Reactive and Fearful Dogs

Compassion for the fearful dog and owner.

A single traumatic event can lead to a lifetime of fear, and many reactive dogs have experienced trauma in their lives.

That single isolated incident – maybe an attack by another dog – can produce fear that generalizes very quickly.  Soon all dogs are something to be feared and reactive behavior becomes a way to keep fearful things at a distance.  Constantly feeling fearful isn’t a great way to live.

Owning a reactive dog is almost as stressful as being the reactive dog.  You’re constantly scanning the environment for your dog’s triggers whenever you’re out with your dog.  It can be quite isolating, too. You can’t go on walks with your friends and their dogs, you can’t have people visit with their dogs, and you can’t easily travel with your dog.

After having spent over 20 years working with people and their dogs, I can assure you that rarely is the owner the cause of the reactivity, and most are trying to help their dog. 

Here are 4 things you can do to help:

1.  If you aren’t in an off-leash area, keep the leash on! The uncertainty of a loose dog is terrifying for a dog-reactive dog and their owner. I’m amazed at the number of people who put their own dog at risk by ignoring the unwritten rule: If you see a dog on leash, leash your dog.  I can assure you that it doesn’t matter how friendly your dog is, the outcome will be the same. If your dog rushes into that dog’s space, one or both dogs will be traumatized and could even be seriously injured if either dog feels trapped.

2.  Be empathetic. If you have a friendly dog, consider how lucky you are.  When you pass by that person with a reactive dog, put a smile on your face and give a friendly greeting - “Beautiful dog, have a great day!” Dogs are affected by people’s energy, especially the energy on the other end of their own leash.  A friendly gesture can make an owner feel more comfortable and that feeling travels right down the leash to their dog.

3.  Give distance. Distance is what reactive dogs are seeking. If you’re walking your friendly dog and see someone struggling with their dog, move your dog away. It will be much easier for you to move away than it will be for them. Smile at the dog and owner as you cross the street or veer off the trail.

4.  Be a good neighbour. If you live in a shared space, don’t go about your business with your friendly dog and leave your neighbour to struggle with theirs.  Look before you enter or exit and ask if it’s okay to move through occupied spaces. If someone has a reactive dog and the shared staircase is the only exit point, imagine how stressful this would be for both dog and owner. 

People with reactive dogs have very little choice where they can safely exercise their dogs.  If they can at least count on leashed spaces being leashed spaces, that would go a long way to helping. Dog owner or not, be helpful not critical – one day that could be you and your dog.