7 Things Reactive Dog Owners Want You to Know

reactive-dog-ownersBarring heavy rain or freak Georgia snow storms, my dog Topher and I take walks nearly every day. At local parks, around our neighborhood, and the occasional hiking trail, we mark up the miles and enjoy the great outdoors. Usually these walks are uneventful. We watch birds, admire the foliage, and get our exercise.

Then there's that walk. About once a month, it happens: an off-leash running towards us seemingly from nowhere, their owner many, many yards away. In the moment I wonder if this will be the day my dog becomes public enemy number one. If I cannot keep this off-leash dog far enough away—while also controlling my own dog as he reacts (quite strongly)—this may be the day my dog bites another dog. Or worse, another person, should the scenario escalate.

It's the scenario we try very hard to avoid. This scenario sets our training back days or weeks every time it happens—and it happens much too often. In these scenarios, I’ve found that other dog owners aren’t exactly sympathetic to my frustration. I can understand the reaction: in those moments I’m certainly not at my best. But here's what I'd really love for average dog owners to know and understand, before they meet or come across a reactive dog and their owners.

We’re on High Alert Every Day

In the last three years Topher and I visited 15+ parks around the city of Atlanta. At every park, where signs dictating leash laws are clearly visible, we've encountered at least one off-leash dog. To keep "that one walk" from happening to us, I continue to try and find new parks, or unknown places less traveled. I even track other dog walkers' routines in the places where we walk often. For example, I know the approximate arrival time of the always off-leash Plott Hound at our favorite park, because she's run up to us three times now.

The number of times we’ve been run into by this particular dog would be much higher, if not for the fact that I am on high alert on every walk. I spot other dog walkers from hundreds of yards away, and start formulating a plan for a safe interaction or a careful getaway.

It’s imperative that we stay alert and make these kinds of plans—an increase in positive experiences and a decrease in negative or uncontrolled experience will help us move the needle on Topher’s dog reactivity.

Your Off-Leash Dog May Be Our Nightmare Scenario

Our experience with two off-leash dogs that left my own dog blind in his right eye was not our first encounter and it was not our last. However, it was the worst one, the nightmare scenario, and the one I flash back to with every other off-leash encounter.

In talking with other dog owners, I’ve yet to find someone without a story to tell about a negative encounter with another owner’s off-leash dog—situations out of their control, which could have gone either way. How many of these encounters end tragically? I don’t know. But many could be easily avoided.

Every Other Dog May Be Friendly, But Ours is Not

I believe you. Your dog is friendly. Your dog makes friends with every living, breathing thing they've ever met, easily and without incident. However, mine is not.

An owner calling out to me about the friendliness of their dog changes nothing about the scenario at hand, where my dog sees your dog—a thing he fears—running headlong at him. In this moment, how friendly your dog is does not matter. They are in a dangerous situation.

We’re Upset Because We’re Scared On Your Behalf

Reactive dog owners want you to understand that no obeying leash laws puts your dog and ours in dangerous situations. These situations often cause a spike in my stress level. I try not to let this stress at diffusing potential disaster leak out in the form of angry shouting, but sometimes it happens.

Shouting happens because I, as the owner of the reactive dog, often get saddled with 100% responsibility for the incident. If I could only control my dog more, somehow, then none of this would ever happen.

But here’s the rub: I am already controlling my dog.

Responsibility Is A Two-Way Street

I stick to leash-only areas because leashing my dog—regardless of temperament—when I’m supposed to do so is the easiest way to responsibly keep these incidents from happening. But this breaks down when dog owners let their dogs loose in the areas we are trying to remain within, for their safety and our own.

Which is why we get upset about leashes, off-leash animals, and owner responsibility so much. I cannot accept 100% of the blame. I'm already being as responsible as I possibly can. (Unless you believe I should lock my dog away to become a hermit. Then I can’t really help you or your opinion.)

I keep our reactive dog on a leash. I take him for walks at times and at places where I feel we'll have the most success and the least chance of causing trouble or strife for anyone else's pets. I am alert in my surroundings and always trying for the most positive experience. Even with all of this, I've been yelled at by dog owners whose dogs run up to us—off-leash in leash-only areas—and scolded for not doing enough to keep their dogs safe. Those of us who own what others call "problem" dogs can only be responsible for so much.

We’re Sorry We Can’t Greet or Chat

I promise I'm not trying to be some snob who doesn't want to meet or exchange pleasantries with you, or meet your dog. (I actually would love to meet everyone’s dogs; it’s just hard with the given situation.) I do promise this: if I move within a certain distance of you and then stop, my dog will begin to amp himself up while we're stationary.

The more amplified he gets, the closer to his threshold he'll be for the rest of the walk, and the more likely he'll lunge at you or another dog or passerby without any additional signal—because he's already at high alert. He's a bit like a ticking time-bomb that way—the best positive interactions are done in tiny increments with plenty of space to cool down in between.

I try to be sure to accommodate a stop or an interaction when I see Topher is in the right frame of mind. I can't plan it and I can't make it happen every time I see a nice stranger. So if you wave at me and I wave at you while turning to walk away where there are less people, please understand. We're trying to give our dogs positive training experiences; sometimes that comes at the expense of a nice chat or a simple hello.

We’re Doing Our Very Best

We've been training with Topher for almost three years now and Topher has made great strides. He gets better little by little and we're very proud of the progress we've made. I talk about it often.

This doesn't stop people on the street from suggesting I need to do more, or I'm wrong for what I'm doing. It's maddening. In the moment, I know my dog doesn’t look like much. To you, he might be a lemon. To me, he’s simply a work in progress.

We’re not giving up on him any time soon.

Do you have a reactive dog? What do you wish you could tell people about you and your dog before they meet you?


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Positively Expert: Lucy Bennett

Lucy is Co-Founder of Good Dogs & Co., a website celebrating the ups and downs of dog ownership. She's on a mission to help her dog Topher overcome his dog reactivity, after he was blinded in one eye by a dog attack.


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