Downeast Dog News

Dog-Dog Reactivity is Contagious

Let's do something about it!
By | Dec 28, 2018
Photo by: Maisie, Penny, Ophelia and Izzy practice focusing on Diana and Sarah at PupStart, ignoring each other. Good puppies!

When you and your dog are enjoying a walk together, how would you like her to behave when she notices another dog? There are several possibilities and each of them dictates what might happen in the future. Here are a few standard options:


1. Your dog barks and lunges. This is unfortunately very commonplace and is a reaction akin to a human yelling, swearing, and waving his gun menacingly at a stranger. Talk about rude…! Emotions erupt for humans and dogs alike; your dog is now amped up and pulling (if on leash), and the situation is very difficult to manage. If the dogs are close, it could result in a fight. Even if they aren’t, it takes quite a while for your dog to calm down, and the innocent dog on the receiving end has just been harassed (which will affect his view of other dogs). Then there’s the next dog around the next corner… and another inevitable bout of reactivity occurs. I don’t know anybody who chooses this option, but it seems to be all too prevalent. It teaches the dog who reacts to make reactivity her go-to behavior, and it teaches the dog on the receiving end that other dogs are a potential threat, which can lead to preemptive defensiveness.

2. Your dog hides and tries to avoid the other dog. This is a fearful reaction, and the dog needs some help feeling more comfortable in the presence of other dogs (“presence” doesn’t mean direct interaction but rather sharing the same part of the world with his brethren). If a fearful dog is regularly forced to be exposed to the things he fears, he will start to avoid those situations altogether. (Imagine if this fearful dog is the one that the reactive dog in #1 sees.)

3. Your dog looks at you and shrugs her shoulders - if she could - and acts as the other dog is as interesting as a boring rock. You carry on with your walk, enjoying your special time together. Nobody else is affected.


In this age of dog-filled cities and communities rife with dog parks, public dog-friendly areas, doggie daycares, playgroups, and more, we seem to be headed in the wrong direction when it comes to managing our dogs around other dogs. Many of our dogs have learned from an early age that any dog they see - and oftentimes any human - is 1) rightfully their plaything and/or 2) must be “greeted” at all costs (“greeted” is a term fraught with contradictions). If they are prevented from approaching their victim, an emotional explosion may occur.

“We really want our dogs to ignore other dogs 99% of the time,” says Sue Sternberg, a world-renowned expert in dog behavior and training, shelter dog assessments, and so much more.

When we get a dog, we want to share a special relationship with her. While we want her to have select dog friends, we don’t want her to set her sights on every dog she sees to the detriment of our connection.

Achieving #3 option above takes time, practice and knowledge, but it's essential, for everyone's sake, that we try. Here are some tips to help with dog management:

• Know what your dog is focused on! If her ears perk up as she turns towards another dog, call her to front position and reward. Do this consistently so that you break her focus and teach her that the presence of other dogs means good stuff comes from you. Back up if necessary to help her stay in front and to create some distance.

• Three behaviors to teach your dog to do with joy, enthusiasm, and attention: heel on left side, heel on right side and recall to front.

• Keep your dog close to you; have her turn her back on other dogs. Reward generously!

• Take treats on every walk! Know that your dog’s behavior affects more than just you. Take responsibility for what she does. Get educated!


We are all in this together. Let’s do better when it comes to managing our dogs in public!