I was hiking with Chester and Gretel having a great day when, out of nowhere, an off-leash dog came running down the trail toward them. The owners were nowhere in sight. I tried to quickly get off the trail, stepping between Chester and Gretel and the oncoming dog, in an attempt to avoid any conflict. It was too late, though.
Chester and Gretel were startled by the dog coming right for them and started barking 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 they’re 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.
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.
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
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 dogs can react that way out of fear, frustration or excitement. It means they’re upset and over threshold, or distressed and in an over-aroused state. In fight-or-flee mode, they may not be in the right state of mind to listen to their owner or even hear them. Their cortisol level goes up, their breathing can become heavy and their heart rate increases.
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.
On the other hand, some dogs are outright aggressive. They can be aggressive for a variety of reasons including guarding their territory, fear aggression, resource guarding, prey drive or pain. They’ll 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.
Reactive dogs and aggressive dogs can exhibit similar body language, but if you see a dog becoming very still, showing the white of his eyes (whale eye), growling, snapping or showing teeth, you should give the dog a wide berth. That dog is showing warning signs of biting. 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 him or her 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. 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 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. It’s also best not to make direct eye contact with the reactive dog or allow your dog to stare at it.
- 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 and pepper spray are common. An air horn for dogs 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.