As a relatively non-confrontational, introverted, Midwesterner, I tend to avoid anything more than a quick wave or smile when I encounter other people on my walking or hiking paths. When my pup, Glia, first started to react to other dogs on walks, it was embarrassing. I didn’t like the attention drawn my way. And I had a hard time figuring out how to communicate quickly and concisely to approaching dog owners.
But if I didn’t say something, a large percentage of fellow dog owners would allow their dogs to run right up to Glia. This created situations that set back Glia’s training and were potentially dangerous. So I knew I had to learn how to speak up and advocate for my dog.
It can be hard to be a good advocate for a dog with reactive behaviors, but if you don’t advocate for your own dog, who will?
Understanding the Dog Spectrum of Sociability
It has been my experience that the general public doesn’t understand dog body language very well. And they have been fed the idea from tv, movies, social media, etc, that most dogs love attention from strangers and from other dogs.
I will admit to originally being not all that educated on proper dog etiquette either. But once I started working as a veterinarian and adopted my first dog with reactive behaviors, I found out how many wrong assumptions I was making.
As I have learned more, I have realized how inaccurate it is to expect that most dogs want to interact with strangers (either unfamiliar dogs or unfamiliar humans). In reality, there is a large percentage of dogs that don’t particularly want to be pet by a stranger or that don’t want to be approached by another dog (especially while on a leash).
Take a look at this graphic created by EveryDog Behavior Training and illustrated by Lili Chin.
Many dog selective dogs deal with intrusion from unfamiliar people and dogs just fine, the same way you as a person deal with a stranger on an airplane striking up a conversation when you really wanted to sit quietly and watch a movie. But the closer a dog is to the left side of the spectrum (the “dog aggressive” side), approaches from unfamiliar dogs (or people) can trigger frustration or anxiety, ultimately resulting in reactive behaviors.
The further your dog is to the dog “aggressive” side of the spectrum, the more important it is to be proactive in advocating for space when out walking and hiking. So how do we advocate for our dogs to help make sure they are not being put in situations where they are uncomfortable, above threshold, and exhibiting reactive behaviors?
Practical Ways to Advocate for Your Reactive Dog
When it comes to advocating for your dog, I use the following four categories of techniques frequently to advocate for more space for my dog-selective and, sometimes reactive, dog.
1: Be Proactive and Have a Plan
Be proactive by making a plan ahead of time. This way you aren’t left scrambling for a solution in an emergency situation. It may take some trial and error to find the techniques that work best for you and your dog but start with having a few strategies planned ahead of time and adjust them as needed as you gain more information about what works for you and your dog.
Whenever possible let other people know about your dog’s triggers ahead of time. If you are walking and hiking with others, make sure everyone knows what situations you are trying to avoid with your dog.
And the best way to advocate for your dog is to avoid putting them into a potentially uncomfortable situation to begin with. Whenever I am out hiking with my dog-selective dog, I try to have a few options at my disposal for avoiding other dogs on the trail (especially, those exuberant, off-leash, “friendly” dogs).
How do I avoid other dogs? Here are some examples of techniques that I use:
- Training an emergency u-turn and using it to reverse quickly and get distance from an oncoming dog.
- Maintaining awareness of how narrow a trail can become and watching for places that I can step off to the side of the trail in order to get more space from a passing dog-human pair.
- Making sure my dog is comfortable being picked up, so I can get her raised off the ground if she is charged by an off-leash dog.
- Teaching my dog to step behind me or heel on the opposite side of an oncoming dog so I am between her and a passing dog.
- Working on counterconditioning and desensitizing so that approaching dogs don’t bother her as much.
- Determine what you want to say to approaching people and how you will react to out of control dogs rushing your dog. More on that in the next 2 sections.
2: Speak Up and Use Your Voice
Don’t be afraid to speak up and talk to approaching people (and potentially their dogs) as soon as you are within hearing range.
