Social Distancing: A Key Part of Staying Active with Your Reactive Dog

As of March 2020, “social distancing” has become a household concept. To slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, people around the world are working hard to keep at least 6-feet apart and to avoid congregating in large groups. A new concept for much of the population, social distancing is a skill that many reactive dogs and their people have already mastered.

While a reactive dog’s safe distance might be significantly more, or possibly less, than 6 feet, distance helps reactive dogs and their handlers feel less anxious and stay safer.

My dog, Glia, and I have several tactics for creating an appropriate social distance from other walkers/hikers and their dogs. But a small bright spot in this global pandemic is that it has become much easier to create this distance as everyone is collaborating to give each other space. In fact, reactive dogs could really be termed “social distancing assistance dogs: these days.

In this blog post, we want to talk about the importance of space for reactive dogs, general space etiquette for all dogs, and a few tips for how to create the space your dog needs.

Additionally, each reactive dog has unique, individual situations that trigger reactive behaviors. My own dog is dog-reactive (and occasionally skateboarder reactive) with a high prey drive (meaning that squirrels can incite some barking and staring and pulling on the leash). Distance helps with any type of reactivity, but some techniques may differ depending on the underlying cause of your dog’s reactive behaviors.

Read more about some of the basics of understanding reactive dogs in the first blog post of our reactive dog care series.

But now to get back to how our reactive dogs can be great advocates for social distancing.

Why is social distancing between dogs so important?

There are two big answers here. One for every dog and another for reactive dogs.

Every dog, even dogs that enjoy social interaction with other dogs, have some sense of personal space, just like you and I do. And when in doubt, it is always polite to give another dog space unless you have asked for permission from the dog’s handler to approach that dog. But even if the handler says it’s okay to approach, pay attention to the other dog’s body language and don’t approach if you are uncertain if the dog wants you to.

For reactive dogs, space and distance from their triggers (whether that is another dog, the human that comes along with another dog, or other causes of anxiety/over-arousal), is key to keeping a reactive dog “under threshold.”

In dog training lingo, the threshold is the point at which a dog goes from showing no awareness, fear, or anxiety towards a stimulus to showing some awareness of the stimulus.

For reactive dogs, the response to the stimuli or trigger can vary significantly. But regardless of the response, dogs that are over threshold, are not in a good state of mind to train, as they are anxious and fearful and/or over-aroused.

As a reactive dog owner, the goal is to keep your dog at or under threshold. Later in this blog post we will talk specifically about determining how much space your dog needs and how to create that space, but if you want to read more about the “threshold” concept, check out this post by or this one on

Space Etiquette for All Dogs

No matter how much your dog likes other dogs, there are still behaviors that any dog can find rude. Many people who have a friendly dog, assume that all dogs want to say hi to each other. Many also assume that their friendly dog’s pushy, “in-you-face, ” over-exuberant greeting is an okay way for their dog to greet other dogs.

But let’s put this into perspective for a moment. I consider myself a decently socialized human. I am an introvert, but I can interact calmly and happily with a wide variety of people. However, if I were walking down the street in my neighborhood, out for a walk on a nice day, and a stranger started hollering at me, I would likely feel a little bit of anxiety.

Chances are I would respond with a wave or smile, but then try to distance myself from this unknown person. If they then started to approach me while talking loudly, I might hesitate and wait to see if they needed something. But if there wasn’t an emergency and they were just being loud and friendly, I would be a little uneasy.

If that person approached all the way to standing within inches and even touching me, I would do what I could to create distance. I wouldn’t enjoy that interaction much at all, even if the person was very friendly. I don’t like strangers touching me without permission.

So when a friendly dog drags its human over to greet your dog, you can start to imagine that your dog could have some unease about it. Especially if the approaching dog is barking excitedly or staring excessively. And if the unknown dog sticks its nose right at your dog or jumps on your dog, it is not unreasonable to expect your dog to attempt to step away from the interaction.

Now add in a leash, trapping your dog in that interaction, and you can see how important space etiquette is for any dog. I wouldn’t want to be held in place while a stranger ran up to me and reached out to touch me.

