Spending time in nature with lots of smells and space to run is a favourite for every dog, and most owners! Having regular exercise and stimulation keeps them feeling physically and mentally well. My first experience of walking a reactive dog was at the age of 10 with a Jack Russell, named Toby. I had come to know him as his owner had seen my dog walking advert, in a local shop. I would take Toby to the local fields and beaches where he would run around after the tennis ball. I always loved spending time with him, but I remember that feeling of being on constant alert, in case any dog came bounding in our direction. Although Toby was a lovely little lad, he had shown aggression towards other dogs. He much preferred the company of humans, or horses!
With more recent experiences working with dogs that are reactive, I have been able to experience what thoughts are triggered whilst walking and living with a reactive dog. Here are a few things we would like you to know.
Firstly, when I say reactivity, I am referring to a dog that displays any of the following; barking, lunging, snarling, jumping, or stiff body. You can meet dogs that can not tolerate dogs in their space, dogs that are frustrated on the lead from excitement, and dogs that will lunge on the lead with teeth showing. Not all behaviours stem from aggression, therefore reactive is an all encompassing term to define the behaviour that is displayed. Dogs continuously display their current feelings in their body language, so if you look out for it, you can be aware of whether a dog would like interaction or not.
We are constantly on the look out
For reactive dog owners walks are carefully planned, with the aim of providing a safe, fun walk for the dog. We seek out quiet locations which offer minimal interactions with the triggering stimuli, which could include dogs, people, vehicles and noises. Some dogs can also have fears over people wearing hats, umbrellas or canes. Having learnt the dogs thresholds, we are on alert, noticing dogs and people hundreds of metres away, trying to formulate a strategy for safe interaction or a careful exit. Reactive dog owners do their very best in limiting their dogs reactions, so if you ever hear someone call out to put a dog on a lead, or to avoid their dog in some way, please listen as we are minimising any risks.
We can’t control everything
Reactive dog owners may alter their schedule to suit the needs of the dog, such as early/late walking times or only walking in places deemed ‘safe’. However sometimes these safe places present a dog, person, bike that the dog will react to, with little option of stopping the dog reacting. We all try to keep our dogs comfortable and safe, but when these moments occur, we do not have a magic trick to stop the dog from reacting. We have done our best in influencing a calm state of mind and walking in a quiet environment, however we cannot control how our dog will respond if met with a triggering situation that they cannot escape from.
Everyone can take responsibility
I have heard countless times of how owners have been told to take responsibility of their dogs who are reacting, by an owner who’s dog is running off lead. Reactive dog owners take responsibility by keep their dog on lead and alerting others of their reactivity, we would appreciate if other owners could take responsibility in training a good recall and putting their dog on a lead if asked to do so.
Your dog may be friendly, but this one is not
Its great that you have a friendly dog who loves to play and interact with other dogs, however, not all dogs are. For some dogs having another dog bound up to them is scary and can result in them reacting. We are not telling you that our dog is not good with dogs to find out if yours is, we are alerting you to the danger your dog could be in. Another example is of a cyclist riding too close to a reactive dog. Everyone can be mindful in how they approach dogs.
We want to explain
Living with a reactive dog can be isolating and frustrating. We want to be able to say hello and stop for a chat, however this can cause the dog to feel uncomfortable and cause a reaction, therefore we have to walk in the opposite direction. I have been in situations where people walk past muttering rude comments without trying to engage with me or understand the situation. People can be quick to judge and accuse the dog of needing training, yet what they fail to recognise is how training is not possible when the dog is over threshold.
We are working on it everyday with what we have available
Helping a reactive dog can be rewarding, stressful, challenging, and full of lessons. From a personal perspective of knowing how I can help dogs, I can feel frustrated that I don’t have access to things that can help reactive cases. It takes a lot of desensitisation to help a dog overcome their fear of dogs, people, bikes, cars, noises, hats etc, and we don’t always have these things spare to practise with. When we don’t have control of the environment, it may mean that we are not always successful in limiting the dogs reactivity. It is a working progress, and we are doing the best we can.
I would like to say that I do acknowledge that not all dog owners of both balanced dogs or reactive dogs take responsibility. There are many examples of incidents happening due to the negligence of the owner.
Dogs are amazing creatures, and sometimes it takes a little more time and effort on our part to help them feel safe in the world. If you ever see a dog freeze up, bark or lunge do your best to remember that right now something is scaring them, but with understanding and commitment, we can help these dogs have stress free walks.