The Hardest Part About Having a Reactive Dog Is Other Pet Parents

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My partner and I are parents to two dogs. Our youngest, Charlotte, is a special-needs rescue. The most obvious and challenging of her quirks is her reactivity to other dogs. When we adopted her, we learned she had been found emaciated, living on the streets of a small Southern town in a litter of puppies estimated at just under a year old. She and the puppies went to an overcrowded shelter, where they narrowly avoided being euthanized but were instead were transported north.

Other than these heartbreaking snippets, the first year or so of Charlotte’s life remains a mystery, but it doesn’t take a psychic to know that her socialization to other dogs at a critical time was absent and/or negative. In the years since her adoption, she has improved immensely through training, though she remains reactive. Our family lives in New York City in an apartment, so every day involves navigating Charlotte through all the other dogs that also call this city home, approximately 600,000 of them according to a study. Some mornings, it feels like we pass all of them just trying to get the dogs to potty!

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Charlotte all grown up. (Photo by Sassafras Lowrey)

The hardest thing about being a parent to a reactive dog actually doesn’t have anything to do with Charlotte. Sure, there are things she can’t enjoy, such as running off-leash in a dog park, going to daycare, or joining us when we get dinner at a crowded outdoor café — none of those are big deals to avoid. The hardest part of having a reactive dog, and bringing her out in the world, is dealing with some of the parents of other dogs. No, really, trust me, SOME OF YOU are the problem, not my dog.

Your clueless attitude about your own dog’s behavior and presence in space is what makes it challenging for my dog to navigate the world in a comfortable way. Just last week, we had a routine vet appointment for vaccines. I was there with both my dogs and watched as other pet parents had their dogs hanging out in literally the only hallway leading to the exam rooms.

It was so frustrating to watch as these dog parents glared at Charlotte when I advocated for her need of space, requesting that they move their dogs out of the hallway so we could pass. Charlotte didn’t react as we navigated a far too tight interaction while getting dirty looks. I really wanted to say something smart to these dog parents, but it wasn’t worth it, their minds were already made up. My dog was clearly a bad dog, even though she hadn’t once barked or lunged.

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Charlotte isn’t a bad dog. (Photo by Sassafras Lowrey)

This isn’t just a situation that happens in crowded waiting rooms. Last summer, we took our dogs on vacation to Cape Cod for a week of playing on the beach. We had walked far out at the low tide and were having a great time playing in the tide pools with our dogs. From far down the beach, I saw a large dog racing toward us. At first, I thought the dog was just chasing a ball along the beach, but it quickly became apparent that the dog was actually heading right to us.

I looked around for the dog’s parent. It wasn’t immediately clear who the dog belonged to, but I yelled out “please call your dog” to a group of people far up the beach, hoping one of them belonged to this dog. A woman turned around.

“She’s friendly!” the woman called back.

“Mine isn’t!” I yelled back, followed quickly by another request that she call her dog.

By now the dog was nearing us, and I was walking Charlotte out to sea (thankfully I was in a swimsuit), into the surf to try to put distance between her and the off-leash dog.

Turning around and seeing this, finally the woman called her dog, who of course (just like almost most of the dogs people allow off-leash) had no recall.

Finally, after several more times of me yelling for her to come get her dog (by now Charlotte was literally swimming) as I stood thigh deep in the ocean, the woman calmly walked over to her dog, who had not responded any of the dozens of times she had called.

“I don’t know what your problem is; you are more uptight than that dog.” Her words stung. Clearly, to her the problem was with me and with Charlotte, the leashed dog, who had done nothing wrong other than to be happy to go on a beach walk with her family, a beach that prohibited dogs being off-leash.

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Our family enjoying the beach. (Photo courtesy Sassafras Lowrey)

I have a little list of phrases I never want to hear called out when an off-leash dog races toward us, and the top of that list is “He’s friendly!” The way you look at Charlotte in these moments makes me angry, but mostly it makes me sad, because she’s under control and isn’t the problem, despite what you think.

I used to say to myself, “I hope your next dog is reactive so you understand.” But I’ve come to realize I wouldn’t wish people like YOU on a special-needs dog because the lack of awareness you show to your dog’s behavior shows me that you would never be able to create a safe and enriching life for a dog who needed you to be vigilant about the world around her.

