There Is a Difference Between a Reactive Dog and an Aggressive One


I now understand why some parents decide not to write about their kids, human or pet, or why they disguise their identities if they do. Recently, I wrote about my reactive dog, Charlotte, and how those who don’t follow leash laws make life more difficult for us. “The Hardest Part About Having a Reactive Dog Is Other Pet Parents” was the most-read article that week here on Dogster. The comments section went wild, and I got lots of email.

Some of the notes were incredible, beautiful accounts from others who share their lives with loving, happy dogs who also happen to be reactive. In the last few days, though, I’ve also received an increasing number of negative responses to the article, and it’s traumatizing to see some readers assert that my dog is unhappy, or should be euthanized, or should be taken away — all because I asked people to obey leash laws.

Charlotte, a reactive dog, plays in the snow.
My Charlotte. (Photo by Sassafras Lowrey)

Many of the expectations we have for dog behavior are based on social norms that make a lot of sense to people and don’t make any sense to dogs. For example, imagine being out for a walk in the park, admiring the trees and the flowers. Perhaps dipping your feet in a stream. You are walking with a close friend, sharing the lovely afternoon.

Now imagine that another person, someone you don’t know, comes running at you down the path. Imagine that they are yelling. Imagine that instead of running past you, they start grabbing at you and continue yelling only inches from your face. Imagine you turn to leave and they follow you, trying to jump on your back and continuing to yell.

Would you respond politely to this person? Perhaps ask if they wanted to play basketball on the nearby court? Not likely. You would probably curse at and push the stranger away, and then call the police. This scenario sounds ridiculous, but it’s actually the situation that dogs are put into on a regular basis when dog parents break leash laws and permit their dogs to harass others.

It bothered me that some commenters asserted that my “bad” dog’s special needs were ruining their “good” dog’s fun, even if that fun violated leash laws. But the thing is, I could just as easily written the article about Mercury, my 14-year-old 10-pound dog. He isn’t reactive; he is bombproof and a retired working dog. I’ve had him since he was 8 weeks old, and Mercury has wonderful socialization skills — and he’s also going blind, so he doesn’t want to meet your out-of-control off-leash dog.

Because of his exceptional temperament, though, Mercury won’t react inappropriately (though he would be justified in doing so), but he also won’t enjoy engagement with an off-the-leash dog, and he shouldn’t be forced to because some pet parents don’t understand the value of leash laws. Not obeying leash laws could even be deadly in my situation. It would be very easy for a large, out-of-control dog to seriously injure or even kill my very small geriatric dog, no matter how “friendly” the dog is. Does this mean my dog doesn’t deserve to walk in the park? That he should be relegated to a backyard somewhere for his safety?

Charlotte, a reactive dog, goes for a hike with another dog.
Charlotte and Mercury. (Photo by Sassafras Lowrey)

But this isn’t about Mercury, this is about Charlotte, and I feel the need to educate and dispel myths about reactivity because in some comments, she’s been labeled as a “bad” or “dangerous” dog when she has never done anything aggressive. I think there are misunderstandings about dog behavior and its terminology.

What does reactivity mean? Charlotte lives happily with another dog and three cats, and she can selectively meet other dogs with appropriate temperaments in appropriate settings — and an appropriate setting is never being ambushed by an out-of-control off-leash dog. Charlotte has never attacked another dog, she has a zero bite-history, and is not reactive to people (which are all accusations made against her in the comments). We worked closely with a trainer, she attends training classes, and, most important, she is not stressed or distressed by her environment. Reactivity is often based in fear; it’s about heightened arousal.

Reactive dogs may bark, lunge, or vocalize when pushed beyond their threshold, what they can comfortably handle. For some dogs, that’s a strange dog as far as a football field away. For others, it’s a dog being on the same sidewalk. When a dog reacts, he is saying, “Give me space!”

Those of us with reactive dogs spend a lot of time thinking about how to ensure our dogs will be successful in a given situation. So, for example, I might choose to wait outside the vet clinic for our appointment because Charlotte can sit quietly and relax, as opposed to being in a crowded waiting room with other dogs in close proximity, whose owners may or may not be watching what their dogs are doing.

One of the core aspects of training a reactive dog is not punishing them for behavior we don’t like, but working together to create new, positive associations with seeing other dogs, and teaching new behaviors such as sitting and watching their handler to replace less desirable behaviors.

