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  28. My Doberman is reactive–not in an intense way, but her protective mode really kicks in if we cross paths with an off leash dog or a reactive dog on leash (i.e., little barky dogs that start barking at her first). She’s fine with strangers, but I agree–I wish people wouldn’t assume that my dog is just wanting to become BFFs with them. If a very tall, large man crosses paths with us, I can tell Missie gets nervous, but she holds it together and will let him pet her. I praise her and treat her after she deals with the too-familiar person. In stores it’s a different thing. She loves shopping and wants to say hi to everyone and I wish she would be less intrusive. We’re still a work in progress.

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    • Thank you for sharing your story! Praise and encouragement is very important when your dog does well in situations they are uncomfortable with.

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