It’s sad that I have to spend most of my time out in the world with Charlotte managing you and your dog, the “friendly” one, whose leash you aren’t holding.

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About the author: Sassafras Lowrey is a straight-edge queer punk who grew up to become the 2013 winner of the Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award. Her books—Kicked Out, Roving Pack, and Leather Ever After—have been honored by organizations ranging from the National Leather Association to the American Library Association.  Her latest novel Lost Boi a queer/punk retelling of Peter Pan was released from Arsenal Pulp Press in April 2015.  Sassafras is a certified trick dog instructor, and she assists with dog agility classes. Sassafras lives and writes in Brooklyn with her partner, two dogs of dramatically different sizes, two bossy cats, and a semi-feral kitten. She is always on the lookout for adventures with her canine pack.  www.SassafrasLowrey.com

14 thoughts on “The Hardest Part About Having a Reactive Dog Is Other Pet Parents”

  1. Well thank you for this article!!! It’s exactly how I feel about other pet parents….. I am working really hard at not taking our rescue, Gracies behaviour personally when others look at her unkindly- she has becomes more and more protective of me as she adjusts to her new life (off the streets of Mexico). She was clearly abused and is blind in one eye- it’s taken her a year and a half to be somewhat comfortable with men….. she and I are working together with a trainer (and our other 2 rescues). There are a few folks in our neighbourhood that just don’t get that we don’t have to have our dogs meet, or that their dogs need to be on a leash…. I have gotten extremely angry on 2 occasions (you could say that I was empathizing with Gracie as I was frightened and became “reactive!!). She still often growls when my husband comes down the stairs… it’s her “go to” reaction and she’s around 7 years old- I would imagine it takes a long time to unlearn behaviours that have aided her survival….

  2. Reading this makes me feel like I am not alone in having a dog that loves people but is reactive to dogs that are across the street or sidewalk. I adopted a 4 year old pit mix that is 45 pounds 5 months ago. She absolutely loves and adores people but is so reactive to dogs when we are on walks. She goes crazy with barking and trying to pull towards the other dog. We always cross the street. I do not think that she is aggressive as she was in playgroup at the shelter I got her at. I just really want her to be able to relax and enjoy walks even if we see another dog. I am also frustrated with the glares I get from owners with retractable leashes and uncontrollable dogs or loose dogs that run out of their yard and do not come when called.

  3. I take both my gsd dogs out with friends & their dogs in the morning they all get on very well even don’t mind new ones joining in I walk them & let them play for 2 hours, sometimes there’s been 15 dogs playing, but then in afternoon I take them out on their own but the 14 mth old has started barking & running at some dogs which I think she’s learnt it from my 3 yr old as she does what I call a chase me bark she’s not nasty but they both sound it, it’s wrong I know but don’t know how to stop it other than keep em on lead or not take em out in afternoon

  4. The problem isn’t just if you have a reactive dog. I have a large 7 month old golden doodle. Very adorable. But also very puppy. We are training him to be attentive to us and not jump on people. Well I can’t tell you how many times people walk up with their kids or dogs wanting to interact with him. Then he gets into a very excited state hat I will not entertain because all that teaches him is to be in this neurotic state when humans and dogs are around. They don’t understand that just minding their own business and ignoring actually helps train him. They literally rush up into our space. Now I do feel I have a moral duty not to be a jerk just because someone else is ignorant. I don’t think people are purposefully trying to impose. I just don’t think they have had to deal with these type of issues. And I’m glad for them. And every person I have refused to let pet my dog has been very understandable. But a las, it’s still awkward and it does make me feel bad.

  5. Right on. It drives me mad when people say “don’t worry, my dog’s friendly”. It’s not always about YOU and YOUR HAPPY, “FRIENDLY”, DOG. I wonder if this is a larger effect of a world in which people are increasingly becoming self-centered, and self-involved, with zero empathy or respect for the world AROUND THEM.

    I’d like to add that if I’m walking my dog and obviously trying to avoid you, PLEASE DO NOT FOLLOW ME, regardless of if your dog is leashed or un-leashed. Far too often I will have people follow me with their “friendly” dogs while I’m out walking my reactive pup. If it comes to it, and I get cornered by two different people with dogs on either side, I’m forced to yell back and say “can you please go in another direction, my dog needs space”. This yelling back then gets my dog upset and we spiral into a reactive moment. So please, if I’m giving you the side eye, staring hard at you and your dog, suddenly feeding my dog food while looking in your direction, or literally RUNNING AWAY from you, please do not follow me! Get a clue.