Charlotte, a reactive dog, outdoors.
Happy Charlotte. (Photo by Sassafras Lowrey)

This is not the face of a stressed-out or unhappy dog. I’ve had dogs all of my life, and I’ve worked in doggie daycare and competed in dog sports. Charlotte stands out as one of the happiest dogs I have ever known. The first year of her life living on the streets, where her puppies were born, must gave been horrific. I can’t change her past, but I can do everything in my power to ensure her tomorrows are bright and filled with fun.

My goal as Charlotte’s parent is to make the world as large as possible because it brings her joy to go for walks and to visit new environments, and it’s good for her continued training. What doesn’t help reactive dogs improve is to be locked away in backyards. Reactive dogs are not bad or dangerous dogs; they just need training and resocialization. They, like every other dog, should be able to have their personal space respected so they can focus on the new skills they are learning.

Read more commentary:

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.

42 thoughts on “There Is a Difference Between a Reactive Dog and an Aggressive One”

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  2. Hey….
    I just wanted to thank you for this article.
    My rescue dog has been attacked twice now,
    Once by her bigger older sister (before I rescued her) and once by her bigger older brother (2 years after rescuing her) she is perfectly fine meeting small doggos and even calm doggos her size but anything if a dog her seize or bigger gets too in her face (leash or no leash) she reacts with a growl or a lunge. I’ve always believed that dogs need to be leashed ( unless it’s an unleashed park) and having this absolutely beautiful sweet girl has made me believe this so much more. Having dogs running at us and their owners yelling “it’s okay they’re friendly” doesn’t make situations better, she feels threatened so she’s going to react which in turn could cause your dog to react. Please! Leash your dogs! I won’t take mine to an offleashed area so please only bring your dog to a leashed are if it is in fact leashed!

  3. Thank you for writing this!
    I also have a reactive dog but he’s also reactive towards humans. He was disciplined by a complete stranger in our unfenced yard as a puppy because he was barking, and has never been the same since. He barks and growls, but because he is a small cute Havanese people disobey my words and continue to approach him. It’s so frustrating when people say our dogs aren’t normal, or need to suck it up and get over their fears, when those same people are the ones who push our dogs too far. It’s a constant battle that I wish I didn’t have to face but do because like you said “I want my dog to have the whole world!” He’s the sweetest little fella but because of a million bad incidents people think he should be put away.

  4. I have new 4 y.o. bichon mix rescue. She is reactive mostly to people, down street walking from car, or rhe woman walking past her in lot. Tulip lunged and nipped ladys coat. I dont know what to do. Quotes of hundreds of dollars for behavior visits. She is lovable. Is she protecting me?

  5. My husband and I are getting a divorce and I have a 21 year old daughter from a previous relationship and my husband and I have a 5 year old daughter. We also have a 13 year old mix breed female (Lily). I have been in her life since she was about 1.5. So when my husband and I separated, we decided that we didn’t want to separate Lily from our 5 year old. They are very close. (it is so cute to watch Lily do her bed check routine to make sure both girls are safe). Well, I didn’t know much about dogs before and my husband kind of took care of that. Well since the separation I have had a crash course, and part of that is walking, especially older dogs. Now I have Lupus – so day walking is out of the question. So we go walking in the evening. I got a light up leash so she can be seen (she is a pitch black dog), and we have our usual walking route and we stop for water at least 2 times. Now 99% of the dog owners in our subdivision use leashes, thankfully, but there was this incident that happened, and it was not the owners fault. He had walked out to get something in his car and thought he secured the door behind him. I don’t think it latched and so his dog nosed his way outside. His dog is part Rottweiler, Pit and something else. It is a security dog. Well the dog took off for us, barking and snarling and just very aggressive because he felt we were on his territory. My dog (who is quite tall – think Doberman or Black Lab) – well she calmly just moves in front of me – not like head on, but in a way that her entire body is blocking my body. She made not one noise and it wasn’t until the dog was in a very very close proximity that her fur started standing on end and she bared her teeth. The owner got his dog by this time and got him back inside. As soon as the dog was no longer aggressive, Lily moved to my side, started panting and was just her normal self. The owner came to apologize, and she was licking his hand, he said he had never seen a dog stand so still when another dog was approaching that aggressively. There was another incident a couple of years ago, we were walking with our five year old (she was 3 at the time) and this owner was walking this Collie without a leash. Well the Collie took off towards us when it saw Lily, wasn’t really aggressive, just more – oh look a dog type. Well the only time I have seen Lily aggressive was then. She was down on her haunches – her fur standing up – teeth barred and she was barking. She made no move towards this dog but it was a very clear message of – stay away. Well it stopped the dog short and as soon as the owner got his dog under control and put him on a leash (it was in his pocket which I still don’t get) – Lily was back to normal and perfectly fine.
    We will go on walks and we will interact with dogs on leashes and as long as they aren’t behaving aggressively she is fine, they do the customary sniffing, etc. I have friends with dogs that come over and everyone plays great together. We can go to dog parks with no problem. It is just when a leashless dog is approaching us in an overly aggressive manner that Lily reacts. And she reacts much more aggressively when our 5 year old is around than when it is just her and I. She usually just walks by my side and sniffs and just enjoys being out.
    I think that leashes are important and if you want your dog to have exercise but don’t want to put it on a leash, then go to a dog park. Where we live, we have coyotes, boars, venomous snakes, etc. In addition, we have people that drive speeding like crazy (in a neighborhood!!) – and dogs can get so focused on a scent that they aren’t paying attention to stuff like a car. Leashes are important. Leash training I think is important though I don’t know how it is done.

