“Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by Regina George.” The movie “Mean Girls” took place in a high school, not a dog park, but this quote never fails to make me laugh when thinking of my pup. In fact, if the name Regina was substituted with the name of my 11 year old rescue chow, Izzy, I bet a lot of pups we know would be raising their paws. When we adopted Izzy 5 years ago, we quickly learned that she was reactive when around other dogs. She doesn’t bite and she doesn’t respond negatively to every dog, but she doesn’t like dogs who are alphas or that invade her space. She’s happiest in situations where she and other dogs can peacefully co-exist in the same area without being in each other’s faces. We have worked with her to help her overcome reactivity and we don’t hesitate to correct behavior that is inappropriate.
But here’s the thing: there’s a lot that other pet owners could do to help reduce the triggers that bring out reactivity. All dogs need to get out and socialize with other pups and increased socialization helps dogs to learn appropriate and healthy behavior. But some pet owners make that very difficult for those of us with reactive dogs. I’ve been in a lot of situations where people have made me feel very uncomfortable, or even “dog-shamed”, because of Izzy’s reactivity, when in fact, their dog was the one at fault. Trust me, I know Izzy is reactive. Like any good dog mom, I’m working on it. But I need your help too, and there are some simple things that you can do to help those of us with reactive pups.
Leash Your Dog
Every dog parent with a reactive pup has been there: your dog is on leash and an off-leash dog is running in your direction. You let them know that your dog isn’t great with other dogs, and instead of taking control of the situation, the other dog owner just says “don’t worry, my dog is friendly!” Nothing makes me more frustrated than when pet owners who don’t recognize that other dogs may need their space. Izzy is definitely one of those dogs. That means that I often have to skip a social event or activity if it is taking place in a dog park or an area where dogs will be off-leash. It would be irresponsible for me to put Izzy in an uncontrolled environment. Likewise, other pet owners are equally irresponsible if they fail to set boundaries for their own pups by ignoring leash laws. It doesn’t matter how friendly, obedient, or well-intentioned your dog is. An off-leash dog can put other dogs in a position of discomfort and increase the risk of triggering reactive behavior. Do us a favor and save the off-leash romping for the dog park.
Read the Room
The most important thing pet owners can do is to be aware and pick up on signals that indicate that a dog may need some space. Dogs use body language to communicate what they are or are not comfortable with. Some dogs fail to read these signs and as pet owners, it’s important that we make sure that we watch out for our pups and take action when needed. I’ve been in multiple situations where a person failed to notice that their dog’s behavior was triggering another dog’s reactivity. For example, Izzy cannot handle alpha dogs that approach quickly and try to jump on her. She sees it as aggressive behavior and anyone who looks at her can see that she tenses up when an unfamiliar dog runs up to her. It’s important to pay attention to these signals and to remove your dog from a situation if it could trigger another dog’s reactivity. Another key way to help is to respect a dog’s safe spaces. For example, if you notice a dog has purposefully isolated itself in a corner or by a wall, make sure that your pup recognizes this and gives the dog some space. Many times, a dog may be trying to get comfortable by observing the activity from a safe area away from middle of the pack. They may feel provoked or backed into a corner (literally) if dogs run up unexpectedly and get in their face. Redirect your dog away from pups who are trying to get some space, and most importantly, make sure that your dog doesn’t get close enough for any face-to-face stare downs that may be perceived as threatening. So many negative situations could be avoided if other pet owners made an effort to recognize the signals that their dog’s behavior is unwelcome to another dog.
Know your Dog and Take Responsibility
You know the type: the parent who refused to acknowledge that their kid ever did anything wrong. Unfortunately, there are a lot of dog parents who do this as well. Sorry, but some of your “friendly” pups aren’t all that friendly. One dog mom that I know is the perfect example of this. She thinks that it’s adorable when her dog runs up and head butts other dogs over and over. She excuses this behavior as playing, but many times, it’s clear that her dog is the only one enjoying the game. Sorry, dog mom, but I have a news flash for you: your dog is being a bully. This type of play seems friendly but may be your dog’s way of asserting themselves as the alpha. While some dogs have the ability to handle this behavior in stride, others may not, and it could easily trigger a reactive dog. Learn to recognize when your dog is engaging in unwelcome play and remove them from the situation.
Stop Labeling Reactive Dogs as “Bad Dogs”
It doesn’t matter if your pup is the friendliest dog in the world: my dog has limits and that’s okay. My dog growling at your dog’s unwanted behavior doesn’t make her a “bad dog.” In fact, in many cases, the seemingly “friendly” behavior of another pup is actually aggressive. If your dog invades my dog’s space, she’s going to growl. She’s communicating her boundaries and that’s okay.
Having a reactive dog can be isolating and it hurts when others judge you or your dog without understanding the effort and progress that you’ve made. The last thing pet owners should want to do is shame a reactive dog owner into socializing their dog less, because every dog needs some level of companionship with other dogs. Let’s stop labeling dogs, and instead, work together to make sure our pups respect each other’s boundaries.
The bottom line is that we all have a responsibility to ensure the safety of our dogs. While she’s not perfect, Izzy has gotten so much better since we first adopted her, and we’re so proud of how far she’s come. Staying in control of the situation is critical, and by doing so, we’ve taught Izzy that other dogs aren’t scary after all. I will continue to work with my dog on her reactivity and to keep her under control. All we ask is that other pet owners do the same.
Amber Duggan is the proud owner of Izzy the Chow, who is also known as the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Fluff. Izzy is an 11 year old chow chow, and she was adopted 5 years ago from Frederick County Animal Control. Amber is originally from Michigan, and started Izzy’s Instagram account (@izzy_the_chow) as a way to share photos of her with family and friends back home. However, Izzy’s account grew quickly, and became a way for other chow chow owners and rescue dog advocates to share information and helpful tips. When she’s not with Izzy, Amber serves as associate attorney within the Department of Homeland Security. Amber is also the Executive Director of a 501c3 organization called We the Dogs DC, which was formed by five women in the DC area who met through their dogs’ Instagram accounts. They discovered that they all shared a passion for rescue animals, and formed We the Dogs DC so that they could work with the community to raise money for local animal rescue organizations. In addition to its fundraising efforts, We the Dogs DC maintains a community Instagram account (@wethedogsdc). Every day, a new a new person and their dog is selected to take over the account and share photos of their day in the DC area.