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Realistic Expectations and Reactivity

by | Jul 10, 2013 | 3 comments

I work with a lot of dogs that have “space issues.” Whether this means they bark and lunge at other dogs when on leash, or that they cower in fear when strangers come to visit, these dogs need their space, and they need to know they will be granted that space.  A dog that is being given the space he requires does not act out in an aggressive manner.  It is our job to shrink his “bubble” until he can function in the world.  It is NOT our job to transform him into something he is not–and not all dogs are friendly; simple as that.

If your dog is reactive or aggressive there is hope for him; but your world will change as you learn to provide him with the help he needs.  Unrealistic expectations set dogs up for failure; while realistic goals help both the dog and human achieve success.  Let’s take a second and explore what is and is not realistic through the eyes of two case studies.

For the privacy of my clients, we will call the first dog Sam.  Sam is a young intact male, and he’s a stereotypically friendly breed. But he was attacked a few times by other dogs during a critical time period, and his above-average-for-his-breed intelligence has created a whole mess of the situation.  He appears to have generalized and assumed that all dogs, especially other males, might be aiming to harm him.  So, he preemptively shows cutoff signals, and escalates to offensive “language” (snarling, snapping, snarking, etc.).  After some quality behavior modification Sam is choosing smarter language around other dogs, and is actually interested in greeting some of them again.  However, Sam gets very upset and may revert back to his aggressive behavior if another dog attempts to greet him.


The elkhound is appropriately demanding that the poodle back off.  The poodle is being rude, and there is no reason for the elkhound to tolerate this behavior.

When a dog owner witnesses her dog’s tremendous progress, his disapproval of the advances of other dogs can be really frustrating. But why should Sam have to tolerate another dog sniffing him? In my opinion, we must protect our dogs from the rude behavior of other dogs (and their owners!). And sniffing without permission is rude.  Now, this doesn’t account for one of Sam’s new behaviors; sniffing another dog and then getting upset if they turn around and want to return the handshake. This is a scenario in which we must protect the dog from his own behavior.  If a dog doesn’t know how to keep his feet on the floor when greeting a new person, a responsible dog owner would manage all greeting situations so that no one got hurt–especially when greeting children or the elderly.  If Sam chooses to sniff another dog, he should be praised but then asked to turn his attention to something else so that a mistake does not occur when the other dog turns around to return the sniff.

These dogs are being allowed to greet improperly.  The English Setter is being exceptionally rude to the chihuahua, whose body posture indicates discomfort. Both humans are maintaining tight leads, which is another no-no in dog-dog interactions.

Sam’s owner loves him very much and is extremely dedicated to his training.  With a few tips on how to avoid unwanted greetings, my prediction is that Sam will soon learn to tolerate the occasional rude nose up his rear-end because he has been consistently supported and protected by his human.

For a different scenario, let’s call the next dog Bella.  Bella is not afraid of other dogs; quite the opposite.  When she sees another dog out in the world she barks, lunges, and bounces vertically.  This behavior is tough for her owners to manage; especially since they live right near a busy city park.  Extensive behavior modification for Bella was enough to get her to pass other dogs calmly under what I would consider “realistic” circumstances.  She’d occasionally react if she had to deal with 30 dogs at once (a common occurrence in said city park), but was easily managed when just one dog was passing by.  Bella’s behavior improved drastically, but her owners’ expectations were unrealistic. Bella was ultimately re-homed. Bella’s owners made a solid effort, and made a fine choice in re-homing her.  She now lives in a quieter neighborhood and enjoys walks with her new humans. But, it is possible that she and her owners need not have gone through this ordeal if some realistic expectations were set up in the first place.

What I have found is that through reward-based behavior modification, environmental management, and an ongoing conversation between dog and human, most reactive or aggressive dogs can meet realistic expectations.

Just in case you were losing hope, here’s three dogs enjoying each others’ company!


  1. oreoowner

    Very true-dogs need their space and we shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations. I also have a reactive dog who was attacked at a young age and became reactive towards dogs and strangers. I’ve learned to communicate with my dog and read her communication cues. Sometimes she seems to want to greet a dog, but I know for a fact she will greet the dog then snarl, snap, bark, etc if the dog wants to greet her or gets too close. I have to protect her from situations like that and make decisions for her. I also know she will never be a dog I could have around a large group of people. Could I train her to be around a large group of people? Yes, but why would I put her in a situation where something bad could happen? People need to have better and clear expectations, especially when it comes to reactive dogs who need owners who are dedicated and loving.

  2. Donna Hill

    I’d like permission to use the photo of the English Setter greeting the chihuahua in my Fenzi dog language workshop.It will only be able to be seen by students. if so, please let me know who to credit or would prefer a link to your blog? If so please provide the exact line you would prefer (the article or your general blog).

    • cogdogtrainer

      The image isn’t mine, actually. I found it through a search! Sorry!


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