    I can tell when the coyotes are out because Lily will refuse to go on our walks, and it is the only time she pulls me. She wants to get back home.

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  7. I completely agree. My dog is the calmest dog I have ever seen. Recently I let a friend move in so he wasn’t homeless. He has two dog one very aggressive that we keep apart. The other was not socialized. The dog that wasn’t socialized has been pushing my dog past her comfort zone for awhile and not picking up on my dogs social cues to back off. Then his dog did something to her when she was laying down causing her to react. She jumped at him and made a lot of noise and open mouth like she was going to bite but never bite. She was just warning him enough is enough. Now this person is trying to say my dog has dog aggression. My dog was socialized when she was a puppy. Before we got her she lived with two other dogs. She has never had any trouble with other dogs at the dog park. We have two cats. One she is fine with and the other she is scared of and stays away from. The cat doesn’t like her because she is always wagging her tail because she is happy and her tail is at the same height as the cats head so the cat gets a tail in the face. It is my fault before hers because I didn’t understand that dogs have social expectations just like we do. Also that just because my dog is socialized doesn’t mean she is ok with dogs that are not. Just like humans if you cross the line too much or too many times we react too. If I had another person in my face eating my food for two weeks I would snap out of desperation too. Lesson learned that I need to protect my dog from unsocilized dogs.

  8. I have a well behaved dog – 3 of 4 neighbors have well behaved dogs, and there is 1 neighbor with now 4 dogs (1 bit me when I tried to pet it – won’t do that again) — these dogs bark, growl and are aggressive (they are in the small side – 3 of them) but so irritating – go to your yard (bark, bark, bark, bark), get your mail (bark, bark, bark), get your groceries, go to your car (bark, bark, bark, bark) – soooo annoying – I understand barking at strangers, but not neighbors – it is a complete nuisance and so unfair to all those that trained their dogs. The neighbor explains one is a sad, mad rescue dog – empathy extended but do I still have to listen to belligerent barking?

  9. Theresa Helkowski

    I appreciate your efforts to teach all about leash laws and reactive dogs. I just rescued a dog who I’m finding out is reactive. Doggie school is on the calendar. I thank you for giving me hope that our wonderful dog can soon learn that other dogs are not a reason to be afraid.

  10. I do have to add one more thing. After we got Lily, and stupidly tried to just acclimate her our own, she was still getting hackles and things around other new dogs off leash at home, though that would be it. After a few years not putting her near other dogs when she on leash, she doesn’t even hackle anymore for new dogs. In fact, the doggies through the fence behind us she had never met before, and she was delighted to meet them and did her “I LOVE YOU SO MUCH PLEASE COME PLAY WITH ME” whine/call to them, which I don’t think she ever would have done years ago to two new, strange dogs.
    One also reacted at her through the fence another time, and she didn’t react back! I take from that, that the more you don’t force reactive dogs into scary situations, the more safe they feel in general. So really it’s to everyone’s advantage to keep their dogs leashed. Less reactive dogs! Plus, for every few dogs off leash, one mauls a dog, causing that dog to become reactive when he wasn’t before.
    You can always tell those snotty people that your dog is reactive because she was attacked by an off leash dog when she was leashed and couldn’t escape, and that the attacker was supposedly “friendly.” Happens all the time. Maybe people don’t want to expose their dog to that risk since so many people are wrong about their dogs.

