Introduction: The purpose of this blog series is not to judge, but to educate!
I learned long ago that most reactive dog owners do not always appreciate a stranger in passing giving them reactive dog advice about their loved ones. More often than not, people tend to take it personally when you point out their dog’s flaws, rather than as a gesture of good will. These days, I wait for people to come to me before I offer my thoughts and advice, but with the wonderful world of the anonymous web, what better way to spread some much needed knowledge than through stories of my adventures in encountering reactive dogs and the things that their owners could be doing differently to help. So here they are, one by one, for your education.
Adventures in Reactive Dog Encounters Part 1: Little Dog Syndrome
It’s a beautiful day, one of the first of the season, and that always means that the dogs are out in full bloom, including mine! Hiking is one of the many ways that we exercise our bodies and having off leash control means that I have more opportunities to exercise their brains as well. On hiking trails, the dogs can run, sniff, and tire themselves out, but when other dogs are heard or seen in the distance, I can recall them back with ease and put them into an off leash heel until we pass the strange dogs politely.
On this day in particular, we came across a number of dogs of varying breeds and personalities, and not once did I have to worry about my dogs’ safety, thanks to their training and ability to ignore distractions. Yes, you read that correctly, I worry about my pitbulls’ safety around other dogs, because despite what many people think and despite their breed, they are more friendly and well behaved than most other dogs out there, but I digress. One pack in particular that we came across consisted of two humans and two small breed dogs. As soon as the owners saw my two medium sized, completely relaxed dogs coming their way, they picked both dogs up into their arms where they were held until we were gone; the moment the dog was picked up, loud aggressive barking began and continued long after we had passed.
Could the humans’ response have been based out of fear over breed? Maybe, it is certainly something that we have experienced many times in the past. Could it have been out of fear that their reactive dog might start something with a larger dog that could cause harm to him? Most likely. A logical response if you ask any unbiased bystander; pick the smaller reactive dog up to save everyone a lot of hassle and potential vet bills. Unfortunately, what the owners are probably unaware of, is that they may actually be causing more harm than good!
First, by picking up a smaller dog, a child, or anything of that matter, whether it is into your arms or up over your head, you are drawing unnecessary attention to yourself. Many dogs are used to avoiding a small barking dog, but a dog up in the air is rare and interesting, worth checking out at the very least, possibly even jumping up to get a better sniff. Now pick up a smaller dog around a prey driven, controlling, or reactive dog, and that dog might be more likely to jump up and nip or bite. The better idea would be to leave the dog on the ground, ask the strange dog’s owners if their dogs are friendly, particularly with small reactive dogs, and try blocking that dog from your own. If your dogs are likely to run at other dogs, they should be on leash until taught some impulse control.
Next, every time you pick up your smaller reactive dog and another dog, or person, passes by, your little dog has just ‘won’ and their reactive behavior has inadvertently been reinforced. The dog thinks, ‘dog approaches, I get picked up making me feel bigger and safer, I bark, dog passes, barking successful, I am safe, my pack is safe, next time I will bark again and my pack will be safe.’ Cue next dog on the trail and the cycle continues; ‘dog approaches, I get picked up, I bark, maybe I bark louder because it takes longer for dog to approach, dog passes, barking successful, we are safe, next time I will bark longer and louder and my pack will be safe’. Get the picture? It’s a vicious cycle that might be stopped by simply not picking up the dog. Will this stop the reactivity all together? Likely not, but it will stop reinforcing it, making it worse.
Also, when you hold your dog while they are barking, pet them, and tell them, ‘it will be ok, the strange dog will pass’, your dog hears, ‘it’s ok, good job, keep barking’, which reinforces the behavior even more. So remember to keep four legs on the floor at all times, and you will stop reinforcing Little Dog Syndrome, then book a free consultation with me to find out how I can help address your dog’s reactivity and need to bark at passersby.
Are you at your wits end with your dog’s behavior and would like to have control, sanity, and above all else, safety? No matter the age or breed, please contact me now, I assure you, I can help!