How to Broach the Subject of Reactivity Without Demonizing Your Dog

I fear I have done Shiva a disservice with the dogs in our neighbourhood. In a way, I guess it’s impressive it took me a whole eight months to damage her reputation at the dog park. In our old walking grounds, I had it demolished within a week.

Why don't the other dogs want to play with me?

Why don’t the other dogs want to play with me?

Maybe I am exaggerating slightly. She kind of ruined it herself in those early days, what with the growling and lunging and general trying to eat people. This time, though, she didn’t do anything. It’s all on me.

We have a dog park that is really more of an off-leash, quasi-trail system but mostly-bush-wacking, area just a few blocks from our home. It’s pretty dang awesome. Understandably, about half of the walks Shiva and I take each week are enjoyed there. I especially love the early mornings when it’s quiet and we have only the moon and Shiva’s little collar light to guide our way. It’s a popular spot with local dog walkers for obvious reasons. In the week day mornings there is only one other dog-human team we ever see because not too many people are nutty enough to get up before six am. But we do see this other dog-human team almost every time we visit.

Usually this would bother my anti-social senses. In this case, I actually like the fact we aren’t alone out there. The other dog walker keeps to himself and his two dogs – one black lab mix, one white poodle mix – get along really well with Shiva. We always stop to let the dogs run around together for a few minutes before continuing on our way. It was the perfect situation.

Until I had to go and screw it up.

020The other day, the main path to the park was pretty slick. Tired of navigating ice patches, I decided to head back home sooner than usual. As we returned to the gate and the car park, I clipped Shiva back on her leash. I noticed the man and his two dogs, Slim and Sam, were just up ahead. He was trying to wrangle them up and herd them into his vehicle. Of course, when they saw Shiva they ignored their recall and zoomed over.

Totally not a big deal. It happens to all of us. The only minor worry was that Shiva is not as easy-going on leash as she is off. She hasn’t reacted to another dog in a really long time but if she is going to, it will be in a scenario much like this one.

Since I know my dog, I knew if I just kept moving she would be okay. And she was! I had treats ready to distract however she showed very few signs of stress. She didn’t like the smaller dog rushing into her face and she gave him a few signals to that effect but otherwise, she handled it with grace.

The problem – or my moment of shame – arose when the man approached us to collect his dog. Shiva went on alert and gave him a stare. She refused to look away from him and didn’t respond to my silly, happy voice. In that moment, I felt I only had a few seconds to prevent her from lunging.

Shiva has always been far more reactive with people than with dogs. Especially people, often men, who walk right in her direction, with full eye contact, while she is on a leash. If she had been off-leash and able to move away, I wouldn’t have worried. But she was on – and already a little annoyed with the other dog. It is a situation that always makes me nervous.

As the man came up to us to take his dog by the collar, Shiva moved toward him. It happened too fast for me to really take in the details of her body language. There was no lunging. She merely took a few quick steps and started sniffing his leg. Heck, she might have wagged her tail for all I can recall. He said something to her, I think, but I was already in full handler-of-a-reactive-dog mode.

“Ha, ha, ha!” I am pretty sure I laughed like a moron. “Gotta go! So sorry! She’s a different dog on leash! Ha, ha, ha! Can’t have her freaking out! Ha!”

And then I booted it home.

Since that awkward moment, we have returned to the park several times and I have seen the man’s car in the lot. Only we haven’t seen him or his dogs, not even once. This distresses me greatly. The park is not that big. Besides, he only ever went in one direction all the other times I saw him there. I am pretty sure he is avoiding us. My weird, panicky moment might have cost Shiva her friends. If so, that really sucks. She doesn’t have that many to lose.


Maybe I am wrong? Maybe it’s just all a coincidence? Maybe he doesn’t think I am weird and my dog a crazy monster? Am I just being over-sensitive?

No doubt it is a resounding yes, at least to the last question. If he is avoiding us because of my strange behaviour or any worries Shiva is “dangerous”, it’s not the end of the world. I should probably not care what he thinks anyway. Life goes on.

