"Reactive" is a term that is used a lot in dog behavior and training circles, and not without good reason (that’s another post). But what is a "reactive dog"? If you have one, you probably know. If you do not have one, you may be at a loss when you encounter one.
Applied Animal Behaviorist, Dr. Karen Overall defines reactive dogs as those who "respond either more quickly or more intensely to a given stimulus than other dogs" to the point that it is very difficult to impossible to interrupt their reaction. These are the dogs who bark and lunge at the end of a leash when a person or a dog or some other trigger passes by. They are the dogs who bark uncontrollably from inside of a house when they hear a mysterious sound or the mail delivery person comes to the door. They enter a zone when they (quickly) cross their tolerance threshold; no matter how many times their person calls their name or tries to pull them away, they just can’t stop.
Working through reactivity with a dog is a commitment. It is often frustrating, exhausting and can be embarrassing. People working with their reactive dogs make lifestyle changes. It is also hard for the dog to feel stressed out by things that they encounter every day.
If you do not have a reactive dog, it may be hard to fathom that taking your dog for a walk or having a friend over to your house could be a challenge. As the friend, neighbor, or passerby-in-public of someone with reactive dog, you can help! Here are a few tips you can employ the next time you encounter a crazily barking dog on one end of the leash and an exasperated person on the other.
Keep walking! Don’t stop to tell the person that all dogs love you and ask if you can say “hello.”
In fact, if you can, change your path to give the dog more space. Cross the street, “pull over” onto a side street or another path or into a driveway.
Don’t look directly at the dog. Eye contact is intimidating for dogs and can be viewed as a challenge.
Keep your dog on a short leash and on the opposite side of you as you pass or create distance.
Don’t ask if your dog can “say hi” or tell the person that your dog is good with other dogs. Theirs may not be, and now is not the time to find out.
If the dog is behind a fence or inside of a house, apply these same principles. Increase the distance between you and the dog by crossing the street or even taking another route altogether if you know that that dog “always” barks when you walk by. Don’t look at or try to engage the dog, look away and move past quickly.
It takes a village to help a reactive dog and his person.