  11. Urgh I hate that. We have the best dog EVER with other dogs, with one caveat. At daycare, she is perfect with all sizes, ages, just perfect. Her one time she isn’t good with other dogs is when she’s on leash and meeting a dog she doesn’t know. We quickly learned she had leash reactivity (probably also a result of her time as s stray when she likely had puppies also.)
    It’s weird, and the trainers think it’s weird too, because it’s only with dogs she doesn’t know. If she’s ever met the before, she’s totally fine on leash.

    It’s so hard to help get her acclimated to the world when I’m constantly afraid a dog is going to run up to us. She has separation anxiety, and she’s great with people, and only reactive if a dog comes up to her on leash, so we thought it wouldn’t be that tricky to keep her from interacting with dogs on leash.
    NOT so. Once I took her in a little hardware store, not wanting to leave her in the hot car, and then this off leash dog zoomed in. I grabbed Lily, and tried to use my other hand to keep the dog at bay, and I begged somebody to grab the other dog so I could get Lily out. I told them, she’s leash reactive, she could get bite, and they all just stared at me. The workers, the dog owner, everyone. Then one of the workers suggested I just let Lily off leash, when she was probably already aroused. I was crying by the time another employee came out from the back, saw what was going on and instructed the other to hold the dog so I could get Lily out. I left my purse and all my things scatter around the floor, and carried her to the car, crying.

    She may well have been just fine since it wasn’t a large dog, but if you have a reactive dog, you can’t take any chances. We tried to just gradually acclimate her to dogs on leash before, and our poor decision led to her becoming more anxious and actually biting a dog.

    People don’t seem to understand, lots of perfectly good dogs, even ones without reactivity, aren’t going to like dogs running up to them. At the doggie daycare I worked at, we had a strict rule about dogs not being leashed in the same compartment. MANY dogs will become territorial around their owner, or after they are leashed. And these are just the dogs that are otherwise fine around other dogs. And that’s not to mention other canine siblings being around, property guarding, maybe some of the family kids being there.

    I’d say 75% percent of dogs may become aggressive with other dogs at some point for some reason. Should those 75% never be able to go on walks so other people can allow their dogs to illegally run wild? There is a reason there are leash laws. Great article. Thank you so much for speaking out on behalf of those dogs that do become fearful in certain situations.

  12. I was walking my two pitbulls like I do all the time on my street . They have been around children and all types of animals since they were puppies have never been aggressive. In fact they were around my friends dogs the weekend before. I see my neighbors door open and her boxer run Out of her house directly charging us . I froze . I didn’t want to start running in fear that it would chase us. the dog runs up right into my dogs faces immediately a dogfight . At this point they are all 3 fighting. Because of all the chaos And being an animal lover i try to break it up. My male dog let’s go and then it is just the two female dogs . It finally gets broken up . At this point we called animal control and they come out and do a report. That dog charged at me and my dogs! My dogs were Provoked or protecting me . They did not know this dog and it came up so fast not in a friendly manner. The boxer did go to the vet and treated so did my dogs. My neighbor wants me to pay for their vet bill! And suing me!! I was doing was walking my dogs on a leash. Now because their dog was injured because my dogs reacted to a loose dog coming after me. Who is at fault?

    1. Hi there,
      Sorry to hear this. These pieces might provide some insight:

  13. As stated before, any dog can be in a situation where they can bite another dog or a person. Regardless of training or temperament. That’s why there are leash laws. Period. It’s nothing to do with my dog is good and yours is bad. There are off leash areas where dog owners can go. As far as giving a morality lesson to other dog owners – pft.

    Thanks for your article. I had a recent experience at the park with a couple who were running with there dog off leash. My dog went crazy (not only could he not play with the dog but it was running away). He occasionally starts choking when he’s barking and highly excited. The couple and their dog stopped and stared as if I was choking him. Now this may have been genuine concern but it clearly excited my dog even more and was not helpful. Anyway, it all worked out when a puppy walked by and my dog started to play with it. Sigh. We don’t expect the world to cater to us. We look for places to do gentle but fast emergency uturns. We learn how to positively reinforce our dog while trying not to scare the bejeezus out of our neighbor’s dog. Thanks to all the supportive and informed dog owners.

