Dogster Commentary
Share this image

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

I wrote about my reactive dog, Charlotte, and some commenters called my dog "dangerous" and said she should be euthanized. Let me better explain reactivity.

Sassafras Lowrey  |  Jun 7th 2017

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.