Is That Barking Dog on the Trail Reactive or Aggressive?

I was hiking with my two Dachshunds and having a great day when, out of nowhere, an off-leash dog came running down the trail toward us.

The owners of the other dogs were nowhere in sight.

I tried to quickly get off the trail, stepping between my dogs and the oncoming dog, in an attempt to avoid any conflict.

UPDATED: January 25, 2023

It was too late, though.

My dogs were startled by the dog coming right for them and started barking loudly to tell it to stay away.

About that time, the off-leash dog’s people showed up.

The woman looked at me and said, in a bit of a disgusted tone, “You should leave your aggressive dogs at home.

The nerve of that lady!

I was super offended and mad, but kept my mouth shut, primarily out of bewilderment.

You see, I understand a bit about dog body language and know my own dogs.

I know my Dachshunds are not aggressive.

Yes, they bark and may growl or bare their teeth but only when provoked or when they feel threatened.

That lady didn’t know my dogs and, more importantly, didn’t understand dog interaction and body language.

She likely had never owned a reactive dog.

So I wondered how can you tell the difference between a reactive and an aggressive dog? I’m no expert so I turned to my friend for help.

Is That Dog on the Hiking Trail Reactive or Aggressive?
Photo Credit: Depositphotos/Saloed

Thanks to my friend from Tenacious Little Terrier, who has been working with her reactive dog for a long time, for this guest post:

There is nothing as frustrating for a reactive dog owner as when an illegally off-leash dog interrupts a peaceful hike, bounding toward your dog and setting him into a barking frenzy.

Then the owner shows up from a few hundred feet behind, yelling, “Don’t worry. He’s friendly!” It can ruin the whole hike.

In most cases, yes, the loose dog just wants to play or sniff.

But that dog’s desire to play does not supersede my dog’s desire to feel safe and comfortable.

Here’s what you can do to identify reactive and aggressive dogs, handle a reactive dog and react when you see a reactive dog on the trail.

Reactive Dogs vs. Aggressive Dogs

What is a reactive dog?

If you see a dog who is barking, pulling or lunging on the leash on the trail, it doesn’t necessarily mean the dog is aggressive.

Reactive dog behavior occurs when a dog overreacts to certain stimuli, such as other dogs or people, and is often a result of fear or insecurity.

The behavior means they’re upset and over threshold, or distressed and in an over-aroused state, and they are making an attempt to make what is upsetting them go away.

Their cortisol level goes up, their breathing can become heavy and their heart rate increases.

In fight-or-flight mode, they may not be in the right state of mind to listen to their owner, or even hear them, in the moment but reactivity can typically be eliminated or minimized through training and behavior modification.

Reactivity is an overreaction to normal things or events.

A warning bark or two is normal, but if your dog barks for an extended amount of time at a stimulus, they may be reactive.

Dogs can be reactive to other animals, people, dogs, motion, noises, objects or a combination.

What is an aggressive dog?

Aggressive dog behavior, on the other hand, is when a dog displays behavior such as biting, growling, or showing teeth, with the intent to dominate or harm.

This type of behavior can be caused by a variety of factors, including lack of socialization, fear, resource guarding, or pain.

An aggressive dog will usually show warnings before they bite.

If you’re closely observing the dog and know the signs, the bite usually does not come out of nowhere except in cases where the dog has been punished for exhibiting warning signs like growling or baring teeth.

An excellent book to learn more about dog body language is “On Talking Terms with Calming Signals” by Turdid Rugaas.

The dog body language

Reactive dogs and aggressive dogs can exhibit similar body language, like barking and lunging.

However, if you see a dog becoming very still, showing the white of his eyes (whale eye), growling, or snapping or showing teeth, you should give the dog a wide berth.

That dog is showing warning signs of being aggressive and may be about to bite.

Other earlier, milder warning signs of stress for reactive and aggressive dogs include licking lips, yawning, scratching, tense body and “hard” face, forward ears, and a tense, closed mouth.

Reactive dogs can escalate into being aggressive, but they are not inherently aggressive.

Tips for Owners of Reactive Dogs

If you have a reactive dog, the best thing you can do for them is reduce exposure to their triggers (things that make them really upset) as much as possible.

