Dog owners with reactive dogs understand the phrase “freak out” better than most. When a dog freaks out around other dogs, it’s scary, frustrating and, at times, embarrassing. Ultimately, it can make you dread going for a walk with your pup—which is a huge bummer! The key to mitigating this behavior is understanding why it happens in the first place.
Why do dogs freak out around other dogs?
There are countless reasons one particular dog may react negatively to other canines. Each dog is different and should be treated with his specific history, health, environment and age in mind. It is worth noting that dogs bred for herding or protection are particularly prone to reactivity. Herding dogs include collies, shepherds and cattle dogs. Protective breeds include Dobermans, Rottweilers and boxers.
At the end of the day, there might just be one particular dog that makes your dog go bonkers for no apparent reason. Change your walk route and avoid this dog at all costs.
1. Poor socialization and learned behavior
One of the most common causes of regular reactivity is poor socialization. Socialization is the process of introducing young puppies to other dogs and people so they know how to interact safely with others. According to Colby Lehew, a certified canine massage therapist at Dogletics with a degree in Animal Behavior, it’s rare to see a puppy freak out towards another dog. This is because puppies—to put it bluntly—are rude. They haven’t yet learned the social cues canines use to communicate feelings of fear or excitement.
“Socialized dogs give off [non-aggressive] signals that indicate that they are fearful and desire more space,” says Lehew. “Let’s say a puppy is coming too close to another dog and that dog is giving all the proper signals [like lip licking]. Eventually, the puppy will get snapped at. That puppy has now learned that lip licking is a precursor to snapping…The next time he sees lip licking, he is going to think twice about coming near a dog. That is socialization.”
So, on one hand, if a puppy is not socialized early, they are much more likely to freak out when they’re older because they lack the social skills necessary to read other dogs. The unpredictability of an approaching dog will send an unsocialized dog into a frenzy.
On the other hand, a poorly socialized dog who doesn’t trust other canines to respect his social cues may leap to the most aggressive signals. Instead of lip licking, he may rush right into baring teeth, growling, barking or biting. A reactive dog has learned this is the only way to communicate so other pups will listen.
Kayla Fratt, a certified dog behavior consultant and owner of Journey Dog Training, says that as the human on the other end of the leash, our responsibility is to help our dog feel safe and under control in these types of situations. Canines like having predictable, positive outcomes. She recommends using impulse control games and exercises to train your dog to defer to you on walks, rather than jumping right to a big reaction.
2. Previous trauma
Another obvious origin of reactivity is previous trauma. If your dog was attacked by a dog or tangled in a dog brawl before, he may freak out whenever he sees another dog approaching. Fratt says that in general, a canine’s big reaction usually means one of two things: get away or come play. By barking, growling or lunging, your dog is trying to tell an oncoming dog he’s seen what happens when a strange dog approaches him and he will attack if need be.
However, trauma doesn’t always come from other dogs. If your dog happens to be playing with another pup when something scary occurs nearby, he may begin to associate other dogs with fear. For instance, a booming thunderclap or fireworks going off in the middle of a puppy playdate could lead to freak outs around other dogs in the future.
One way to curb this fear is by proactively pointing out other dogs on walks and rewarding your dog with a treat each time. It is essential to build up a positive association with other animals (and people!).
3. High energy
Expanding on Fratt’s point, some dogs just wanna have fun. Freaking out when they see another dog nearby could simply be the canine equivalent of two girlfriends cheering at the prospect of hitting the town together.
If this is the case, Dr. Michelle Burch, DVM, from Safe Hounds Pet Insurance recommends being on the lookout for other dogs while on walks and training your dog to sit or lay quietly as they approach. Even if the other dog is far in the distance, ask your pup to sit, drop or stay. Then, reward them with a high-value treat.
This behavior could also be mitigated by making sure your pup is getting enough mental and physical exercise. “A bored dog can become a reactive dog,” says Dr. Burch. “Your dog should exercise at least twice a day with either strenuous walking, running or fetching.”
4. Leash constraints
Emma Bowdery, an ISCP Canine Behaviourist at Four Long Legs in the U.K., notes leash constraints cause reactivity in dogs that have been rescued from a life on the streets.
“These dogs that have never worn a collar or harness before... now find themselves in a new environment with unfamiliar dog scents all around them,” she says. “Suddenly they are unable to move freely as they are leashed to their owner.”
Canines new to leashes, collars and harnesses feel not only constrained, but vulnerable to attack. Their response to any approaching dog will be defensive, even if the strange dog shows no signs of aggression.
“Why wait to be attacked if you can warn them off first?” asks Bowdery.
Lehew recommends owners check their own behavior while holding leashes. “Just like lip licking is a precursor to snapping, the human has taught the dog that a tight leash is a precursor to aggressive dogs,” she says. “The best way to stop this is to stop pulling on the leash. Try to be more observant of the surroundings and cross the street before you need to pull on the leash.”
Extra words of advice
This is also why it’s super important to always walk your dog with a leash. Even if your pup isn’t reactive to other dogs, someone else’s dog may be struggling with this issue. You have no way of predicting how another canine will react to yours. An off-leash dog lunging at a leashed dog could also end up being the traumatic event that causes future reactivity.
Fratt reminded us that dog owners should never correct their dog by loudly scolding or swatting them. Anger and physical intimidation “will just teach him that being near other dogs makes his person scary or violent; it will actually backfire by making your dog more suspicious of strange dogs,” she says.
If working with your dog at home doesn’t lead to fewer freak outs, it’s worth reaching out to a certified dog trainer and discussing the issue with your veterinarian. Dr. Catherine Lenox, DVM, the Scientific Affairs Manager at Royal Canin, adds, “In some cases, medication and/or changing your pet’s diet may be recommended to help address the reactive behaviors.” Many brands have formulas created specifically for highly reactive or overly stressed pups.