But I wonder if others have had trouble explaining reactivity to others who might not understand. The above scenario has played out for us in various ways before. I feel like I have to say something if the worst happens but I never know how to word it to keep Shiva’s positive reputation intact. She really is fine with people and dogs when off-leash. It’s only when on that there might be complications. I am unsure how to communicate this quickly without sounding like an idiot with a psycho dog.

Do you have any advice?

30 thoughts on “How to Broach the Subject of Reactivity Without Demonizing Your Dog

  1. You are hilarious! Do you even know that?!

    I know you asked a serious question and I wish I had an answer for you but honestly, unless someone has a dog that reacts differently on leash vs off-leash – it’s hard for some people to understand. I think you did well in using a happy voice to keep Shiva from reacting any more negatively to his approach and it may have scared him off – not your voice but your short version and then the hasty retreat. If so, his loss. Well, Shiva’s loss really. Maybe you’ll bump into him again while Shiva is off leash and you can explain further. You could always hunt him down… 😉


  2. Gizmo is a happy-go-lucky guy and not reactive but if he’s on leash and gets rushed by another dog he reacts…he’s defensive and I totally understand why…other dog is loose, he’s tethered and he feels defensive..happened today with a perfectly lovely little terrier we met at the auto repair shop…nothing awful but the other off leash dog tried a little too aggressively to play when Gizmo was on leash and Giz growled…just a little but it was a warning…just normal dog stuff and nothing to stress about…It must be so hard for you … I admire your insight into the behaviors and the way you are able to dissect what happened and where you went wrong…and that you admit it was probably you and not Shiva that made a mistake…most folks are not that honest…I will keep reading cause I do learn something from every one of your posts…Thank you


  3. I think it sounds like you handled the situation well. You did what was best for Shiva without any regard for sounding crazy or being rude, which is what a handler of a reactive dog should always do. It’s simply impossible to be polite, give a full explanation and beat a retreat before a reactive dog goes bonkers. I’m positive that I’ve done the same thing a bazillion times but usually I’m so anxious by the time I get to the hasty retreat part that my dogs are already crazy and they do all the explaining for me.

    I would bet that any guy who walks his dogs before 6am probably has a bit more understanding than you may think. Remember that the two of you are the only ones devoted enough to be walking your dogs in the dead of winter at that ungodly hour! He probably feels embarrassed as well by not reading the signs Shiva and you were broadcasting. Hopefully, all embarrassment will subside soon and you can get back to normal meet & greets.


  4. Perhaps he’s keeping his distance not because of anything you did but because he feels badly that he didn’t have control of his dogs and doesn’t want to be putting you and Shiva in a bad spot. That’s certainly how I wouldfeelif my two monsters rushed a leashed dog!


  5. I hear people say,”she’s better off leash”, all the time. I get that. It is a lot about giving the dog a way out of the situation.i think you handled it perfectly.

    I hope that they get to play again sometime.


  6. I’d like to think most dog owners understand the difference for the dog when it is on leash or off leash. For Barbie too things are different if she is in a confined area and can’t run away (like in a room with a slippery floor). Barbie will be much more OTT with her body language in that situation, though she is fine during on leash greetings. Bender isn’t as confident as he could be and he’s been attacked on leash a couple of times by roaming dogs, resulting in him bleeding! I can understand why he can be reactive sometimes, though with him it’s all noise and pulling on the lead, I’m confident it’s all show though.


  7. You are too funny. I’m sure he feels just as awkward as you (since his dogs were the ones that behaved badly!). I’m sure you’ll all see each other again and forget about the awkward encounter! Cali is better off leash too!


  8. I bet you anything it’s a coincidence. If he’s had lots of experience with her off leash, I doubt one little non-event would deter him. We walked past a leashed German Shepherd while off leash hiking the other day who was extremely reactive. He sounded like he wanted to rip every dog to shreds. Then they let him off leash and he was happy as a clam. I was glad that I know about leash reactivity ahead of time. Maybe you could just explain it to him if you cross paths again.


  9. Can’t see what the problem was. Shiva didn’t bite the bloke. The fact that you haven’t seen him for a while could be down to no end of reasons, none of which are anything to do with you or Shiva. You really mustn’t be so hard on yourself or keep worrying when Shiva does what dogs do.