Try not to have them practice reactive behaviors.

This may mean hiking during off-hours, going on less-frequented trails, and trying to avoid areas known for having illegal off-leash dogs.

If your dog needs to be on leash, don’t take them to hiking trails where dogs are allowed off-leash.

Trails that require permits and payment can be less crowded and have more enforcement about rule-breaking (but in big metropolitan areas, that may not be the case).

If you can’t find any trails that can accommodate your dogs’ triggers, you may have to wait until they have a better grasp on their reactivity to take them hiking.

Set them up for success.

My dog, Mr. N, has frustration-based reactivity and he gets super excited when he sees other dogs.

Small dog hiking
Photo Credit:

On narrow trails, I pick him up and cover his eyes to reduce his arousal levels.

Obviously, this won’t work for everyone, but a calming cap made from see-through fabric can reduce your dog’s reaction to visual stimulus while still allowing him to see.

There are also colored leashes, vests, and other gear that signal your dog needs extra space.

We tend to hike on weekdays when there are fewer people, and I avoid hiking on trails that are known for illegally off-leash dogs unless I have another person with me to play interference and scout for dogs further up the trail.

Most importantly, don’t punish your dog for showing signs of reactivity.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior writes “punishment has also been shown to elicit aggressive behavior in many species of of animals.” 

Thus, using punishment can put the person administering it, or any person near the animal, at risk of being bitten or attacked.

Punishment can suppress aggressive and fearful behavior when used effectively, but it may not change the underlying cause of the behavior.

Instead, counter-conditioning, operant conditioning, and positive reinforcement can help them change their reaction to triggers and prevent them from melting down.

For more help, read my article on helping your reactive dog using the “look at that” method.

Tips for Other Dog Owners

Reactive dogs love to hike as much as their non-reactive counterparts.

In the interest of sharing the trail peacefully, here are some things you can do when hiking with your dog if you encounter a reactive dog:

  • If you see a dog being reactive on the trail, give the dog space and ignore him.
  • If your dog is with you and off-leash, call your dog to you or leash them until you pass by. Don’t allow them to run up to other dogs.
  • If you can, redirect your dog so they don’t make direct eye contact with the reactive dog or stare at it as the reactive dog may see this as threatening.
  • Rapid or erratic motion can set off reactive dogs, so walk calmly with your dog until you are a fair distance away. Do not run.
  • Don’t try to pet the dog without asking. If the answer is no, move on.

In cases where the other dog is aggressive, the above still applies, but it’s always handy to have some form of protection just in case.

Citronella spray (affiliate link) and pepper spray are common.

An air horn for dogs (affiliate link) can also startle and drive other dogs off.

Make sure to condition your dog to the noise before using it on other dogs though so you don’t scare them in the process.

A sturdy walking stick or trekking pole can be used for defense as well.

Hiking with your dog is a great experience. And if you keep your eye out for reactive dogs and make sure to give them space, it can make hiking a great experience for everyone.

About the Author

Hi, I’m Jessica. I’ve been studying the Dachshund breed since 2007, owned 3 of my own, and shared in the lives of thousands of others through their owner’s stories. When I’m not sharing what I know on this blog, you can find me hiking, camping, and traveling with my adventurous wiener dogs.


  1. I have a really hard time with labels and the reactivity versus aggression debate is a hard one for me because both “types” are trying to achieve the same thing. In your case it was to get something to go away. There are different types of aggression, though… Fear aggression, predatory response, frustration response, etc. etc.

    I tend to look at the motivation behind the behavior versus using labels. If the dog is barking, lunging, snarling, snapping or using other behaviors to make another animal (or person) go away or to get something (like a resource) that is considered agonistic in nature and I would call it an aggressive response. In example, my dog will have an aggressive response if a ginormous lab tries to pummel her. Does that make her inherently aggressive? No, it doesn’t but she did have an aggressive response to a specific stimulus. Dogs do not have to put holes into other dogs to have an aggressive response.

    We need to call these behaviors what they are. It doesn’t mean they are bad dogs. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It just means that your dogs responded to a specific stimulus. They felt threatened and responded. That’s agonistic.

