When dogs lunge, bark, and growl at other dogs or people, the dog is having a hard time—and so is their guardian. More awareness is needed.
|Many people with reactive dogs walk where they won’t see anyone else. Photo: Danilo Silveira/Shutterstock
By Zazie Todd PhD
If you’ve never had a reactive dog, you don’t know what it feels like when someone says “She’s friendly” or “It’s okay, he’s fine,” meaning they are going to let their off-leash dog run right up to you and your dog. You tense up, breathe more quickly, and run through different options of what to do in your mind as you wait for the dreaded moment to unfold. And then your dog goes off, barking and lunging on leash, and you feel stressed, anxious—and fed up because weeks of training is being undone in that instant.
The term reactive is often used to describe dogs who bark, lunge, or growl in response to triggers such as strangers, unknown dogs, and loud noises. New research from the Waltham Pet Care Institute published in Anthrozoös investigates the experience of taking your reactive dog for a walk. The study finds that there are a range of emotions associated with the experience, along with the costs of dog training, gear, and (potentially) medications.
Dr. Carla Hart, first author of the study, told me,
“To me, the most striking finding from this research was how problematic off lead dogs are to reactive dogs and their owners, but it also highlights an opportunity for positive change. Future efforts should be made to disseminate the message that not all dogs can be approached, and to suspend judgement because their owners are often working on complex behavioural problems.”
The qualitative study asked 37 guardians of reactive dogs in the UK about their experiences and analyzed the responses. Five themes came up.
Other people’s lack of understanding was frequently mentioned as an issue. Other people didn’t realize that the dog was being reactive because they were afraid, which meant they would let their dog run up instead of putting the dog on leash. Worse, some people had no control over their dog and could not stop them from running up even if they wanted to.
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As well, people often seemed to judge the reactive dog’s guardian. Even when the dog was wearing a colour-coded leash (yellow is sometimes used to signal a reactive dog) or signage that clearly said they were reactive or nervous, people did not seem to understand this.
As one participant said,
“Reactive dogs are not ‘naughty’, ‘unfriendly’, and often the guardian of a reactive dog is struggling. Give them space and don’t judge.”
Another theme was the need for situational control, which meant planning dog-walking routes and times to avoid difficult situations; crossing the road or turning around to avoid the trigger the dog was afraid of; using gear such as a harness, head collar or muzzle; and having the dog on medications to help with their anxiety. Some dog guardians had even had a broken rib or wrist after being pulled over by their dog.
Having a reactive dog involves learning about how to help them, and another theme was learning and progress. While people sometimes wished for better resources, they had learned a lot about dog behaviour and training, and as a result, they had made gradual progress.
People felt a responsibility to protect their dog, and some also felt a responsibility to protect others from their dog. The researchers called this theme guardianship.
The final theme refers to the emotions that people felt. Not surprisingly, there were many negative emotions, as the dog’s guardian often felt stressed and anxious. However, there were also positive emotions, such as pride when the dog coped with a difficult situation.
Previous research has also found that people with a reactive dog feel a wide range of emotions, many of them negative, and that negative emotions and low confidence are associated with the person being less likely to take a reward-based approach to training their dog. It’s worth mentioning that in the current study, all of the dogs’ guardians were using reward-based methods, which is great news because it’s an effective way to deal with behaviour issues. (See more on why it’s important to choose reward-based methods rather than aversives).
Having a dog is often painted as an overwhelmingly positive experience that is good for people’s physical and mental health (although the research on this is decidedly mixed). This new study shows that when a dog is reactive, it can take a toll on the dog’s guardian. Many of the people who took part did not know about reactivity before they got their dog, and so they had to learn a lot about how to deal with this issue. As well they had had to buy new gear for their dog and pay for training and (potentially) medications to help. It’s great to see scientists paying attention to this issue.
One implication of these results is that life would be easier for people with reactive dogs if people more generally had awareness of this issue. In particular, if everyone’s dog would come when called; if people would put their dog on leash when requested (or if they noticed someone struggling with their dog); and if they realized that a reactive dog is not misbehaving—they are having a hard time and need your help.
If you need help with your dog, check out my post on how to choose a dog trainer. And if you’d like to read the research paper in full, it’s open access and the link is below.
Hart, C. J., & King, T. (2023). “It’s Okay He’s Friendly”: Understanding the Experience of Owning and Walking a Reactive Dog Using a Qualitative Online Survey. Anthrozoös, 1-22. https://doi.org/10.1080/08927936.2023.2287314
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