  14. I’m the owner of the dog who is BOTH reactive and aggresive. He was perfectly socialized, sweet, people-loving pooh and when he hit 8 months, he just started to hate strangers. He has no regrets when it comes to biting people. And still, he’s NEVER bitten anyone outside of training situation (this is working dog). It takes some common sense, some training and in the end of day, reactivity and aggresion are just some features of the dog. We started to love lambs instead of dogs and that’s beyond me.
    This saying, many times I was attacked by “normal” dog, who was just running around without much supervision, because “it is not aggresive” (and that’s true – most of time he just not socialized well and scared like hell of everything). But when it comes to dog aggresion, I’m higher on the scale than my boy. 😉

  15. No one understands the difficulties having a reactive/fearful dog. My “ love bug” aka Tilly is from Puerto Rico and they found her at almost a year old. She came over here to the states and was at a rescue for 7 months before I adopted her. It’s just like the children I work with, being a school counselor. It takes trust, love, and patience. In my eyes wounded animals are just like wounded children. My dog is absolutely amazing, she has learned 10+ commands in 3 weeks, is jumping jumps and is the most loving dog I’ve ever owned. She looks into my eyes and stares at me with the most admiration I’ve ever felt. She is like a wounded child, I don’t know what she has been through but I can only guess. Every day is one step closer to the goals I believe she can achieve. We go out for a walk and I’ve learned how to navigate the world for her so she does not become reactive. If we can get through a walk without her lunging or barking I get so excited as if she was a baby and she took her first steps. We have to remember that these behaviors are for a reason. She is fearful, something had happened to her that has caused her to be this way but I believe in time, with her ability to trust humans and build positive experiences will become a more well rounded , trusting creature. People that allow their dogs to roam without a leash in public are disrespectful and are ignorant of the fact that there are dogs that have been through trauma need space. It’s irresponsible and can disrupt the lives of our reactive dogs that we work so hard to get to a point where they can leave a somewhat peaceful life.

  16. Hi , I agree with everything you just said , because I personally have had a similar experience which now makes me feel uneasy walking my dog at our nearby park/trail. As we were walking back to the car an off leash boxer came running from around the corner and honestly scared both of us, my dog practically lost it , as I waited there not knowing what to do the owner comes walking around the corner, clearly way behind , and does not even say or acknowledge the situation that had just happened. This is why I feel uneasy , when I shared this with a close friend I also used the human scenario , imagine if a person came charging at you full speed while you where on a call walk. Anyways, thank you for writing this article , I think a lot of dog owners should read this & take into consideration how their “off leash” dog may potentially ruin another dogs walk in the park.

  17. I recently rescued a people/kid reactive Cane Corso pup. She barks at them as she’s hiding behind me. And she’s got a huge bark on her. Shes about 8 months old now and getting better but I’ve had people say that she needs to be put down because she’s aggressive. One lady actually told me that dogs like mine couldnt feel love and should all just be killed. She’s the sweetest pup ever once you get to know her and she becomes friends with you. She loves other dogs cats,bunnies any animal really.

    We just started B.A.T and L.A.T Training. Weve only been doing it for about a week but already the change is amazing. I can have her out in my front yard now with people walking by and my dog not lose her mind. And some people she will go right up to herself now and make friends.

    Its about giving the dogs a chance, know what youre dealing with and keeping everyone safe.

  18. I wanted to just stop in after reading your post to tell you that I understand what you are going through with your reactive dog, and I am sorry people are saying such horrible things to you.

    And then, I read the other comments, and I have to say, this one made me crack up: “Instead, you could have petted strange dog and held it until owner came.”

    I’m imagining holding back my 90 lb reactive dog, while he lunges, throws himself into the air, barks, and pulls me from my feet, and oh, right, I’ll just reach out and pet the dog that caused all that until its owner can come get it. Yeah, sure, right after I spray it with citronella, climb up from the pavement, wipe the blood from my scraped knees and elbows, and somehow get my dog out of there without the two of them getting into a fight.

    Sounds plausible to me.

  19. In response to Oswyn, you really need to get a better handle on the world around you if that is how you think. It does not matter if dogs are not aggressive when off a leash or not. There are laws in place to keep other dogs, and people, safe…just as cs has stated. To be perfectly honest, I, as a human, would not want some stray dog running up to me “because it wants to be friendly and interact”. I am going to push it away, which will most likely cause it to turn more aggressive. I will tell the owner to get their beast away from me. Keep it on a leash or I will call the cops, plain and simple. Just as people should not be forced to interact with other people if they do not want to, so the same goes for dogs. The writer here keeps her dog on a leash and runs their life in a certain way to ensure her dog stays happy. Good for her.