    “There is no single agreed upon definition of aggression used by professionals who work with animals. I like Dr. James O’Heare’s definition from his book Aggression in Dogs (2007). He defines aggression as “attacks, attempted attacks, or threats of attack by one individual directed at another individual.” In dogs, this usually refers to snarling, growling, lunging, snapping, and biting. Aggressive behaviors are agonistic and function to achieve access to something (such as a resource), or to escape from or avoid something.”

    The blog post belongs to my boss who is a CPDT-KA CBCC-KA and he is the only certified Behavioral Consultant in Oregon. 90% of our cases are fear and aggression related.

    1. It’s so terribly complicated… especially for a non dog trainer. My head spins just trying to make sense of it. As you said, the differences are so subtle. I was mainly trying to offer a bit of a distinction here for the layperson and solutions for both the reactive/aggressive dog and the other dog owner. I see so many “interactions gone bad”.

      However, there is a very clear distinction to me between what happened to my friend’s dog the other day and how Chester and Gretel react. Chester and Gretel are often ok if ignored. But if a dog stares too long, or quickly gets to close, they will bark and try to back away ( usually not snapping or lunging but it does happen on occasion). To me, that is clearly reacting to a situation. On the other hand, my friend did all of the things right – step to the side of the sidewalk, have her dog focus on her, etc. – and an off-leash dog bolted right for her dog and attacked, bruising her and causing a few puncture wounds. That is clearly aggression to me. Your distinction helps though. They can both be seen as aggressive but the first is more agnostic and the second was clearly with the intent to harm.

      1. You’re definitely right! It’s very complicated! Even for us trainers! Which is why the more I learn the less I wanted to write about it because it can be so confusing.

        My boss doesn’t let us label things too much because labels don’t really tell us what the dog is actually doing, or feeling but I can understand how people get trapped into them. I certainly was before I started working where I work. It’s super easy to just say this dog is reactive or this dog is aggressive but those words don’t actually describe any behavior.

        All the situations you described above would be considered agonistic. We can’t really determine the dog’s actual intent because we can’t ask them. The thing about hurting another dog, it’s often really just an accident. Bite inhibition can go out the window once the impulse control is gone. Both of my dogs I would consider similar to Chester and Gretel. They are not “reactive” unless another dog is in their face and won’t go away. They’ve never hurt anyone but I would still consider what they do in response to another dog being way too into their faces (hard stare, lip curl, snark) as an aggressive response, even though I don’t think they have any intention to harm anyone.

        I think a lot of people are afraid to use the word “aggression” because it makes their dogs sound bad but aggression is completely normal. People use aggression all the time, too. Road Rage is a great human comparison because all road rage is agonistic, we react because we get angry or scared and most of the time none of us intend to harm anyone but accidents still occur. My boss recently did an awesome seminar on aggression (for free!) and I think he’s going to do a repeat soon! You should come down for a visit and we could meet up!

        Thanks for the great dialogue. I really enjoy it when people are open to learning more!

        1. That does make a lot of sense. Thanks for the explanations. It’s something I don’t understand well (obviously) but want to at least understand a little. It’s so hard for a non-dog trainer to wrap their head around.

  2. Also, I forgot to mention that it does absolutely suck to have another owner make snotty comments at you. I’m really sorry that happened and if someone can’t control their dog from running up to other dogs, they should definitely have their dog on leash.

  3. We have an older recovering-reactive dog and a younger “hail-fellow-well-met” dog. Our old girl now stays home on the long hike days, while “hail-fellow” can hike forever. We call him back before meeting any dog, then call ahead to make sure the other dog is OK interacting. If the owner leashes up or sounds unsure, we move well off the trail to let them pass unmolested. Usually the other dog is fine with a meet and greet, but we like to set a good example for all dog owners. So many people are ignorant (as we were) about reactivity.

    Ah, yes, it’s easy to let a snarky remark slip out. But we’ve learned to educate (or at model the behavior we’d like to see), rather than react.

    1. Thank you for being so respectful. Chester is a “hello everyone” type of dog too. Before I got Gretel – who is very anxious and reactive – I made every mistake in the book and didn’t understand why some people were displeased when I let Chester approach their dog without asking.