These in your face approaches are vastly different that passing a friendly stranger who waves at you and then waits for you to respond. If you wave and keep walking, they let you go. If you wave and slow down, then they might approach you or you might both approach each other to have a conversation and interact. You might touch each other with a handshake, but there wouldn’t be any forced contact.

This is the equivalent of asking if you or your dog can interact with another dog. And then allowing the other dog to choose whether or not to approach you and your dog.

One of my favorite dog space-etiquette diagrams was created by I like to use it to help people understand space etiquette for reactive dogs, but it is really true for all dogs. Please help all dogs by respecting their space.

The “Space Etiquette for Dogs” illustration, recommends 4 basic principles to help all of us respect other dogs space:

  1. Never let your off-leash dog go up to an on-leash dog.
  2. Lock retractable leashes when you see other dogs.
  3. Ask before approaching or petting any dog
  4. Have compassion for people with shy or reactive dogs.

With these 4 principles in place, many dogs do enjoy greeting other dogs. It is just important for dog handlers to communicate their dog’s needs and to allow dogs to choose the interactions. If your dog doesn’t want to interact with another dog, help your dog create the space they need to feel comfortable walking down the trail or sidewalk.

Reactive Dogs Need Even More Space

For reactive dogs, this is even more important. To help me understand the possible anxiety a reactive dog is feeling, I like to change the approaching stranger analogy a little bit.

Instead of walking down your neighborhood sidewalk on a sunny day, imagine that you are walking through a city at night. You have gotten a little turned around heading back to your car and you are walking alone down a quiet street. You turn a corner and out of a dark ally, a man starts to approach you, yelling.

You can’t quite understand what he is saying at first, but he seems agitated and excited, becoming even more animated as he approaches.

I can tell you right now that in that scenario, I am likely not just anxious, I am afraid. And I am searching my pockets for something sharp, even if it is just my keys. I am looking around for other people to help and getting ready to scream if this man gets to close.

And if this man touched me, tried to hug/hold me (even in a friendly way), or otherwise intruded on my personal space, I don’t think anyone would blame me for hitting him and yelling at him. Anyone would be nervous if grabbed by a stranger when alone at night and it wouldn’t be inappropriate to do what was needed to create safe space.

Overall, I would need more space between me and this man to feel safe, than I did from that too-friendly, pushy neighbor in the first scenario.

Dog behaviorists currently believe that for most dogs who react to strange people or dogs, this reactivity is based in fear and anxiety. This fear causes them over-react to normal stimuli.

So it is no wonder that when a dog-reactive-dog sees another dog walking down the street they start barking, growling, or lunging. To them, that other dog is as much of a threat as a man stalking you down an ally in the dark.

To top it off, your reactive dog is attached to a leash and if you don’t turn around with your dog to create space, your dog will try to create space in other ways. By barking and growling, he is yelling and telling the intimidating stranger to back off and get gone before there is a conflict.

Some reactive dogs are also dog-aggressive, and may try to further control the situation by going on the attack first. It is extra important to keep these dogs below threshold and to have a good management system in place to ensure that your dog and everyone around them remains safe.

Essentially, as a caretaker of a reactive dog, it is your job to understand that your dog is not misbehaving. Instead they are overwhelmed and responding in whatever way has worked before to help them gain some control over the situation.

So instead of scolding your dog for reacting, help them create the space they need to feel safe. And help them reduce their fear by creating positive associations with their trigger, teaching them deference, and helping them gain the skills they need to relax and calm themselves. More on these skills to come in future blog posts, but links to some resources for now are listed later in this blog post.

How Much Space is Enough Space?

This answer is simple. As much space as is necessary to keep your dog under threshold.

If your dog is doing any of the following things, you need to create more space and increase your dog’s distance from an approaching person, dog, or another trigger.

  • Staring at an approaching dog or person
  • “Freezing” with stiff body language
  • Barking, growling, or other vocalization
  • Pulling towards another dog (or other trigger)
  • Won’t take treats (even though your dog normally loves them)

All of these are signs that your dog is anxious or fearful about the approaching trigger.

