“He won’t do anything.” How to keep dogs away from your reactive dog

How to keep dogs away from your reactive dog, article by Canis bonus. October 2016
Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.
Client names and recognizable features were changed for this post

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague


Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

The dog who is scared of dogs

As I rung the doorbell, I knew I was in for a difficult consult. Mrs. E. was having problems with her adolescent German Shepherd, Tod, who wanted to murder every dog that crossed his path. We had a behaviour modification, management, risk management plan in place. That second one was the trickiest: management. It means avoiding the dog getting worse, ‘stopping the bleeding’. What was needed was strategies to avoid stressful encounters with other dogs. Not easy for Mrs. E., who lived in one of the world’s most densely populated cities.


The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated nations in the world. Good luck creating space for your reactive dog.

When I asked Mrs. E. how management had gone, her face crumbled. She’d carefully avoided other dogs for weeks, until yesterday when there was another incident. Another German Shepherd (off-leash and out of control, surely enough), had harassed Tod, who lunged and growled at him. Tod hadn’t caused any damage thanks to our safety measures. Also, our training work had paid off so he was already a lot less intense.

But Mrs. E. was upset. Days of training down the drain (every stressful encounter with the problem trigger is a setback in behaviour modification), and, once again, she had been made to feel an over-protective, ignorant dog owner for the crime of asking other dogs to respect her own dog’s space.

Once again, she’d heard the tired old litany from the other owner: “It’s OK he won’t do anything. He just wants to play.” and then the aggravating “You have to let them work it out.” This time, she lost her temper, then left the scene embarrassed. “What does it take for people to understand that my dog needs space?”, she asked me.

The dog who loves other dogs too much

That same day, I had another consult with a German Shepherd: Max. To say that Max was exuberant was an understatement. He got into everyone and everything’s personal space and would not take no for an answer. His main problem was not aggression, but impulse control.

During the consult, his owner told me of an incident she’d had in the park yesterday. You can see it coming, can’t you? Yup, Max and Tod had met.

Max had got “attacked” “out of the blue,” she explained. “Why can’t people keep their aggressive dogs away from the park?” She was hoping I’d be on her side as she went on: “I got shouted at, for my dog basically saying hello! If that woman wasn’t so hysterical about it, there wouldn’t have been an issue in the first place.”

I explained the predicament of owning a reactive dog. I explained that dog behaviour problems were not all down to a bad education, reminding her of her own predicament with Max. And I explained about why keeping distance was important. This is what I explained:

Why do reactive dogs need space? It’s not what you think

The obvious answer is to reduce the risk of an incident, for safety’s sake. But this is only part of the answer. And not the meatiest one at that.

The main reason is that behaviour modification cannot take hold otherwise. We treat reactivity by changing the patient’s expectations about other dogs. We want the patient to experience spotting another dog without feeling worried that the other dog will get in his face. We then use techniques to decrease the personal space he needs, so he becomes comfortable closer and closer to other dogs.


Letting your dog be reactive to other dogs whilst working on Behaviour Modification is like being caught in a constant Fox Trot: 1 step forward, 4 steps backward

Doing behaviour modification with your dog takes the patience of a saint: you have to fight tooth and nail for every inch of progress. Each time your dog has an episode, you reset the clock back. The only way for a dog to get better is for 99% of his encounters to happen at such a distance that he notices the other dog, but does not mind.

You can imagine how upsetting it is to throw weeks of progress down the drain, simply because people don’t respect your personal space.

Fair point: that dog has special needs and is asking the public to adapt. Fair point: It’s an inconvenience for you because you have to leash up your happy-go-lucky dog. But the sooner that high maintenance dog recovers, the less likely it is your own dog develops a problem with other dogs – from his many encounters with aggressive dogs. That, and plain old empathy for another person’s predicament should motivate you enough to give these dogs space, no?

Owner of sociable dog: how you can help owners of reactive dogs

One simple rule: if a dog is on leash, ALWAYS ask before you let your dog approach him or her. That simple. Just as if your own dog was a kid. You would never let your kid approach a dog without asking, right? (please tell me that you wouldn’t!) It’s the same with your dog.