  4. Hmm interesting read. I never owned a dog however have been in the presence of reactive dogs responding to threats to themselves or family members. Honestly, I never once felt fearful however the owners ability defuse the situation is important. The tips you mentioned are helpful. I’m sure not every situation can be avoided but this post is helpful to have the tips handy if needed.

    1. Yes, it makes all the difference when the owner can recognize their dog’s warning signs (and know their threshold) and properly diffuse the situation. Many instances can be avoided altogether if both owners are aware of how each dog typically reacts. Unfortunately, many people aren’t in tune with their dogs or understanding of dogs that react differently than theirs.

  5. This post is GREAT! As a reactive dog owner, it is SO frustrating when other dog owners let their pup run up to mine or — as happened a few weeks ago — even squeeze between us and a wall on a narrow sidewalk with NO WARNING when Henry is doing his business. It’s true that non-reactive dog owners just don’t get it — having Henry has really opened my eyes to dog behavior and warning signs. I’ve become a more respectful dog owner because of it. That being said, it now drives me even MORE crazy when people aren’t considerate! I’ll be sharing this post for sure!

    1. Thanks Rochelle. The whole reactive/aggressive thing is so complicated. However, I wanted to try to add a bit of clarity while focusing on solutions for both the reactive dog owner and “strangers”.

      I’m like you too – I had no clue about reactive dogs until I owned one. I don’t think I even noticed if other owners were displeased when I let happy-go-lucky Chester approach their dog without asking. Boy was I in for a reality check with Gretel. But, as you, now I get super annoyed when people aren’t considerate. I try to remind myself that I was clueless once too. Ha, ha. They’re probably never owned a reactive dog so they just don’t get it.

  6. Great article! As the owner of a reactive pup, I have been dealing with issues like this for years. We did the same as you for a long time, hiking mostly during the week or at less busy times. I still do this occasionally, just because it makes Ringo more comfortable, but with training and practice, we can now hike anywhere at any time with however many people happen to be there. Not to say he never gets over threshold, but we know how to deal with it and he’s a happy go lucky, confident pup most of the time now on the trail. It’s so important for people to know the difference between reactive and aggressive and how to interact (or not) with both kinds of dogs, whether you’re the owner or a bystander.

    1. That’s great that Ringo has made such progress. Gretel has less and less incidents nowadays too. I would like to think it’s because of my superior training/handling skills but, truthfully, I’m sure it has more to do with her mellowing as she ages. Ha, ha.

  7. I’m fortunate that none of my dogs have been reactive so far, but my peaceful, laid-back senior dog has occasionally been confronted by aggressive dog who were off-leash and in at least one case, it was terrifying, as the other dog charged us and had my dog Soldier on the ground and was biting him before I had time to react and before the owner of the other dog made an appearance. He was laughing when he showed up, which made the whole incident even worse. It’s always good to know ways to avoid such encounters, since you never know when another dog can appear.

    1. A friend of mine just experienced something similar when a dog came out of nowhere and attacked hers. I understand how maddening and scary that can be. The closest to an attack I’ve seen with Chester and Gretel was a “very heated debate” where both dogs were lunging and snapping. The other dog was big and strong and the owner was not paying attention so I was trying to hold both dogs back from each other. My arm span is only so wide though so I wasn’t being very successful. I definitely had a freak-out moment! Luckily, when I shrieked at the dog owner, he came over and go his dog. He didn’t apologize though 🙁

  8. This is close to home for me since my Doberman is a reactive girl. She’s not aggressive but can appear to be. . . like when people leave their large dogs in their front yards unattended and they come out of nowhere charging us. I took a series of classes for reactive dogs based on the principles of the book Controlled Unleashed. As a horse person I am very attuned to equine body language and the whole fight or flight response, but was not aware of many of the subtle dog body language messages. All that to say, I learned to try to train my Dobie to focus on ME. This was/is accomplished by having high value treats with me when I walk. If she sees something up ahead I use the cue “Look!” which actually means she’s supposed to look at me and then I give her a yummy treat. The training was all about trying to distract the distracted/anxious dog so they focused on the person, not the “problem.” This post reminded me of so many good points I learned. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Unfortunate that it’s something you have to deal with but I bet the “fight or flight signal” differences between horses and dogs are interesting. I’m still working on “look at me” with Gretel. She’s good up to a certain point but the threshold where she stops hearing me is still low 🙁

  9. Never had a reactive dog so it’s not something I have ever given much thought to if I am honest. Question: if they are never exposed to the “trigger” how do they grow “out” of it … speaking from a training perspective. Or is the trigger a lifelong … concern/handicap/issue …?

