If a stranger got into my personal space, I’d snarl at them, too

Posted 11/19/20

“Your dog is a celebrity, and you’re their security guard.”

This is one of the top posts on the “reactive dogs” subpage on Reddit, a popular web forum that establishes niche communities …

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If a stranger got into my personal space, I’d snarl at them, too

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Posted

“Your dog is a celebrity, and you’re their security guard.”

This is one of the top posts on the “reactive dogs” subpage on Reddit, a popular web forum that establishes niche communities like “birds with arms” and “unstirred paint.” It was there I realized that my dog’s behavior patterns are resoundingly common. Dog owners — this one’s for you.

First, what defines a reactive dog? Reactivity is not and should not be confused with aggression. Dogs considered “reactive” typically respond intensely to unfamiliar stimuli or over-stimulation. This is common in rescue dogs who were never properly socialized as puppies.

I first feared that Sheba fell into this category when we brought her to a dog park. She enjoyed the off-leash time and curiously sniffed at the plants and other dogs. However, one overly-friendly puppy immediately tried to mount her. This dog didn’t pick up on her anxiety and warning growl and continued his efforts. Finally, the owner looked over as I was trying to separate the two dogs. I apologized as I dragged Sheba away, even though she didn’t know what she had done wrong. (Honestly, if a stranger got in my personal space, I’d snarl at them too.)

Another time, we were walking around the neighborhood when an off-leash dog sprinted across the road. Thinking this dog may have gotten loose, I edged closer to take a picture. The dog spotted Sheba and immediately changed course toward her. She reeled back but noticed that she was on leash and couldn’t run away. I instinctively threw my arm in between the dogs, somehow ready to get my own arm torn off to protect Sheba.

Luckily, a high-pitched whistle lured the other dog away. This time, the owner was the one who apologized. “It’s OK,” I replied, “but she gets reactive. You really need to put your dog on a leash.” I didn’t mention that dogs legally have to be on a leash in our area.

I wish I could tell others with reactive dogs that I understand, and I see their valiant efforts to train their dogs. A reactive dog doesn’t make you a bad owner, and it doesn’t make your dog a bad pet. To revisit the initial analogy, you are your dog’s security guard: “No touching the talent. Don’t make eye contact. Keep it moving.” You may have to establish more boundaries than other dog owners, but you are simultaneously giving your dog a safe and healthy environment.

If you have a non-reactive dog, you can help by keeping your dog on a leash in public areas, respecting others’ walking space, and not judging the reactive dog’s owner. The other day, Sheba and I visited a local dog park to play fetch. Another dog was energetically sprinting around, and the owner asked if we wanted to them to play together. “Is yours a puppy?” I ask hesitantly. Yep, he is. “She doesn’t like puppies, unfortunately.” The owner immediately understands and the dogs sniff each other through the fence instead. As we part ways, the dog’s owner calls out, “Maybe one day she can play!”

I hope so. But if she can’t, I won’t love her any less.

Rachel Horowitz resides in Chatham County and works in Pittsboro. She is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media and can be reached at millennialmusings.nc@gmail.com.

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