    Oswyn, I certainly hope you do not own a big dog…especially dogs that are known for being strong and vicious when they finally do attack someone or something. It will be YOUR fault when it happens, based on what you have said here. I hope you can live with that.

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  22. Not long ago i was at the dog park with my adult Pitt, he is a sweetie and never has any issues with other dogs.. There was a guy there with a newly rescued pitt, he had his dog on a leash and stayed outside the fence. walking around and getting the dog accustomed to all the noise and chaos. We spoke and i was comfortable letting our dogs interact, both were on leash and after some barking and whining they were able to hang out, sniff each other and just be dogs while the other owner and i chatted.. 15 minutes later a woman pulled into the parking lot with her jack russell, he was off leash and all over the place. He was zooming around yapping like crazy as she dug in her trunk for a tennis ball or something.. The pitt owner yelled for her to grab her dog, that his dog wasn’t friendly, to please keep her dog away.. she said “oh its ok, he just wants to play”, 15 seconds later her dog charges over barking and in a flash was snatched up, shaken and dead.. She of course looses her mind, screaming, calls 911.. animal control shows up and the guys exact words were “was your dog on a leash? no, well thats dogs being dogs, its why we have leash laws.. bye” and leaves..

  23. I have a reactive border collie. I explain her to have “anxiety” & the aggression is “fear” driven. Once friendship is established with her, she is just like any other dog.
    An aggressive dog is just that. Aggressive. No exceptions

  24. Until you own a reactive dog, you have no idea. I was one of the people who would call out “it’s ok, my dog is friendly” as I let my last dog run off lead. My new rescue is reactive to certain other dogs, on some days to all dogs, and she is always on a leash in parks and on the road, and sometimes also in a muzzle (in this house, called the treat machine) as I would never take a chance that in her reactivity she would hurt anything else. We attended growly classes and I learned how to help her to cope by not forcing her into situations she can’t handle and learned ways to help her to begin to see things differently, but I know it’s going to take time. We walk early and late. We were at a small beach cove just yesterday, where we had the whole place to ourselves and where she could run over the rocks off lead, and we practiced her recall and she was the best! (bragging now). We had the best time. Someone said to me once, and it’s true of everybody I think that owns a reactive dog or any special needs dog, God only sends these special ones to the people that will love them, so it’s an honour. Thank you for your post and I wish you and Charlotte lots and lots of joy.

  25. I have worked in the animal health field for over 25 years and have seen reactive and aggressive dogs both. There is a clear difference in the two that people with a good understanding of dog behavior can see. However, unfortunately, many people, even good dog owners, cannot determine that difference. We, as the owners of reactive dogs need to try to always set our pups up for success rather than failure. I am lucky in that I live in a very small sub where most people keep their dogs leashed or contained to their yards, so my reactive, cowardly pup is rarely faced with the challenge of unknown dogs in close proximity. We have 2 acres enclosed in an underground fence system that our 2 dogs have free roam of. They respect the fence boundaries, but the reactive one, Liberty Bell, will attempt to chase off any stray that enters our property. She has never bitten and loves her housemate, Mina and every person she has ever encountered. She was a rescue puppy so her early life is unknown to us, but since she has been in our life, since the age of 4 months, she has been socialized to many different dogs. She went to work with me, at the vet clinic, every day until she was about 8 months old and her reactivity has not really improved. She is better if Mina is with her to “have her back” and she is great with dogs that she has been allowed to slowly get to know on her own terms. She is, as you said Charlotte is, a very happy dog and I would be highly offended if someone suggested otherwise and said she should be euthanized. Leash laws are there for a reason, for the safety of ALL dogs and people. I don’t know why anyone would want their dog off leash in a public populated place with so many unknowns. Other dogs, people, cars, wildlife, toxins, and foreign objects are all potential hazzards that could cause life threatening injury to your pet. Why take that chance when it can so easily be avoided by just keeping your dog under your direct supervision on leash! Keep up the good work with Charlotte and know that others are with you and do understand!