    1. Well, it’s complicated. At least to someone who doesn’t know a lot about dog training. Ha, ha. Basically, being exposed to the trigger is the primary method of training. However, that exposure has to occur at a distance, and in a setting, as to not cause the dog to react in order to be useful. Soon before a dog reacts – right before they show signs of distress – is called “threshold”. Usually that’s a distance. So, for example, Gretel is reactive but has zero problem with a dog if it’s over 5 feet away and minding it’s own business. If the dog is 2 feet away, she will defensively react. Somewhere in between 2-5 feet away is her “threshold”. So, to train properly, I would start in situations where I know the dog will remain 5 feet away. Once she reliably doesn’t react to the dog, we can try 4 feet away. And on and on like that until, eventually and theoretically, they would be able to meet without incident. However, some dogs never get to that face-to-face comfort. Also, in the scenario I am describing – on sidewalks and trails – it’s not a controlled environment and dogs are very often forced to be closer to each other than their threshold distance. Once a dog is over threshold, it kind of ruins any learning experience. In facy, it can reinforce their feeling that other dogs are scary. I probably didn’t explain that well but does it kind of make sense?

  10. Great guest post! There is nothing worse than a dog off leash encountering dogs on lead. Beau is a reactive dog and while I work hard with him, if ANY dog or person were to run up toward us he would be on the defense. It’s in his breed and his personality. I do actually tend to carry a small sample of my Fly & Tick Spray that contains citronella and other ingredients, so that’s great I could use it for defense as well. I never thought of that!

    1. I never thought of using a bug spray with citronella for that. I always hear people recommend a product specifically made to be a deterrent. However, it seems the buy spray could work while being a “weaker formula” so so potentially less “harmful”.

  11. Great article although I am blessed with Layla as she will trot along ignoring any dog in her path. I call her the little snob although I am also relieved she is that way. When walking her I do keep my eye out on all dogs on leashes also as I always say rather be safe than sorry

    1. Lucky you 🙂 Chester is a pretty happy guy but he definitely is not in the “ignore other dogs” category. He wants to run up to everyone and say hi. It’s SO NICE when I’m walking with Gretel and the other dog totally ignores her. Even if they are in close proximity, she usually does not react defensively to them.

  12. Thank you for this! I have always felt my Lyla was a reactive dog but this confirms my feelings. Sometimes she can be aggressive as well, however! Only rarely though. I am sure all dogs have the potential to be aggressive under specific circumstances for them. I am always frustrated by dog owners who are lazy, inattentive, and let their dogs run without being on a leash. Especially when they turn around and blame those of us who are being aware and following the laws!

    1. It does flabbergast me when people expect that no dog should have an issue with other dogs running up to them. Like they think you have a “bad dog” or are a “bad owner” if your dog doesn’t like it. They’re clearly never owned a reactive dog 🙂

  13. I’m not entirely sure if my dog is just reactive or if she is aggressive too, she used to play with more dogs but I was never good at meeting other dogs so I think I passed some anxiety on to her. But she has always been very leash reactive. A few of my neighbors know what she’s like on leash and will move their dogs out of our way when we’re walking down the sidewalk and they are stopping or even walking the other direction. But for some reason people never think that dogs might be reactive to other people not just other dogs. Last week we were walking down the sidewalk and a man was approaching from the opposite direction. The sidewalk wasn’t that big and I didn’t want to try to keep her from jumping or lunging at him so I moved over and had her sit and he walked by and just as he passed me she got up and he stuck his arm out to her and I about lost my mind. Like hello you could ask first or just keep walking not reach out to her when you see that we moved out of the way to avoid you!! I was trying to take this as a learning moment for her to let somebody walk by without bothering her and showing her that it was fine but we see how that worked. Ugh, love her, hate her reactivity.