Have a couple of phrases ready to help others understand that they shouldn’t let their dog approach yours. Some examples include:
- “Hello. Can you give us a moment to move away from you? My dog is in training and isn’t ready to meet other dogs.”
- “Sorry, my dog doesn’t like to greet other dogs. Please call your dog away.”
- “Please don’t pet my dog, she is nervous around strangers.”
- You can even lie and say things like: “My dog is contagious.”
If someone listens well and moves away or gives you time to move away, thank them and get the distance your dog needs. If they don’t listen, get firmer.
Use the word “No!”. Be direct. “Do NOT let your dog approach.” “Do not touch my dog.”
If the human isn’t listening (or isn’t present), speak to the dog. Tell them to “go home” or to “sit” or “no” or another command to see if they will listen and stop their approach.
And if words alone don’t work, it is time to use your body language.
3: Use Your Body Language and Physical Barriers
If someone isn’t listening or a dog or stranger is approaching too fast, your next step is to get in between them and your dog. (It helps if you have trained your dog to wait behind you.) Hold out your hand in a “stop” signal. This is a universal sign and tends to work on both dogs and people.
You can also step forward and place one foot forward between you and an approaching dog. I don’t recommend kicking a dog unless you are in an emergency situation, but many dogs will respect a feigned kicking motion towards them and back off.
Tossing treats at a dog running towards you can also help distract them. And the throwing motion of your hand, combined with a step towards the oncoming dog, and the scattering of dog treats on the ground can re-direct the attention of a friendly oncoming dog from a focus on your dog to a focus on food. This can give you enough time to use your emergency u-turn and get out of the close contact situation.
If you are hiking with hiking poles, they can be a great barrier. And an umbrella works even better. So if you have a really reactive dog who needs extra space, you can train your dog to get comfortable with an umbrella. Train yourself how to use it to defend against an oncoming dog and then carry a pocket umbrella with you on walks.
You can also use your body as a physical barrier, by picking your dog up. This works okay when you are being rushed by an overly friendly dog, but use caution if the approaching dog is acting aggressively. Some dogs will re-direct onto a person if they can’t reach the dog they are going after.
For some additional suggestions, check out this article posted on the website Dogs In Need Of Space (DINOS).
4: Educate Others
Another great way to advocate for your dog is to advocate for ALL dogs! There is so much misinformation about proper dog etiquette out in the world. Helping other dog caretakers understand that it is not polite to let their dogs (whether on or off leash) run up to other dogs without permission can save a lot of dogs from uncomfortable encounters.
It doesn’t matter how friendly a person or dog is, if the dog they want to interact with doesn’t want to interact with them. Many of us have learned this the hard way by living with a dog who is dog-selective or shy around human strangers.
But there are a lot of dog owners who have only owned highly social dogs. They may come right up to you with their leashed dog assuming that all dogs want to greet other dogs. Or even worse, they may be walking behind their off leash dog (who is running right towards you) calling out “Don’t worry, my dog is friendly!”
The Dogs In Need Of Space (DINOS) website labels this type of human a MDIF (stands for My Dog Is Friendly). The writer of DINOS has published a great article all about how not to be a MDIF. Read it and share it.
And if most of your struggles with other dogs happen out on hiking trails, Long Haul Trekkers has a great blog post about proper dog etiquette while hiking. Share that too.
Or share the infographic below (yet another amazing drawing by Lili Chin) with proper attribution.
So Start Advocating for Your Dog
Your dog is asking for more space when they growl, lunge, and snap. Help your dog avoid reactive behaviors by advocating for your dog so they don’t have to advocate for themselves.
Learn to be comfortable avoiding other dogs and people, speaking up when someone is approaching, and using your own body language to indicate that you and your dog don’t want to be approached. It may be uncomfortable at first, but it’s well worth it.
Learning to advocate well for your dog is a key component of helping your dog learn that they don’t need to react to approaching dogs and people. They can rely on you to get them out of an uncomfortable situation.
And by advocating for your dog, you can make walks and hikes a happier experience for both you and your dog.