Living with a reactive dog

I have split this from the ’ what is it that bugs you’ thread
Coaster see this thread for a bit of background.
I had got to the stage where she was off lead and socialising well with other dogs but she was pinned down a couple of times and got distressed and one day she went for a dog who she had always been wary of and who had been very boisterous with her. She had to be on the lead after that which does not help the anxiety. Mostly she is just vocal when worried but she can be aggressive if very frightened.
She is okay with family and friends dogs but I am able to plan meetings. We usually meet on route and keep moving. The other owner has a treat assuming their dog isn’t treat possessive. After one positive meeting, there are no further problems. Once she knows a dog, she will be fine but TBH largely indifferent to it. I am also fine with meetings if I can have a discourse with the owner before. If they understand that she can be reactive and that I may just make a sharp retreat if her body language changes. I try to keep the lead loose when other dogs approach. If she starts to pull, I move away and keep her away as she is already anxious. As she doesn’t seem to gain much from being with other dogs, I am happy to keep working at good manners on passing. I don’t avoid other dogs but I don’t go out of my way to be with them. Her behaviour is consistent whoever is walking her. It is difficult to know what may have led to this as she is a rescue.
ETA I always treat and praise positive encounters.

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As caring owners we make the best decisions we can for our dogs and unless we are with them from the day they are born and know absolutely the behaviour and genetics of their make up, we are working ‘in the dark’ to a great extent. And how many of us can possibly know all this information about a dog?

It’s wonderful we achieve as much as we do with our dogs even if we know them from a puppy. We are asking a dog to trust that we will protect them in every circumstance occurring outside of their personal ‘comfortably coping zone’; which differs and is influenced in range from a dog with a history of no quality (or hardly any) human contact through to the overly socialised. Ranging from the grossly abused dog through to the ‘overly loved’, from the neglected to the misunderstood.

This spectrum of dog behaviours is full of thoroughly differing personalities molded by what went before, and experiences of today.

If we start with a dog that is fearful and reacts to perceived threat, the dog is not, in his psyche, overreacting, as this is real to the dog and he is trying to keep safe. Rather like us if we panic.

In the throes of reacting, a dog’s instinct is fight or flight, and any owner who can prevent this - in whatever way that works for their dog, including (as Tinyplanets has described) perhaps by distraction or perhaps by leaving a reactive situation - is behaving in the best possible way to protect their dog.

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The big question to ask of a reactive dog is…
Am I as an owner going to gently coerce you to try to cope with your fears in a different way?

Seriously, this is a very difficult question to answer as we as owners have to try to work out (on behalf of our dog) what it is we are trying to actually achieve. It may not be right for all dogs to be coerced as to how we would wish a dog to behave as by doing so may cause further stress to a dog.
Please remember they are already feeling fearful and asking dogs to change may result in greater angst (for you and for the dog).

It can happen that a dog may be greatly helped to be less fearful yet there will be episodes of showing fear reactions on the path to achieve this goal.

For this reason it’s wise to think carefully about the big question.

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Very true Meg. I like to think I know my dog well. Since I stopped trying to work on her fears by essentially making her face them, things have dramatically improved for us. I feel that because walks are less stressful for both of us, she and I are better able to deal with trigger situations when faced with them.

At one time, she could not be static on the lead in the presence of other dogs without becoming very anxious. EG going to a cafe. We worked on this by sitting far from the cafe, one of us going in and bringing out a sausage roll. She was given a little and soon began to associate the cafe with the special treat. We moved closer each time until she was happy to sit right outside with other dogs on their leads at other tables. We felt very much in control because we worked at it in a deer park where all dogs were required to be on the lead. The trouble is with forcing her into interactions in other environments is that the actions of other dogs are unpredictable and a bad experience can make matters worse.
Personally I am pretty scared of cows. We walk through a cow field most days and I am familiar with the cows. They are docile and have never reacted to us walking by. If I am somewhere different and a cow starts moving towards me or looks at me the wrong way, I am a wreck. My OH can be grumpy about it as it can mean going around the long way. However if he pushed me, we would fall out and it wouldn’t make any difference. Last time this happened, several cows were moving fast towards us and I panicked. I then felt anxious even in the field of friendly cows for a couple of walks after that.



Good to see a new topic started on this. I have read the comments in this thread & the background thread. I appreciate your starting this topic is more a case of you sharing your experiences (on back of prior discussions), rather than you seeking advice so please forgive me if any content below is unwelcomed or not wanted.

I genuinely respect responsible owners who provide new homes for genuine rescue dogs. The cost implications & work involved can be very significant…hope this doesn’t come across as patronising.

Having read this thread & the “Fearful Dogs” topic it certainly seems that much consideration has been given to supporting your dog.

