We’ve all experienced it: the neighbor with the dog that goes crazy out on walks when it sees you and your dog. And while you and your dog are uncomfortably crossing the street to avoid walking by them, you are secretly praying that the other dog does not get loose from its owner. True, this is not how you imagined your afternoon walk with your dog going, but these things happen. But what if you are on the other side of this scenario; what if your dog is the one over-reacting to the presence of another dog?
When a dog reacts to a stimulus (another dog, person, vehicle, or object for example), the dog will be displaying a number of behaviors that add up to one huge theatric. Any of the following behaviors could be displayed by a dog that is reactive:
- Barking, growling, and/or whining
- Lunging (heavily pulling on the leash)
- Salivating (leading to the presence of foam around the mouth)
- Weight shifted onto front paws
- Raised tail (wagging or not wagging)
- Stiff body posture
- Intense staring
- Lip curling/baring its teeth
- And more
When a dog over-reacts to the presence of a stimuli (whether it be another dog, a strange person, or a strange vehicle), it puts stress on not only the owner, but also on the dog. That’s right; the dog is also stressed. Sometimes it is hard for an owner or onlookers to see the real problem with the situation. The dog is not aggressing for just any reason; it does not like having to react this way; nor does your dog look forward to behaving like this on walks. Some dogs are uncomfortable with the presence of strange dogs, people, or other objects. Whether it is due to poor socialization, a bad encounter in the dog’s past, or general anxiety about someone new, some dogs will become reactive when they are pushed beyond their threshold. Every dog has its own threshold; the amount of interaction or closeness a dog can handle before it feels it needs to react. Think of it as your dog being overwhelmed. For a dog that is reactive, encountering another dog/person/object on a walk is stressful, frightening, and intimidating. In an effort to keep that stimulus from coming closer and posing more of a threat, the dog reacts and hopes that the stimulus will go away.
To help your dog (and yourself), manage your dog’s environment constantly. If you know what triggers your dog to react then you can proceed in a number of ways. One way to handle the situation is to have your dog avoid confrontations. If your dog is uncomfortable with strange people, for example, do not take your dog to crowded parks where it will be hard to avoid people. If your dog is uncomfortable with strange dogs, do not take your dog to the dog park. If you are having a hard time with people approaching you and your dog, give others a warning before they approach so your dog does not feel threatened by their presence. Another way to handle a situation in which your dog will become reactive is to teach your dog another behavior to give instead of reacting. For example, instead of your dog focusing on another person walking their dog, have your dog sit and focus on you (who happens to be holding yummy treats in your hand) until the stimulus passes. Another option is Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT), in which you take cues from your dog’s body language and never let your dog be pushed past their threshold.
If you have a reactive dog and you are unsure of how to change your dog’s behavior, please consult the help of a professional dog trainer who uses positive reinforcement techniques.