  26. I’m sorry for response above from Oswyn. It must be hurtful even when dog behaviour knowledge is clearly lacking. Know that these people do not represent everyone; but sadly they are far too common 🙁

  27. You are reinforcing your dogs negative behavior. Negative as in she is afraid when there is no danger, so she suffering unnecessarily.
    1. If your dog would attack another dog beyond the point of chasing them away, your dog is aggressive and you need to work on that. You say this is not the case. I believe you.
    2. If dogs that are off leash are aggressive, I agree, they need to be controlled and trained.
    3. If your dog cannot deal with normal social behavior among dogs it is detrimental if you coddle your dog into never having to address this. A strange dog wants to say hello. Your dog is not into that and shows that. A normally socialized dog will back off OR LEARN to back off. Dogs can work things out UNLESS you act all weird and neurotic yourself, enforcing your dogs fears. Your dog follows your lead. Instead, you could have petted strange dog and held it until owner came.
    Only when both dogs are in enclosed spaces where they cannot back off and both have issues do they need to be that tightly controlled. Again, I get that this is an extreme situation at the vet, but it can be trained. If not, you are the problem, not even your dog, and definitely not all the dogs who just happily dog around. Only you put your dog in this situation, no one else is responsible for this.
    Yes, it is perfectly fine for your dog to not be into strange dogs. Yes, of course all of this is a process and does not go perfect or fast. But your are asking the entire world to cater to your needs and realistically you know this is not going to work. You also do not help your dog in being less afraid but nurturing her neurosis, which ultimately hurts her. There is a big difference between not wanting to be around other dogs and being terrified every time she encounters a dog just doing normal dog things. Charlotte can learn to stand up for herself in an appropriate manner. Often, getting a well trained dog to assist her is helpful (one that respects her boundaries without her having to go overboard so she learns that she has control over her space).
    My family has fostered dozens of shelter dogs over many years and we could not have saved as many as we did had we not addressed issues like the one you are describing as we routinely foster several dogs plus our own rescues.
    I wish you and Charlotte the best of luck!

    1. You are incorrect about a lot of this, and I hope you will consult with a trainer or behaviorist before you continue telling people this. It is incredibly dangerous. We tried to do this with our leash reactive dog, and as a result she bit another dog, causing three stitches.

      She is also a rescue stray, does wonderfully with other dogs off leash. Perfectly. No matter what. Only when she is on-leash is she reactive. So we tried to gradually introduce her to dogs on leash over the first year we had her. We made sure to always have positive calm energy, and we thought we were making progression. And then she bit another dog, for little reason, who needed stitches because of it.

      That’s when we hired several trainers and behaviorist. All agreed that what we had been doing was very dangerous for her, and trying to acclimate her like that made it worse. All agreed that if we had continued to try that, she would’ve bitten again, and probably much worse. They all said to never try introducing her to another dog when she’s leashed, ever unless a trainer wants to and is right there.

      What we had been doing is pushing her over threshold. It doesn’t matter that we were comfortable having her meet dogs on leash, she was not comfortable, she was scared, and when we kept throwing her into that situation, it just made her more anxious about meeting dogs on leash.

      Lots of dogs have lots of issues that can be fixed through acclimation and positive reinforcement. However, severe anxiety issues, or anything involving aggression can be made worse. Please don’t try to just do it yourself with reactivity.

      And dogs definitely don’t just “work it out themselves” all of the time or even most of the time. I used to work at a doggy daycare. The “they’ll work it out” myth is an incredibly dangerous one.

    2. I can tell you do not have science based education about animal behavior, but do know some older methodologies. It is true that sometimes a confident dog helps one that isn’t and I sometimes recommend that. However, leash laws should be upheld and not be forgiven even with well behaved dogs as it gives permission to others (they let their dog off a leash, so I can too attitude). Since you obviously care about animals, and foster (thank you for fostering!) please research further from more recent academic publications. You will find so much information and data that debunks old methodologies, will help you understand socialization and anxieties better and learn how to cope—especially with rescues that may not have been socialized during critical phases.

    3. I completely disagree with your comments, Oswyn. Also, dogs should be leashed. Period. It’s common courtesy and the LAW.

  28. I have a reactive dog that I have learned so much from! I have learned her reactivity, like you said, is based from fear not aggression. Most importantly , I have learned it is my job to keep her safe and monitor situations she is in. People who let their dogs run free and off leash at parks and on the streets ruin all of our fun. Thanks for the article, I can honestly say- those critics and haters of your first article need to own and love a reactive dog to truly understand….

