Behaviour Case : LILY – Reactive Behaviour towards other dogs

Zara has been having problems walking her rescue Chihuahua cross, Lily. Lily has been showing signs of reactivity towards other dogs while out on walks – lunging, barking, snapping. 

Previously, I answered Zara’s enquiry about Lily’s pulling on the lead and having no recall. I have asked Zara to work on Lily’s recall, and to investigate different types of no-pull harnesses for Lily.

Today, we are concentrating on Dog Reactivity, why it happens and what methods could be tried.

Dogs are curious about other dogs, especially as they can smell their signatures on lamp-posts and trees. Because Lily was in a kennel environment before and had little contact with other dogs, and this was further complicated by having kennel cough, and then getting desexed, her isolation from other dogs may have made her fearful of them. Barking and lunging at other dogs while out on walks is a way of telling other dogs to leave her alone, because she’s afraid of them. She can’t run away from them because she’s on a lead attached to you. In the absence of Flight, there are only 2 other things a dog can do in any situation – Freeze or Fight. More timid dogs will simply tuck their tails right under their bodies and hide behind your legs for protection. Others, like Lily, resort to barking and lunging, in an attempt to look bigger and braver than they are, warning other dogs to please go away.


Sometimes, though, and you’ll need to observe the dogs closely so as not to confuse action with reaction – a dog may have noticed another dog and simply wants to go say “hi” to it. However, its Human handler then tenses up because they’re unsure or afraid, and they pull the lead tighter. The dog now finds it can’t get closer to the other dog, and because dogs have a tendency to pull forward the more you pull backwards, it becomes a tug of war instead, with the dog straining to get to the other dog, and barking and lunging out of frustration. So – which happened first? The dog barking and lunging, or you pulling the lead tighter?


You’ll need to desensitise Lily to the presence of other dogs. This can be done by gauging the distance between her and the other dog, to find out the “safe” distance. When she notices another dog, she may stiffen and become super alert, fixated even on the other dog. Get her attention with a treat or toy, and move on in a curve away from the other dog. If you proceed straight towards the strange dog, Lily’s instincts will kick in and she will start one of the Freeze, Flight or Fight reactions. You want to avoid that. You want her to notice the dog, get her attention away from it, and move on.


Leave any socialisation or group training classes for the time being, and practice avoidance instead when out with Lily. Every time you let Lily get past the “safe” zone and she reacts and YOU react, you’re reinforcing in her mind exactly the behaviour you wish to avoid. 


To set Lily up for success, you need to slowly acclimatize her to the presence of other dogs. Ideally, if you have a friend with another dog, you could practice this with them. Meet at opposite ends of a field, let the dogs on lead notice each other, remember to break away at the first sign of reactivity. If all’s still well, walk in a curve around the field, in ever decreasing circles towards each other, again breaking away at any reactivity. Eventually the distance will be close enough that the dogs are able to sniff and greet each other.


If you don’t have a buddy to pair up with, next time you’re out with Lily and see a dog coming in the other direction, try practising the “safe” zone and curving on your own.


Let’s assume you’re practising this with your friend and her dog. If everyone is still calm by now, one of you can walk ahead with one dog, and the other can follow behind with the other dog. That way the dog behind gets familiar with the smell and look of the dog ahead. Switch directions after a few hundred metres, to give both dogs the same opportunity.


After a while, you can try parallel walking. This just means you walk parallel with your friend, and the dogs walk on the outside of each of you. You don’t have to walk very close to each other, just close enough to be able to talk to each other and communicate. By placing yourselves between the dogs, you are giving them a visual and physical barrier. Dogs like routine and rules as it makes them feel safer and reassured.


After a few successful parallel walks, you can slowly remove one person from the middle, and later the other too, so that the dogs are now walking parallel to each other.


This all takes time, patience and repetition. There is no fast cure or remedy for proper socialisation. It could take weeks or months. Lily may even be one of those dogs that hates other dogs, (it happens). In which case you may have to walk her in quiet places only, and where there are no other dogs around.


If you are worried about other people’s dogs running up to Lily and starting a fight, it may be a good idea to get one of those colour-coded leads or harnesses. The colour codes generally follow traffic light codes – Red means Dog is reactive, stay away. Orange means Dog is in training and please do not disturb unless invited to. Green means Dog is friendly and social. The problem with this system is that not many people in Australia are aware of it, and there are also a great many irresponsible dog owners who let their dogs run off-leash everywhere and anywhere, and then have no way of recalling their dogs, or choose to ignore you when you ask them to call their dogs.  


If ever in doubt, just practice avoidance. It will be less stressful for both you and Lily. For the moment, until Lily is able to tolerate the presence of strange dogs, it is better to avoid group obedience classes, dog parks or the dog beach. 

(Image Source: Google Images)

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