Pet Improvement: Reactive dogs

Reactive dogs

Once again, this wonderful time of the year means lots more people and dogs down on the beaches. Most people are extremely respectful of the other pet owners. They leash their dogs when they see that yours are leashed. Everybody waves.

But just the other day, a couple was walking toward me, and their dog was running all over the place, yet mine were leashed. When I signaled them to please get their dog, they started making fun of me and simply refused. Obviously, they did not understand the potential dynamic that is sometimes created in these situations. 

It reminded me of an interview with Caroline Spark, Ph.D., the owner/operator of City Dog Country Dog Training in Yachats and Portland. Spark has a unique perspective because not only is she a doctor of psychology for people, but also a certified dog trainer and behavioral consultant for pets.

What is a reactive dog? It means the dog is having an emotional response, either to other dogs or people. It can be in the form of hostility or fear expressed as hostility. It manifests as hyper-arousal and excitability on the leash with pulling, lunging barking and flipping around like a fish on the line. 

Spark says there are not really breeds that are more reactive. It is more a function of lifestyle. Yet if a dog is bred with more fear and aggression in their genetic line, then there is the potential for more reactive behavior.

She believes that dogs are often underexposed to their own species when they are young through lack of proper socialization. Plus, our world is filled with many dogs of all shapes and sizes that appear in different settings. Many dogs are not designed to be around all this variety all the time. 

Pets are becoming an extension of their people. We all live in the same world. Dogs living in high stress households with pet parents that have little free time can experience a lot of stress. It manifests in pets in the same way people trigger with road rage. It is not the car cutting you off that makes you angry, it is the other stuff in your life that puts you at the tipping point. Stress is not the only factor, but a contributing one.

One of the leading causes of reaction is off-lead pets running up to leashed ones. Some dogs are not stressed but simply protective, yet not necessarily in a guarding fashion. In these cases, they consider their human a precious resource, the person that opens the cans and bags of food.

We also transmit tension through the lead because dogs are so intricately connected to us. When we see a situation of concern and pull back hard, it communicates through the lead. When we constrain the dog, they sense that you are worried and become worried, too.

Spark says that what is critical with reactive dogs is not treats, toys, collars, leads, shock, equipment or anything else. It is space. Space provides the comfort zone to know that the other dog is far enough away to feel safe. It allows your dog a chance to sort the situation out. 

Being diligent is helpful. If you sense that your dog is going to react in a situation, turn them around in a happy way. Move them around to block the line of sight to prevent the reaction, even sing to them.

The top 10 aggressive breeds are derived from dog bite statistics, but reactive is not necessarily aggression. The dog is just displaying a lot of emotion. A reactive response is just wanting the other dog to go away. Contrast this to a truly aggressive dog that would go and attack another dog if it is off leash. 

This is why we teach them to move away — there is an alternative. Instead of getting bent out of shape, they can just leave. 

Even with the limitations of the pandemic, if you have a reactive dog and feel you need help, please visit for more information. 

Jane Laulis is an avid pet lover. She hosts a pet talk radio show and is involved with pets from research to retail, nutrition to pet food manufacturing. She lives on the coast with her scientist husband, ocean faring dogs, indoor cats, exotic snakes, and a charm of hummingbirds. She may be reached at [email protected]


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