    1. Dogs definitely feed off of our energy. The more stressed and tense you are, the more they will usually be. It sounds like you were doing the right thing with that person though. I agree it’s very frustrating when people can’t take the hint. You were clearly trying to create a barrier between your pup and him – like remove her from the situation – and he was oblivious. I sometimes will plainly say, if I can catch it early enough, “please don’t pet her”. It sounds like that happened pretty fast though and you were probably focusing on your dog, now what that person was doing.

  14. This is really interesting, and confusing…. I know that I bark when I’m worried or protective of my people or myself. I usually don’t bark at dogs unless they bark at me first, then I think there is something to be worried about. What would you call that?

    1. Confusing indeed! I still don’t have my head wrapped around it all and probably never will because I don’t desire to be a professional dog trainer 🙂 If you get nervous and bark at other dogs who are minding their own business, then that is usually being “reactive”. If you are calm and quiet and they bark at you first, then you bark back, then that is just normal dog communication 🙂

  15. This post is helpful for dog owners, but for non dog owners as well. I tend to be a bit nervous when I pass a dog and they start barking, but this information will make me think about it in a different way.

    1. Glad it helped you, even as a non-dog owner! It’s way more complicated than I presented it here but I wanted to at least raise awareness. For you, just know that a dog can sense when you are nervous. I know you can’t always help it but the calmer you are, usually the calmer they are. If they do bark at you, they are usually just asking for space. The farther away you can pass from them, the less chance they will bark.

  16. I would probably even go as far as to say that an aggressive dog might not bark at all and attack instead. Cookie had issues with reactivity; she’s a frustrated greeter. As long as she gets attention, she’s fine. Else she’ll lunge, bark, and even cry. Up here, in the middle of nowhere, she doesn’t get much reason to get frustrated other than with squirrels or bunnies.

    1. Yeah, this is definitely “awareness” level, not necessarily “fully explained” level. Ha, ha. It’s so complicated. But I agree about the no warning signs thing. Gretel was so anxious she was on Prozac when I adopted her. One minute she would be fine, and the next minute she would be seeing red and going “Cujo” on the other dog. No warning signs (or at least none I knew to recognize). It was a happy day for me when she started baring her teeth first. Now she will bear her teeth at the other dog while creating more distance between herself and it. I actually love seeing that because that means she is learning to “self regulate”. When we are hiking, she is very often too close for comfort and can’t move away but I can look for the signs and pick her up if I need to.

  17. Wonderful article. I also hike with a trail reactive dog (who can be pushed into aggression without proper management). I have learned several techniques to manage her reactivity, but it sure helps when other dogs don’t run up off-leash into her personal space. Thanks for helping to educate about good trail etiquette and reactive dogs.

    1. That’s what is so frustrating. I know how to manage Gretel but if the situation is uncontrolled – an off-leash dog runs right up to us – there is really nothing I can do.

  18. So many dogs and owners have never taken basic obedience classes to help them learn dog language. In those classes, dogs learn to leave other dogs alone…to watch them from a distance before interacting with them, if allowed to do so later.

    Owners that bark out snide remarks are sometimes in a diversion mode if they know their dog is in the wrong and they don’t want to admit it…then they would be in the wrong too.

  19. Great article. I really feel that dog owners that have never had a reactive or aggressive dog of their own, don’t think about the concerns that come with owning a dog like this. It drives me crazy when people have their dog off leash in situations like this. If that woman’s dog was so perfect, then why was it so far ahead of her in the first place.

    As a foster family, we have seen many different reactive and aggression scenarios in dogs, and I will say every single dog is different. Our resident dog is resource aggressive, otherwise she is the sweetest dog… she just doesn’t want people messing with her food or something that she feels belongs to her. It’s a constant learning experience.

    1. I sure didn’t! Chester was always super friendly. I was clueless. I KNOW I made every mistake in the book. I didn’t adopt anxious little Gretel until he was 8. Boy, have I come a long way as a respectful dog owner since then. However, I will say I never let Chester off leash around other dogs.

  20. Such good information here! I’m always amazed at how sideways some people view the world. Sometimes it is better to bite your lip though.

