A very interesting discussion took place between several friends recently, about what approach to take when asking people to step away from reactive dogs, or when asking them to call away a dog who is giving unwanted attention. This is something that I always have to discuss in depth with clients whose dogs are reactive to unknown people or other dogs. I had plenty of personal experience with this when my feral dog, Charlie, started going for walks, because at first he was extremely fear-aggressive towards the people and dogs we saw while out. He would twist around on his harness, lunge, bark, growl, howl and show his teeth. Essentially he would exhibit every behaviour in his repertoire that could possibly result in keeping a safe space between himself and what he viewed as a threat.

It can be uncomfortable, unnerving and sometimes even downright scary to be forced into a position of having to protect our dogs. But we are our dog’s guardians and champions and it’s our responsibility to keep them safe, and to keep others in the environment safe, too.

These are the most common scenarios:

  1. A bouncy dog, or one whose intentions seem unfriendly, charges over to rudely sniff at or jump on your dog. If your dog is nervous or fear-aggressive he’s likely to react strongly to the intrusion. He may seek an escape route, which won’t be available if he’s on-leash. He may cringe, bark, growl, lunge or even attack, in order to create distance between him and the other dog. If he’s off-leash he may bolt, and fear will keep him away when you call him.
  1. The owner of an over-friendly or intrusive dog either takes no notice (it’s amazing how many people let their dogs off-leash and then are too busy texting or chatting to keep a check on where they are!), or sees your concern and calls out “It’s fine! He/she just wants to be friends!” Even if the other dog is friendly, your dog may have issues around other dogs, and may take offence at having his safe space invaded.
  1. An unknown person comes over to greet your dog and pays no attention to the “back off” signals he’s giving out. Retreating, leaning back, dipping his head, lowering his body, widening his eyes, flattening his ears, raising his hackles, or stepping forward and lunging, jumping up or barking are just a few of the signals dogs give to ask for space. Hearing “I love dogs, and they like me” can make the strongest heart of any owner of a fear-aggressive or very timid dog sink like a stone. It’s a sure sign that the intruder is determined to pet the dog, come what may, and take the risk being bitten. If the dog reacts, the intruder is shocked and blames you or your dog.
  1. Someone with a dog insists in introducing their dog to your dog, and you’re aware this could end badly.

So how can we be assertive on behalf of our dogs, while being polite and in control of the situation?

The first thing to do is take a deep breath. Stay calm. If you freak out, shout or otherwise react strongly and loudly, this will only make your dog feel even more unsafe and it’s likely he’ll panic and become even more reactive. Step between your dog and the unwelcome visitor (canine or human) so that you’re a human barrier. Stand still. Stand your ground. Then follow through appropriately, depending on which scene is being played out.

  1. Keep your body between your dog and the visitor dog. You may have to do a little dance as both dogs shift position – one to get closer, and the other to create distance. If you have a free hand, hold this up, palm out in the classic “stop” position, and firmly say “Off” to the intruder. If the owner is close by, ask them to call their dog away and add that your dog is scared and could react unpredictably. Usually the owner will call their dog off and you can walk your dog away immediately.

If the owner is further away, wave your arm at him or her to signal for their attention. Jump up and down a little if you have to, while dodging between the dogs. Most people will call their dog away at that point, even if they then give the “But he was only being friendly” excuse. If so, you can explain that you’re teaching your dog to cope with the presence of other dogs. Usually people will then be understanding, rather than hostile.

  1. If the owner is otherwise occupied and totally unaware that there’s a problem, you need to catch his or her attention. If other people are around, ask them to signal to the owner. If you’re alone, you’ll need to raise your voice and call out “Excuse me” (or “Hey” if they’re still oblivious), then ask them to remove their dog. If you hear “He’s just being friendly” when the dog clearly has other intentions, you can calmly point out that your dog is scared and not friendly, name the body language that shows their dog has a problem with your dog, and say the situation is close to getting out of hand.

Usually people will move their dog away, though in this situation they may grumble a bit. If they want to blame your dog, don’t worry about it. Walk away. At least you’ve kept your dog (and possibly theirs) safe, and an argument between owners wouldn’t be good for either dog.

  1. Uninvited attention from dog-lovers can be a real concern when your dog is anxious. It’s a rude intrusion on his personal space, and is as unpleasant and unnerving for him as it would be for you if a stranger suddenly walked over to you and grabbed you by the shoulders. If someone aims for you with that “I love dogs, and want to stroke him” gleam in their eye, step swiftly between the intruder and your dog. Hold out your hand in the “stop” position, if necessary. Calmly and pleasantly explain that your dog is very nervous of strangers and will react if they come too close. Usually that works.

However, I’ve experienced situations where the person keeps on coming, asserting that all dogs love them. Stand your ground and repeat that your dog is reactive when approached too closely. You’ll know the limit of your dog’s “safe zone”, the area of space around him that he needs in order to feel comfortable. Ask the dog-lover to stay outside the safe zone, and be willing to chat for a minute about your dog, their dog, or any other dog! The longer the intruder is there, without touching or looming over, the more likely it is that your dog will learn to become more comfortable around new people. Explaining this often makes other people feel useful and helpful – you can say that they’re helping you with his training, and often they leave feeling good about themselves and rather well-disposed towards you.

  1. I’ve often had it happen that people with dogs want their dogs to become friends with my dogs. Skye is very open to this, but Charlie needed careful introductions at a distance for several weeks before he began to view unknown dogs as potential friends. After that he was eager to say hello. You can’t force dogs to become friends, any more than you can insist your child likes another child. Sometimes there’s a bond at first sight; other friendships take time to develop – or never develop at all. The key point is to never, ever force interaction between dogs. It puts them on the spot, makes them feel vulnerable (especially if they’re on-leash), and can lead to conflict.

If someone is insistent about an introduction and you don’t feel it’s wise, calmly say that it isn’t yet the right time, but you’d be happy to set this up later, when your dog is ready. If you feel okay about it, then set up a plan of action with the other owner. Start off with the dogs walking parallel, on-leash and at a distance, with the humans in the middle, shielding the dogs. Move closer when both dogs seem comfortable, then change position so that the dogs are walking parallel in the centre, with you on the outside. Let the most reactive dog follow the other dog for a while, to catch drifts of his scent. If both dogs seem relaxed, then you can allow them to greet each other. Observe their body language and move them apart if you notice any signs of tension: tense posture, eyeballing, ears right back, tail right up and rigid, hackles up are just a few of the signals dogs give. If they seem to be enjoying getting to know each other, that’s great. If not, then explain it’s not going to work out, and walk away.

The Yellow Dog project in the UK and USA is raising awareness that some dogs need space, and owners can use a yellow ribbon or bandana as a marker that their dogs are reactive and should be steered clear of. This is a useful way of protecting dogs who are anxious, nervous, fear-aggressive, unwell or in heat, and I hope it will catch on around the world.