Rewarding calmness when dog does not react &or distracting with treats to reduce/remove negative focus would be my route to conditioning (counter conditioning as described in the other topic). If it were me I would continue to work really hard at that. The key is to avoid a negative interaction. The best way to achieve that is to do work with dogs known not to snap at or attack your dog. The issue you seem to have is that your dog seems fine with known friendly dogs. This makes it difficult to move forward confidence building unless you have more positive interactions with new dogs

Perhaps the key might be in finding new owners of stable/calm dog friendly dogs that are prepared to allow you to use them at stooges. Anxiety in socialisation is quite common, perhaps you could look for a local dog training provider or group in order to do some more structured work.

In terms of the way forward I am curious to know whether you consider you have done all you can do, (effectively reached a development plateau) or whether you feel more can be done.

The options going forward seem to be…

1.Simply consolidate all the great work done & continue to positively enforce good interactions

  1. Step up a bit & move to next level…Using safe stooges & sensible handlers continue with counter conditioning but decreasing gap, increasing size of other dog or number of dogs). This may give greater confidence but care needed not to push dog back. You might also want to try sound work…playing a dedicated dog audio CD exposing the dog to various sounds. I borrowed a CD called “sounds scary” first used it at low volume against TV noise then increased volume until quite loud on home hi-fi. I mention this as you prior mentioned traffic and I thought noise familiarisation may be useful.

  2. I don’t know enough re dog behaviour to comment as to whether building confidence in one area might assist in other areas…far to deep for me to get my head around…I guess I am wondering if walking in denser pedestrian areas might also instil confidence & cause the dog to be more confident in general when out & about & seeing other dogs. Also the added other distractions may reduce the conflict element akin to jousting when yours sees another dog approaching head to head on a secluded narrow rural footpath…

  3. Be brutally honest with yourself & consider if you can change anything to reduce the dog from picking up on your feelings. This will be toughest call as it seems you are being extremely good, keeping appropriate distance, not over tightening the lead…so there might be little room for improvement here.

  4. If once you have done all you can do you find your dog is still reacting badly then the some might argue that delicate negative enforcement might be needed. I would be very reluctant to do this with a genuinely nervous dog. I am not talking about beating the dog or shouting but a slight check of the lead and change in voice tone may be appropriate IF the dog is simply performing for your attention…Be very very careful & if in doubt leave well alone. The last thing you want is to increase anxiety by way of the dog anticipatiing your negative intervention.

As for the cows I am with you & your dog on that…I have been chased downhill by a herd when walking dogs & know of the potential fatal consequences. I can think of a variety of potentially dangerous situations I would rather be exposed to over & above being in a cow field.

I hope my post doesn’t come across as critical… it seems you have done a lot of hard work - probably more than most would do.

My comments are purely based on my thoughts as a fellow owner who meets and interacts with large numbers of dogs and their walkers…please treat my comments accordingly & consider looking at expert advice over and above my ramblings or disregard if you feel it approoriate.

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All good points Coaster and ones I have considered and are important for others with similar issues to consider. I take any opportunity I can to meet new dogs in a controlled way. With dogs that we pass regularly, if she has walked passed calmly a couple of times, we try stopping for a quick chat and monitor. Sadly there are not too many people around, willing to work with us. We try to go to fetes and shows where we know there will be lots going on but dogs will be on leads. She copes well. We also go to places like the deer park where there are lots of people and other dogs but also lots of open space. We make a point of going to the busier areas too knowing that we can go off if need be. Again we rarely have a problem as dogs are on the lead.

I did seek advice from a few trainers in the early days but they all pushed me to work with in a group with other dogs right from the start and I did not feel that this was right for us. She did have her basic training in the puppy group and after a week or two was okay with her group but when the next group started to arrive, she was really reactive and the trainers couldn’t calm her.

I would definitely agree that I was not helping in the early days either. I was very stressed when out and clueless. I make a concerted effort to stay as calm as possible when she is approached. I do feel more in control now I have learned to read her body language. I am sure I haven’t managed to completely relax but work on that all the time too.

There are times when she is just being a terrier too and correction is needed. Again I have learned the difference between a fear reaction and not. EG I fussed a dog she is fine with recently and she told him off. I corrected her and fussed him some more and she settled down with one last terrier swear. Sometimes we will pass a strange dog and she will just bark to let them know not to get in her space. I correct that as well because she is still in control. It is a fine balance. She was so scared of men, that she used to cower and urinate every time my OH went near her. Luckily lots of men have been willing to work with us and treat her. We got to the stage where it was only men with beards so when she was completely fine with OH, he grew a beard. Now she is fine with beards too. We have had to be mindful of this when correcting her too but she generally stops what she is doing without too much stress if we do correct her.

Reinforcing non reactive behaviour has become second nature so we will always do that.