  29. Maribeth Topalanchik

    I think it’s sad…so many dogs don’t even make it out of the shelter for this very reason. It’s not aggression. Every dog I’ve brought home or fostered/adopted had some form of reactivity. I work with it not against it. I don’t put myself or them in situations that will stress them if I can help it.
    When they come to me we do a 2 week shutdown and crate rotation. They are fed in their crate and even in some severe cases I don’t even leave water down. It takes a lot of time and energy to acclimate a dog to be a dog again after neglect or abandonment and maybe some will never be “perfect”. People aren’t perfect either and I think in general, we have to get over the idea that you can shove a square peg in a round hole. Dogs are not one size fits all. They are a huge commitment of time, energy, finances and yes LOVE.

  30. I thought your previous article “The Hardest Part About Having a Reactive Dog Is Other Pet Parents” was great.
    I have a reactive dog, when meeting humans, he is the most lovable and happiest dog ever. He’s wiggling, tail doing it’s helicopter spin, and his eyes are smiling while his wrinkles slide to the back of his head while he waits for attention.
    But… if it’s another dog, it’s a different story. He has no problems with small size/toy size dogs, and for some reason Golden Retrievers don’t cause him much concern, but if dogs his size or larger (especially intact/non-fixed males) come around, he’s immediately on alert & will become territorial. He was raised with dogs, he’s never shown aggression towards them, nor my sister’s or friend’s Retrievers, or anyone’s tiny dogs. He was attacked by roaming dogs a couple times as a pup while outside in the yard. Once he could have lost his life. And even after that, we managed to calm his reactiveness, and have him warm up & accept my brother’s mastiff mix. But one day, while Folsom (my dog, a Shar Pei) slept, for some reason my brother’s dog attacked him, he flopped him around by the neck like a baby seal. We think maybe he was holding a grudge from the first couple times we introduced them when Folsom was the one being aggressive or territorial, and he decided to finally show Folsom who was the big dog. After that, it was back to stage one with managing his reactiveness towards other large non-family owned dogs.
    I hate having to always keep my dog on a lead in my very large yard, and to always have to be outside even if he just needs to pee & it’s storming, because the vast majority of other dog owners in my community don’t leash their dogs ever & they don’t keep them at home, so they’re freely roaming whenever they please. They often run in packs, especially when a female is in heat. I cannot take the chance for even 5mins to leave my dog outside unattended in case another dog comes through our yard & ends up in a fight with mine. I routinely request that ppl keep their dogs at home, out of my yard, or at very least on a leash if they’re near my place. I explain that although my dog loves humans to no end, that he is often dog-aggressive, and reacts strongly when strange dogs are in our yard (or his “bubble”). I have gone from politely requesting, to pleading, to demanding, and then warning ppl that if I see stray, roaming, uncollared/tagged dogs in my yard, that I will shoot them so they learn to stay away. And by shooting I mean with paintballs, because I couldn’t kill a dog. But I figure if they go home marked, their owners can stop claiming it’s not their dog(s) who are out roaming the roads, and making it unsafe for ppl, children, & other supervised dogs/animals outside trying to get their exercise. Folsom will be attending a training program to help deal specifically with his reactiveness towards other dogs. It’s quite expensive, but I know it will be worth it. Nobody believes me that he can react so aggressively to another dog, because they only see him at home, or with his humans, or his dog family & friends which he’s been raised with or introduced properly to – until they’ve actually been witness to when a strange dog comes around. I haven’t had the experience where ppl accuse me of him being unhappy, mistreated, or somehow made that way by me, and certainly never told I should put him down. I would be pretty upset if that happened.
    Dogs are like humans, they all have their own personalities, a life time of experiences that have shaped them in some way, and have contributed to how they behave or react in certain situations, and their reactions have a wide range between positive and negative just like us. We don’t always get the perfect polite, or easily introduced/ accepting pup. Sometimes we get the moody or teen angsty one, sometimes they’ve been abused, or they’ve been traumatized from some event which causes some behaviour concerns. And that’s when we have to put extra effort into helping them adapt, and that includes holding other ppl accountable for the control & care of their dogs.
    Thank you for your articles, I have found them quite helpful in understanding dog behaviour, Folsom is the first reactive dog I’ve ever had in my life, and we’ve had a lot of animals in our family growing up & as an adult. I would never give up on him because he didn’t turn out as perfect as I imagined he would. He just needs patience, understanding and support. And love.

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