    To all the folks who wrote ugly comments in response to this article: As my trainer reminds me, we are all reactive to some degree — humans and animals alike. Do you make instant friends with every single person you have met in your life? Do you enjoy the sound of unannounced fire engines blaring in your ear as you walk down the street? Do you have things you are fearful of (spiders, deep waters, sharks, bees, darkness)?

    You react to these frightening things just like a reactive dog might react to something it doesn’t like – another dog, a person on a bike, a siren. We all react in different ways. Some cope better with their fears than others. Dogs are no different. Some cope beautifully, others become “reactive” by barking and lunging. There should be no call for euthanasia here just because we cope with our fears in different ways. Look beyond your cookie cutter view of what you think all dogs are supposed to act like.

    Additionally, we as humans forget that dogs have social norms too. Dogs meeting each other head-on or directly face-to-face is considered very rude in their world. Think of it this way, you’re walking in the park enjoying your stroll. Suddenly, I, a complete stranger, come running up to you and stop just short of the tip of your nose, Would you enjoy that? Would you invite me to coffee after and give me your number because we’re instant friends now?

    1. Well said. We were followed today and could not get away from them. We had to cross the street, and even then, they entered our space bubble with an active, aggressive pace, heading straight for us, and my dog became reactive, at the end of an otherwise successful walk, where I was able to keep my dog’s focus on me and instead of on other dogs. We then got an angry, hateful glare over my dog’s reaction to them. My dog did not bark, just jumped around on a short leash–she’s 65#. I had her otherwise under my control. It should have been obvious to them, given our actions as they followed us, that we were working and training, and clearly wanted space.

  6. Thank you for writing this article. It exactly describes our experience the first few year after we adopted our rescue husky, Meeko. Fortunately, 6 years later he is doing much better with other dogs, and now he mostly reacts only when people he doesn’t know get too close. I could never understand how people thought my leashed dog was the problem when theirs was running around off-leash in an area where that wasn’t allowed.

  7. Thank you so much for writing this post. I have a reactive rescue Bella and sometimes I feel so lonely and sad when I see other people’s friendly dogs playing away in the dog park while Bella and I watch from a distance. I am going to go on a solo trip to the beach over this weekend and I am so nervous. I always keep Bella on a leash and she is doing much better being around people and other dogs (at a safe distance). I almost thought about canceling the trip but I want Bella to experience the world and therefore I will be going.
    This article gives me hope and support.

  8. I appreciate this. My dog is not reactive for the most part, but doesn’t tolerate other dogs running up and knocking over or scaring “her” kid (my daughter). I get frustrated by the lack of respect people show for other people and their dogs. My dog is always leashed and under control. I wish other people would do the same, and allow all of us (reactive or not) to enjoy being.

  9. well said! we have the same issues. training has helped my special needs rescue pup a LOT, too, and maturity has also helped I think, but I always have to be on the lookout for others – we nearly always walk as early as possible, and fortunately we have a yard. it is hard to understand the obtuseness and downright rudeness of some!

  10. I have an EXTREMELY reactive Cairn Terrier LOL! Jackson will even jump out of his skin if a plant suddenly blows in the breeze next to him! Other dogs, small children, and anything with wheels are no-nos for him. I have often had to say to people who look like they want to approach him because he’s so cute that he is not friendly. For the most part, they seem to understand. But we’ve had a lot of people with other dogs over the years (he’s 11 1/2) that either insist on not leashing them (and we have a leash law in our town), or “want to bring their dog over to meet him, because they’re trying to socialize their dog”, and I have to say to them that he is not sociable and I don’t think that’s a good idea. We’ve had a couple that seem to think that they know better than I do, and then I just tell them that, if my dog bites their dog, I won’t be responsible. So needless to say, we try to go for walks when there is NOBODY around! I sympathize totally!

  11. Linda Carol Bronstein

    I have a reactive pitbull, she s much better then when I got her at 2years old , Lucy is now 5 years old and can walk by other dogs …we too love in nyc and it’s always other people that drive me nuts! Recently a man was walking a baby husky straight for us, I politely said “she’s not friendly” after 3 try’s , I yelled at him which also got lucy upset and he just stared at us like we were lepers…,really people????

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