Once you begin really watching your dog to see when those first early signs of anxiety and arousal start, you will learn quickly where your dog’s threshold is. And it may vary depending on the situation.

For example, Glia can happily walk within 4 feet of a small dog who is not paying any attention to here. But we might need 15 feet or more for her to calmly pass a 60-pound lab mix who is pulling on the leash and trying to approach her.

Glia enjoying a lot of social distancing on a recent hike at Minnesota’s Banning State Park.

How to Create Space Between a Reactive Dog and His/Her Triggers

Each reactive dog has unique, individual situations that trigger reactive behaviors. And each dog is at a different point in his or her behavior modification journey. But the following tips are helpful for many reactive dogs.

A Few Considerations Before You Leave the House

Before you head out on that walk or hike, please make sure you have your reactive dog securely outfitted in a non-slip collar or harness and that you can safely keep your dog leashed to you if they were to react negatively while on a walk. If you are looking for gear recommendations for reactive dogs, click on the link below.

I also encourage all people living with reactive dogs to start your dog’s training/behavior modification plan indoors. This includes starting with a good training program to teach your dog deference and relaxation, finding high-value rewards for your dog, and making sure your dog is comfortable in the gear you will use to walk your dog.

There are a lot of good resources online to help you begin creating a behavior modification program for your dog. I will list a few here. But each dog is unique, so it is always in your dog’s best interest to work with a dog behavior specialist.

In severe cases, this may mean working with a veterinary behaviorist. Alternatively, working with a general practice veterinarian and a good dog trainer can also be an option. I recommend finding a trainer who focuses on positive reinforcement training.

But whether you are already working with a professional or not, here are a few good resources to help you work with your reactive dog:

Once you have these details figured out, you will be better equipped to handle your dog’s triggers when you are outside of the home.

Okay, back to the focus of this blog post. Creating appropriate social distance for your dog.

The Emergency U-Turn

The emergency U-turn is one of the best distancing maneuvers to use when you see another dog approaching and you are in the early stages of training. It is helpful to have already trained your dog to look at you when asked and to walk loosely on a leash before walking your dog in areas that triggers are likely to be.

Turning on a leash is an important part of loose leash walking. But even if you have to tug on the leash, any dog is capable of making a u-turn.

The emergency U-turn is relatively simple. When you see your dogs trigger, simply turn 180 degrees around and walk away. If able to, call your dogs attention to you as you turn.

If your dog is in early training stages and remains focused on the approaching dog, you may have to tug on the leash a little bit. But once you create distance from the trigger, your dog should be in a better mental space to give their attention back to you. At that point you can reinforce the dog for looking back at you with whatever reward is appropriate – praise, treats, toy, etc.

Keep in mind that for many dogs, creating distance from the trigger is a reinforcement by itself, as you are removing a negative object from their environment.

What if your dog refuses to walk away from the approaching dog? Honestly, this likely means that you waited too long to make your u-turn and your dog is already over-threshold. Do your best to tug or bribe your dog away from the approaching dog and remember that next time you need to turn around earlier.

But what if you can’t just reverse directions? If you need to keep moving in your original direction, you can use two u-turns paired together. Sophia Yin has a good diagram on this technique. This u-turn illustration is part of a blog post that discusses several ways to move a dog past a distraction/trigger.

You will notice that the dogs in the illustration are still relatively close together. I recommend creating more space by stepping to the side more when creating the u-turn.

Make the space your dog needs, but this double u-turn keeps your dog moving away from the approaching trigger and still allows you to end up walking in your original direction.

If your dog is not ready/able to look at you and not the passing dog during these u-turns, your dog may be over-threshold or you need to do more work on teaching your dog to watch you.

Until your dog can watch you, you will likely need to just make that single u-turn and then walk away so you can turn down another path.

Step Off the Trail or Sidewalk

If you don’t want to turn around and your dog isn’t ready for the double u-turn shown above, consider whether you can make enough distance by just stepping off to the side.

Every dog has a different social distance that is needed to keep them under threshold. But if you have enough space, simply step off to the side. Positively reinforce your dog as the other dog (or whatever the trigger is) approaches.