In terms of sounds. I know what you have suggested has been really useful for some but I don’t consider that as a major issue for us. She is fine with fireworks and bangs and traffic in general. She still gets skittish at night but I think that is a combination of not being able to see as well what is going on. She doesn’t bark and lunge at night traffic now. The traffic that sets her off is those really noisy bikes that suddenly rev up when passing and large trucks that bang past. I think it is a similar thing to when an ambulance turns its siren on just as it passes. Most people will get a fright. My feeling is that no amount of condition will stop that kind of sudden shock. I think that is where I have got to with other dogs too. I will always keep trying to take every chance to create positive associations and encourage controlled meetings but when she is on her lead and another dog is not backing off, she reaches a point of no return with her anxiety. Given that we can be around other dogs and be fairly close without an issue, I am wary of putting her in situations with lots of off lead dogs. My experience with this is that it makes things worse. I don’t feel in enough control of the situation either which won’t help.
These days, true fear reactions are a rarity thankfully. If I felt that it was impacting on our quality of life I would seek further help. I personally feel that pushing her that next step to be comfortable around off lead dogs while she is on the lead may negatively impact on the work we have done already. Sometimes those dogs are not friendly and that just reinforces her fears.

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Yet another excellent post…

Only a brief further one from me right now as time limited right now.

All points noted & understood.

The beard familiarisation made me smile…true comitment.

As for next level off lead I might increase number of on lead dogs 1st or use stooges.

Not a terrier guy so keen not to encourage you in wrong direction

If you find yourself head on approaching a leashed dog you don’t know maybe quietly and calmly talk to your dog about the weather or other random stuff as if the approaching dog is a non issue. The dog may have less focus on other dog but not pick up on stress you might give off if you were silent or verbally reassuring …eg “it’s ok, stay calm , steady” which in themselves may be seen as historic cues trouble is ahead. Another idea which you have probably tried is to have treat in hand prior to potential flash point

Must dash now.

Not too much commitment growing a beard as OH was keen to have one :slight_smile:

We have found that a firm ‘be nice’ works well, not so much implying she should be worrying more that she should behave herself. Dogs on a lead are rarely an issue anyway. If passing in a tight spot, I allow a quick sniff if relaxed and we are on our way for the first meeting. I always carry treats and we did find them useful for dealing with things like horses before the panic point as these things could be approached slowly. I do use them as well if an off lead dog is minding its own business while we pass. They are only useful before the fear sets in. I have made the mistake of giving them during the reactions which of course reinforces that behaviour although that said, at that point she wouldn’t eat them anyway. My first couple of years post terrier was a very steep learning curve. :-[


Somewhat coincidentally been sat here watching " It’s me of the dog" S3 EP4 on my Sky planner. Victoria Stilwell working with a couple who own 2 reactive dogs.

One strategy used on walks was to perform a “walk away” technique…Effectively performing an abrupt about turn and denying further negative dog on dog interaction every time reactive barking started.

Increasing exercise seemingly also helped & along with some other adjustments.

I appreciate these programmes sometimes lack detail in explaining a particular technique…I am guessing that treats&/or calm praise & reassurance could be used to positively acknowledge success in event a re-run of an approach resulted in the undesired behaviour not occuring.


Thanks Coaster, I haven’t seen the program you mention though am familiar with the work Victoria does with dogs and how often she has marvellous results.

Yes calmly leaving a situation that is likely to provoke a reactive dog is without doubt in the best interests of that dog and many owners already know what those situations are and act accordingly.

I can understand why exercise is recommended… However, I have some reservations about increasing exercise per se; a dog effectively in those moments of heightened stress is already experiencing levels of stress hormones taking their toll. So the type of exercise has to be carefully planned for.

If exercise entails more ‘encounters’ of the type which may cause further stress to a dog, then the exercise is counter productive.

So physical exercise and mentally stimulating a dog in the dog’s perceived comfort zone would be ideal. Perhaps like a game together with the owner at home for example.

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…and in another episode, (S4 Ep4) . A dog reactive doberman was leash introduced to another dog. The doberman was very reactive but was kept in close proximity of the other dog until it realised the other dog was not a threat. Not easy to explain as the forced close proximity technique involved a muzzle.

Both this technique & the one in above post effectively handler controlled socialisation situations.

I am mindful the reactive behaviour cited often results from approaches by dogs OFF leash. Perhaps the key to moving forward might be building confidence by having calm stooges approach & then changing or removing leash use on one or both dogs as confidence & calmness improve.

When out on walks I have met over reactive leashed up dogs. When time has permitted I have spoken to the other owner(s), whilst keeping ours leashed. As ours typically ignore reactive behaviour the reactive dogs usually quiten down once they realise ours are not a threat…often resulting in the other owner being pleased &/or surprised.


My post made before I saw your latest reply.

I confess I haven’t prior over analysed the exercise thing other than being mindful that it can take off the edge…I occasionally walk another dog & find it far easier to work with & train once some steam has been allowed out.

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Yes agreed that more exercise is another tricky one. A couple of Adrenalin charged meetings can cause an excess of energy but if we then did more walking that could increase the levels further depending on what happens on the walk. Sometimes it is more important for the dog to calm down in a safe environment. Luckily my dog is a water lover and will happily splash around in the bath. She also likes to do her puzzle games.

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Might I comment it sounds like she is having a great time with you Tinyplanets, all praise to you for helping her as you have.

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