  21. I have a reactive but not aggressive dog, the amount of times I have said to other owners, she is exceptionally nervous, please call your dog back and I get the response, oh my dog is very friendly. They may well be, but I am trying to socialise an extreme nervous, unsocialised, frightened dog to everything and your dog charging up to mine is not helping. It is so frustrating. Great tips and I will reread this to digest it properly.

    1. I was hiking with a friend the other day and had that happen. A guy was approaching with an off-leash dog. He DID have the courtesy to ask if my friend’s dogs were ok with an off-leash dog. She hesitated and then responded that her dogs were pretty nervous and can be reactive. THEN, he said “It’s ok, my dog is friendly” and carried on as he was. As his dog got close, he got it. My friends’s dogs started freaking out. Again, to his credit, he then grabbed his dog’s collar and hurried on by. Better something than nothing though, right? 🙂

  22. Ruby is selectively reactive. She gets upset when off leash dogs run up to her or surprise her. One of her triggers is definitely erratic or surprising behavior – like if someone jogging or biking approaches us from the side (surprising her), she gets upset.

    I am pretty cautious (maybe overly so) and usually hike or walk at off hours. Luckily she is small enough that sometimes I just pick her up and move off to the side when I see joggers, bikers, etc. She’s definitely improved and this is only an occasional issue for us now.

    1. I think about the erratic movement/jogging thing often. One way I can get Gretel not to react when we are in close proximity to another dog is to get her attention and then jog by the other dog. I know that is a trigger for some dogs though so I’m always conflicted. I mean, I could ask the other owner if it’s ok I jog by but it usually happens so fast. I do usually just pick her up now. But that opens another can of worms, especially if the other dog breed has a bad reputation. I’ve had many people get offended thinking that I am judging their dog and scared for mine when I pick her up. If I can sense they might be offended, I usually say, “I’t not your dog. She can be a little jerk so I’m just trying to make it easier on myself.”

  23. My Chipper was a reactive dog, but I only walked him around the residential streets. If a loose dog came up to us I put him behind me as best as I could and yelled at the other dog to go home. Sometimes this worked. I always hate it when a loose dog comes up to me. I had a pit bull once pin me and my springer down. Luckily we didn’t get hurt and the neighbors beat the dog off of me.

  24. Spray Shield is my favorite (except that I accidentally sprayed myself yesterday when it opened in my pocket and I bent over to pick up poop and then I had to spend the rest of our walk smelling like citronella!). It usually doesn’t get the dog to stay completely away from us, but after spraying a non-aggressive dog (because they’ll still make Barley behave aggressively no matter how friendly their approach) 2 or 3 times, they usually realize that they can’t get close enough to sniff her and they’ll walk alongside us politely and Barley is fine with walking beside other dogs as long as they don’t try to sniff her. Nothing makes me crabbier than people who don’t know how to follow the rules and keep their dogs on leash in areas where leashes are required–I never take Barley to off-leash parks because I know that’s not fair to the people whose dogs can handle that freedom to put either of our dogs in that situation. When I was planning our summer Vermont road trip, I got a book of area dog hikes and one of the top hikes had a comment about how dog fights in the parking area were frequent and I immediately ruled that one off my list!

  25. Thank you for sharing this informative post! As a newer dog owner I always wondered about the dogs we see coming towards us on the trail. Thank you for sharing these important differences.

    1. If you read the first comment on this post, you will see that the issue is very complicated. However, I wanted to give sort of a “primer” here along with some solutions for managing the encounters. Glad you found it helpful.

  26. So if I have a reactive or aggressive dog I should be aware of what is coming from behind, the side and not just in front, and restrain and comfort and protect my dog prior to interaction? It seems simple enough to let other dog walkers know their dog needs to stay off a ways, and to be aware of other possible perceived threats. Helpful info. to someone who does not have a dog yet 🙂 Can’t wait.

    1. Hi Pete. It would be nice if you could let other dog owners know that your dog needs space to solve the problem. Unfortunately, not all dog owners are within hearing distance when you encounter our dog and some people don’t think they should have to keep their dog from yours. That’s why I suggest that people with scared or nervous dogs be proactive and take measures to protect and sooth their dogs themselves. Good luck with your new pup!