  10. I felt like I was reading something I wrote. I always worry that I come off the wrong way (both in person and on the internet) and that I upset people or people think I’m weird. Usually I’m wrong. (Or at least, I hope I am.) I betcha anything it is just your imagination, and you’ll run into him again soon.

    P.S. I don’t blame you for worrying…and running off…better than having her react after all the hard work you’ve done. Plus, if she did lunge, then he’d have a real reason to try and avoid you.


  11. Wait and see.

    Nothing you can do and I wouldn’t try to explain, unless at some point in the future the question comes up.

    Meanwhile, carry on. I’ll bet at some point in time the dogs will reintroduce interactions.


  12. Well, at least it’s better to be safe than sorry I guess. Maybe you’re over-thinking it? In a moment like that, I think it would be pretty hard to explain things.


  13. So recognizable. I have given up trying to communicate anything whatsoever, as it almost always never helps. And while I try to communicate, I miss vital clues of my dogs to understand what triggered their behavior. When I am these situations nowadays with Viva, I focus on her 100% and forget about the other person.


  14. The way I look at it is better safe than sorry. We have whisked our dogs out of situations where there could have been issues. I really don’t care what others think of me. It is my job to make sure my pet is safe. Hopefully the guy understands. He is walking two dogs so he should imo. If he doesn’t, then maybe it is better not to spend too much time with his dogs.


  15. I think it’s coincidence. Surely the man wouldn’t stop bringing his dogs on a perfectly good walk just because of one encounter with a mad woman and her nutty dog?

    A horrible woman across the street has just given her horribly reactive small white fluffy dog to her ex-housemate who is now house-sitting next door. The dog is SO reactive, on and off leash. I really hope the new owner does something about it because I will let Georgia eat him soon if he doesn’t stop attacking her. Sigh. How did your sob story become my rant? SORRY! 🙂


  16. I think it is coincidence. I think you are reading too much into it (although I understand because I fear I have done the same with Jasper). Shiva has played with these dogs before and nothing has happened. I think you have just missed one another. She didn’t lunge or jump at the other guy and you got her out of there.
    If you run into him again just explain that Shiva gets nervous around men when on leash and will react because she is frightened. He will understand. You could even tell him what to do next time.

    I have had to do the same thing when puppies get in Jasper’s face. He doesn’t mind girl puppies, but he will go off if a boy puppy won’t stop bugging him. I am very cautious about situations like this and try to steer him away from the puppy, or the puppy away from him. Thank goodness I know when he is getting annoyed. His tail curls up towards his head.
    I think you did the best you could under a rapidly changing situation Kristine. Shiva’s rep will be fine. 🙂


  17. I wish you knew how much typist admires you! She has been having similar problems with her dog, who is reactive when he gets afraid. She is working with a trainer and the hope is they will soon start agility, but in the mean time she is out trying the best she can.

    As the fields are really muddy, and she isn’t great at walking alone at night (ended up on a two hour walk rather than walk past back a scary tree cause she has the stupid thought of – that would be the perfect place to hide a body!) there is a quiet road where she can walk her dog, the problem she has is if she meets another dog she calls her dog back , puts him on the lead and puts his muzzle on incase the other dog is loose and comes across. Now she knows that by doing this she is making a deal of it – which you shouldn’t do – but she would never forgive herself if any dog got hurt, and she is pretty sure that it wouldn’t help her own dog either!

    She tried your song singing tip yesterday, and often on walks think if you can do it then there is no reason she cant!


  18. I thought for sure you were going to say Shiva took a huge chunk out of the guy’s leg. What happened doesn’t sound as awkward and weird as it probably feels to you. If you see the guy again, I don’t think you could just let let the dogs play the way they always enjoyed. Maybe you could just say something about how Shiva doesn’t like men approaching her when she’s on a leash, so he can be forewarned in case circumstances arise again. I hope you run into Shiva’s pals again soon.


  19. I totally agree with a few of the comments – you have a great sense of humor that comes through in your blog. On a more serious note, I understand where you are coming from. Our Callie is a snarly, slobbering, gonna-rip-you-to-shreds dog on leash. Off leash she’s somewhat okay but not to be trusted.

    If the guy is avoiding you, so what? (Now, that just may be my severe ant-social tendencies coming out.) We are lucky in that all the dogs have each other for company and the little groups are mixed up when we go out.