Make sure you either have enough distance or good enough rewards/treats to hold your dog’s attention.

Ask your dog for a specific behavior – should they sit, lay down, shake, or perform another trick? It is easier to train a dog what to do, rather than what not to do. As a result, I always recommend specifically giving your dog a task while the trigger passes.

I personally place Glia in a sit-stay, with my body between her and the approaching dog. In the early stages, I would dole out treats rapidly so that Glia was focused on the treats and not the other dog. As her anxiety towards strange dogs decreases, we can stay closer and I can feed less treats while the other dog passes. Once the dog is past us, we can step back onto the trail and resume our hike.

If you have a small dog, picking your dog up can create additional space.

For smaller dogs, don’t forget that when needed, you can also pick your dog up. If you don’t have room to create the distance your dog needs to pass another dog (or other trigger) while under threshold, simply add a few feet of distance by picking your pup up.

Sorry large dog caretakers, this isn’t an option for you. Honestly, this is why the larger the dog, the more vigilant and pro-active you have to be about managing and training your reactive dog.

You May Have to Advocate for Your Dog

Sometimes the other dog is off-leash and moving faster than you and your leashed dog. Or the other dog is on-leash, but his handler is still allowing him to approach you and your dog rapidly.

In order to help create the needed space to keep a reactive dog under threshold, I recommend that all reactive dog owners come up with a script that helps them advocate for their dog’s personal space.

Some examples include:

  • “Please call your dog back. My dog is afraid of other dogs.”
  • “Sorry, you’re dog looks friendly, but mine doesn’t like other dogs. “
  • “We’re training today and can’t meet other dogs. We are just going to walk past without greeting.”
  • “My dog will react. Please call your dog away.”

Letting others know that you don’t want their dog to greet yours can reduce unwanted interactions when other people do not respect you stepping off the trail, turning around on the trail, or otherwise creating space.

Remember that your first priority is to your dog. It can be hard to tell other people that they or their dog can’t say hello to your dog. But you likely won’t see these strangers again. If they are offended that you said no, that is nowhere near as important as you helping your dog sucessfully get out of the house and exercise in a way that is not increasing your dog’s fear/anxiety.

If an off-leash dog is out of control (not listening to his/her handler) and still charging at you and your reactive dog, don’t be afraid to react so your dog doesn’t have to. Yell at the oncoming dog to stop and go away. Block the dog from approaching your dog by standing in between the dogs (but for your safety don’t get in between a dog fight.)

Or you could try this tip from Throw some of your dog’s treats into the face of the approaching dog. That stops many dogs right in their tracks.

For those instances when a hard-charging aggressive dog comes at you, treats likely won’t deter them. So you could also consider carrying a dog deterrent spray to help break up a dog fight if needed.

But hopefully, the dogs rushing you truly are friendly – like most owners claim when their out-of-control dog runs up to your dog. And if your own dog is a bite risk, don’t hesitate to keep everyone safe by muzzle training your dog.

Remember, you have the power to help your dog maintain good social distancing.

Overall, remember that you have the power to help your dog maintain the social distancing they need to navigate the world successfully without fear and anxiety. Help your dog avoid triggering situations by creating space.

Reactive dogs don’t need to be punished for barking and growling. They are already over threshold when they are barking. And punishment can just make arousal and fear worsen.

Instead of scolding your dog for reacting, help your dog leave (or even better – avoid) scary situations and bring lots of treats to reward your dog for turning their attention back to you as you walk away from a trigger.

As the illustration below depicts – your choice really does affect your dog’s choice.

To Summarize: Social Distancing is a Key Part of Living an Active Life with a Reactive Dog

Let’s help all reactive dogs live successful and active lives by remembering what we have learned about social distancing from a global pandemic.

Give everyone space unless you are familiar with them or have asked permission to approach. For reactive dogs, this isn’t about a virus, but it is still a matter of safety and quality of life.


Kate is the writer of Pawsitively Intrepid. She has spent the last 9 years working full-time as a veterinarian, treating dogs and cats. But as of June 2023, she is taking a year to travel with her dog, volunteer, and work on some passion projects.

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