  27. I know this post is a little old, but I’m glad I found it! Reading it and the comments, seeing others who deal with this also, is encouraging. Our Maia is very sweet. Off-leash at the dog park or in someone’s backyard with their dog(s) or around most people, she’s completely fine, but on-leash around other dogs or animals, she’s a nightmare! I’m not sure if it’s because she’s scared because she knows she can’t get away if she needs to, or if she’s just frustrated that she can’t get to the dog. I’m thinking it’s the first because we used to make the mistake of walking her to the other dog, but after she acted aggressively toward a few dogs, we stopped doing that. So it’s probably a fear thing. She’s a pretty dominant dog and probably doesn’t like feeling trapped around other dogs. Like I said, off-leash around other dogs who are off-leash as well, she is fine. Super energetic and playful, but fine. We’ve been working on this issue with her, but it’s been a slow process. I had never dealt with this type of dog behavior until we got her, and even though it sucks, I’m thankful because I feel it’s made me a more responsible dog owner.

    Also, I had a similar situation happen to me earlier today. I took Maia to the beach to get some exercise and play in the water. This beach has a leash law, so I didn’t really think about the possibility of other dogs off-leash. Usually if I see a dog before her, I try to distract her until they are gone. We were having a great time until two little dogs off-leash came running toward us, and unfortunately, she saw them first. Then freaked out. She was lunging, jumping, twisting, howling, barking, etc. She was completely hysterical. I remained calm, but the owners of the little dogs were freaking out and yelling at their dogs to come to them, which didn’t help Maia either. Their dogs kept getting away from them and running toward us, and they kept having to grab them. I wanted to yell at them and tell them to put their dogs on leashes, but I knew they’d probably get mad at me. I couldn’t get away because I was pretty much at the end of the beach, so the dogs were kind of blocking us in. Otherwise, I would’ve immediately took Maia out of that situation. After they got their dogs, we left. As I was driving by, I saw them, and their dogs were still off-leash…?

    Maia is an American Pit Bull Terrier. When that incident happened, everyone on the beach was watching us. It made me feel bad because I was afraid it only helped reinforce the stigma that pit bulls are dangerous. She is the only pit bull I know who has acted like this. ? but after reading this post and all the comments, I’m determined to continue working with her and to not let ignorant people or dog-owners hinder that. I’m sorry for such a long post, btw!

    1. Just because an article was written a while ago, doesn’t mean it’s not still relevant. Glad you found it.

      I love your attitude about dealing with Maia’s issue. Especially the, ” I’m thankful because I feel it’s made me a more responsible dog owner.” Dogs acting aggressively (fear aggression usually but, yes, as you said, sometimes it’s just due to over-excitement and frustration) on leash, is not so unusual. It sounds like you’re doing the best you can to both calm her down in those situations and to control her experiences on leash. From experience, I can say that sometimes management is the best we can hope for.

      It’s unfortunate that she is being judged due to her breed/look when it was, in my opinion, the other owners that were being irresponsible. I run into similar situations around here when we hike too – leashed dogs being the law on the trail but many people ignoring it and then letting their dogs run up to Gretel who is fear reactive. Sometimes she acts that way even if the other dog in on leash because the trail basically forces the dogs to get in each other’s space. When the other dog is some sort of bully-looking breed I especially feel bad. In many cases, Gretel is the one that starts it. Sadly, people always seem to blame the bigger/bully dog for the behavior. Small dogs can be little shits and I’ve met way more well-behaved pit bulls than I have little dogs 🙂

  28. I came here looking for tips on how to deal with what I thought were aggressive dogs, but now have learned they are reactive dogs. Thank you for the information. I don’t have a dog, but I am a solo female hiker and frequently run across off-leash reactive dogs where the dog parents eventually make it to the dog. Same story, different hike: dog parent states the dog is friendly and then usually blames my hiking poles or pack. I then get reactive and spend the rest of the hike trying to calm myself down. I don’t blame the dog, I blame the irresponsible dog parent.

    1. It’s can be an infuriating experience can’t it? I’m by no means a perfect dog owner or one to judge but I would still get very frustrated when I had a bad encounter. Learning to manage my expectations, to come from a view of compassion, and recognizing a dog’s reaction more often than not is a natural fear response, helped me not hold onto those bad encounters in my mind for the rest of the hike. Happy Hiking!

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