    Don’t worry, enjoy the hike!


  20. I’m with you on this one my friend as Delilah is the same way. I usually say something like, she can sometimes be snarky on the leash, but when I sit down and really think of it, in the end it is more (for me) about keeping her safe and making her feel comfortable. I always want to set her up for success, so if I have to move her quickly along to keep her from reacting, I’m okay with that.

    Speaking only for myself I can tell you, when I see a situation setting itself up towards a reaction, I panic. I will try and re-direct her and avoid it all costs.

    I think it may just be coincidence that you haven’t seen him and eventually you will run into him again, (hopefully while the dogs are off-leash) and then you can explain (if you want to.)

    And for the record, I don’t think you’ve put a scarlet letter on her collar. 🙂


  21. Gosh, it sounds to me like you handled that like a pro. When your dog is about to flip, and you’re torn between “preserving her reputation,” as you say, and preventing a major scene, what else can you manage but nervous laughter?:)

    I usually just smile broadly and turn around and walk the other way with a loud, cheerful, “whoops! Good dogs!” before anyone has a chance to freak out. That way other people get the signal that my dogs are not really bad dogs, just dogs with wacky ways about them, and my dogs get the signal that approaching strangers/dogs are not stressful events either. It saddens me sometimes that I don’t really get to get close to many neighbors because our encounters are so brief and at a distance, but not as much as it saddens me when my dogs DO freak out! But it sounds like Shiva has a lot better self control than my dogs do….


  22. It looks like you’ve gotten lots of great advice here. I do hope it was just a coincidence.

    I especially agree with the person who said that, walking dogs that early, he probably knows something about dog issues. (He may, in fact, be embarrassed that he “caused” the problem.) I learned really quickly back when we were going to the dog park that people who come when the park isn’t busy usually have a reason to. We went at 7am on a cold, wet day, and every dog there was just *terrible* because were all there dodging other dogs. The only time I think Silas has ever been the best dog in a room. LOL.


  23. My girl is protective of us and has become reactive due to several incidents of small (under 15lbs) dogs charging us aggressivly off leash while we were walking in our neighborhood (my dogs were on leash). I have 2 180+lb English Mastiffs, so my concern is no matter who starts the fight and whose dog was ‘off leash’ my dog is going to get the blame if something happens. Since these incidents we are unable to walk around our neighborhood without her growling and lunging everytime we see another dog on leash. The funny thing is we can go to a dog show with 1500 other dogs in close proximity and we’re fine or go to the pet store with 10 other dogs in it and she’s a perfect angel. I have tried numerous redirect mechanisms, however we are at a point that she is not progressing. I make her sit when another dog is in sight and we wait, but I truely believe this is as far as were ever going to get to fix this issue. I’ve done alot of research and fear reactions are the hardest to overcome, expecially when there is some ‘protect mommy’ mixed in there. I honestly can’t fault my dog one bit for any of this.


  24. That’s tough… I think it’s better to exaggerate than to be the person who agrees to their dogs meeting other dogs when you know bad things might happen. We’ve got a few of those jerks in my neighbourhood – simple question… “is your dog friendly and can we come up to say hi?”, I’d rather someone just say no, or explain the situation than say yes and hope for the best. I say you explain it to him next time you see him, but that could also feel awkward. Hoping that you guys can get back to your usual schedule of play with his dogs soon 🙂


  25. I’m sorry I missed this when you first posted it! My guess is that it’s just a coincidence that you haven’t seen the guy lately. It doesn’t sound like anything bad happened, like the guy became one-legged, so most of the drama was probably in your head. He might have been a little confused by your quick departure, but everybody is in a hurry once in a while.

    Morgan isn’t crazy about people approaching her on leash, and we don’t encourage people to do so. The truth is, she might bite them, and I’d rather they give her space. Since she’s always out and about with Bunny in the vicinity, I usually try to distract anyone interested in approaching her by offering to let them pet Bunny instead, while my husband distracts Mo. I don’t demonize her, I simply tell people that she’s rather protective of Bunny and me and that she prefers to be admired from a distance. I don’t think she is concerned at all about people not petting her, though!


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