Yes even in an off leash park. Yes even if your dog “won’t do anything”. It’s not about your own dog, but the other dog. And please oh please don’t argue education methods with them. They have enough on their plate.

Like different human cultures, dogs have their own greeting etiquette. Bounding up to each other isn't part of it.

Like different human cultures, dogs have their own greeting etiquette. Bounding up to each other isn’t part of it.

Not every dog is well-socialized to other dogs, on the contrary. Like-for-like, dogs tend to have more affinity to humans than to other dogs, did you know that? They don’t come out of the box loving every other dog. It takes careful socialisation and/or lucky genetics to get a dog there. In my estimation, 75% of dogs are wary of unfamiliar dogs. SEVENTY FIVE PERCENT. That is a huge number.

A normal greeting between two unfamiliar dogs should go something like this:

  1. They spot each other? They don’t look each other straight in the eyes and look away a lot.
  2. They approach each other? They follow an indirect path, stopping to smell the ground all the time, slowly. Definitely not bounding towards the other dog.
  3. They are close? They mark one last stop to check if the other dog is comfortable being approached further.
  4. Only then do they carefully sniff each other’s smelly bits.

They get even more funny about space when a precious resource like, drumroll, you, is involved.

Your bouncy, happy-go-lucky dog, bounding up to an on-leash dog is the one in the wrong. He’s not “not doing anything.” He is doing plenty. He’s breaching canine etiquette and being extremely rude.

Owner of reactive dogs: How can you steer clear of other dogs

Here are some tips:

  • Walk at times when the park is less frequented. In The Netherlands, a great time is around 6pm (thank goodness for early diners).
  • Find spots that are less frequented anyways.
  • Go to areas with strictly enforced on-leash laws.
  • Have your dog wear a vest that says: ‘Dog in training, please give space’. Some additional tips:
    • Steer clear of more explicit warnings like ‘I bite’, as it might land you in legal hot water. This might be considered to be an admission of guilt should your dog be involved in a scuffle.
    • Make sure the letters are visible from a distance, or you’ll end up with people up to you with their dog to read it…

Stand tall, put your hand up, and just calmly say: “Keep your dog away”

  • Get your dog used to wearing a muzzle. The Hannibal Lecter look does wonders for guaranteeing personal space. Please follow a recognized protocol for this (try Ken Ramirez’ or Sophia Yin’s).
  • Stand firm and call calmly: “Keep your dog away” when you see an off-leash dog approach. Keep repeating it until the person has leashed their dogs. Do not say anything else, do not answer their questions, do not get into a discussion. Just keep saying it. There’ll always be time to explain and chat once the danger is averted and both dogs are on-leash. If they’re still approaching, say that your dog is sick or contagious if you don’t mind a white lie for a good cause.

Bouncy and shy dogs: Can’t we all live together in peace?

Before you judge the other dog owner and get irritated, try to remember their own context. If you’ve never had a reactive dog, you might be baffled at the idea that another dog may be dog-shy, but believe me, your own dog will NOT charm the reactivity out of them. Put yourself in the shoes of the other owner, who is instructed by their dog’s behaviour therapist to keep their dog away from other dogs, but still needs to let their dog out. They do their best by keeping them on leash, but there is not much more they can do than that.

In the world of dog education as in many other worlds: remember the other person’s context before you get irritated. They have good reasons for having the beliefs and attitudes that they have. And irritation will only make things worse.

Illustration credits

  • Population density: Creator:Junuxx. Downloaded on 10 September 2016 from Wikipedia. License: CC BY-SA 3.0 [no modification]
  • Foxtrot:  Artist: F. J. A. Forster; Uploaded by Hamburger Time. Downloaded on 10 September 2016 from Wikipedia. License: Public Domain [no modification]
  • Japan etiquette: Uploaded by Bundesarchiv. Downloaded on 10 September 2016 from Wikipedia. License: CC BY-SA 3.0 de [no modification]
  • Hand up: Photographer: RegioTV. Downloaded on 10 September 2016 from Pixabay. License: CC0 Public Domain [no modification]
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  1. Posted 30 May 2017 at 09:37 | Permalink

    Worthy article to read! Really enjoyed it. You are a great author.

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