What Part of “Aggressive” Don’t You Understand?

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, I’ve been working like crazy with both Bodhi and Sierra on their reactivity issues with unfamiliar dogs. Because we practice at the local park and you never know what the other dogs will be like, I’m careful to maintain a distance where no one will explode. I’m also very selective as to which dogs we’ll move closer to in order to work our protocol.

Things have been going fairly well lately, particularly when I’ve only got one of the dogs with me. However, the improved behavior has led to an unforseen problem. Early on, if someone saw Bodhi lunging and snarling at the end of the leash, they’d move their dog away, or at least not allow the dog to approach. Now that Bodhi’s able to keep his cool the majority of the time, people aren’t aware that he has an issue. Sure, they might be wondering why I’m keeping his attention and feeding treats, but he’s not overtly displaying any type of reactivity. So now I find myself in the position of having to warn people and, strangely, some of them just don’t seem to believe me.

The latest episode from the Are You Serious? files involves a Pomeranian-Chihuahua mix. The owner was walking the little dog on a Flexi lead, and I was walking Bodhi past at a distance that allowed him to remain calm. He was doing great until the dog started prancing toward him.
I called out to the owner, “He’s not friendly with other dogs.”
“Oh, it’s alright,” she said, unconcerned.
Perhaps she hadn’t heard me correctly. Or, maybe being more blunt was necessary.
“He’ll bite your dog,” I pronounced loudly and clearly.
“That’s okay,” she said with a smile, “He’s lion-hearted.”
Huh? I wanted to say, “Uh, he might be lion-hearted, but I’ll bet he’s chicken-boned.” Instead, I moved Bodhi away before he had a chance to grab the moving fillet—-I mean little lion.

And what about leash laws? At least the Pom/Chi/Lion was on leash, but others are not. I get that it’s nice to allow your dog some freedom. But when you see me walking my dog down the main asphalt path along the parking lot, and your Dogue de Bordeaux is off-leash and I’m shouting at you to please leash your dog, is it really necessary to walk at the speed of a snail on valium toward your dog, flash me a look of disgust as you begrudgingly leash him, and then unleash him again when you’re two feet past us?

Every now and then, I think how wonderful it must be to be completely oblivious, to walk along with your dog and your Starbucks without a care in the world. Then I come back to reality. I’ve got to be continuously hyperaware with my dogs, and even if they weren’t reactive, I’d be monitoring the behavior of other dogs we pass. I don’t expect everyone to view dogs the way a trainer would. But if I tell you flat out that my dog is apt to bite your dog? Just move away, and do it now.

22 Responses to What Part of “Aggressive” Don’t You Understand?

  1. Marni Fowler says:

    Hey Nicole – Will you quit living my life??? LOL! All I can say is Been There, Done That. Although I would *NEVER* do this for many, many, many reasons, there is a very, very small part of me that wants to say (when its a little dog), “Well, OK, if you say so….” and say “OK, Jester, he’s all yours, Do what you feel best!” Arg!!!

  2. Amanda says:

    I so feel your pain. Especially about the leash laws. I have a dog-aggressive JRT who is fine as long as he is “working” (i.e. actively training or on a run with me) and yet repeatedly I have had people say “Oh don’t worry, my dog is nice” when I state clearly that my dog will bite their dog without remorse.
    Recently I had a man with an off-leash chocolate lab pass me while I was running my JRT, and the lab started to casually saunter over to us while I was practically shouting “MY DOG IS NOT NICE!” and, like a snail on valium (love that expression!) the man NEVER made it to his dog, he just repeatedly called it and then said “oh you know better…”
    Some people are just dumb.

  3. Evanee says:

    Well, I just came across this, but had to comment. I’m working with my male wheaten terrier on aggression towards strangers. People see him and say”awe hes so cuteeee” and say thank you but please back up, he bites. they reply with either “oh he doesn’t look like he wants to bite me” oh ok well he will! Or I say he bites and they say “oh that’s ok”…what?!? People are dumb!

  4. Stacie says:

    I’ve found saying, “He’s going to beat the cr@p out of your dog,” to be more effective than saying he’s not friendly or he’ll bite. More graphic perhaps.

  5. megan says:

    I deal with this a lot. I have a reactive dog who is also dog selective. And no matter how nice the other dog is, if the other dog charges us, Roxy will not be nice. She just doesn’t like strange dogs approaching her, she needs a slow introduction. Ironically, I’ve had better success with teenagers and kids restraining their dogs when I tell them my dog is not friendly than I do with adults.

    I seem to have the best luck with adults when I talk to my dog and say something like, “Oh look! Here comes you’re lunch!” or “Uh oh, Roxy, that is not your dinner!” I’m not sure if it’s because they are worried my dog might eat their dog, or if it’s because they think I’m crazy, but I’ll take what I can get.

    Although, what I think I find to be the most interesting is when the other person’s dog is charging us while baring teeth, and the owner simply states, “Oh, she’s just trying to play with your dog!” So, I guess I can’t be too surprised when many people don’t realize that other dogs may not be friendly when half of them can’t even recognize that their own dog is aggressive.

  6. kenzohw says:

    Sadly it is very recognizable. Now Viva is doing better people don’t see the warning signs from before (lunging, barking, etc.) anymore and are careless. Anything less than “she will rip your dog apart” will not stop them.

  7. I love this article and all the comments from people who obviously do live our lives, the lives of people with the leash reactive dog. I love the suggestions of using more colorful language to warn people off. Isn’t it ironic that when we work hard and the dogs stay calmer that the world has a way of jacking up the difficulty?

    My Reactive Rover students asked me so many times what to do about off leash dogs running up to their dog and clueless owners allowing on leash dogs to approach that I wrote an article with some tips that I found useful over the years (there’s a shout out to you Nicole for one of the suggestions you gave me): http://companionanimalsolutions.com/blogs/protecting-your-dog-on-walks.

    Thanks for getting a discussion going about this!

  8. […] Leash law – wouldn’t it be great if all recognized it is a “Law”? Have had same issue, and guess some folks need to listen better. As you know if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, I’ve been working like crazy with both Bodhi and Sierra on their reactivity issues with unfamiliar dogs. Because we practice at the local park and you never know what the other dogs will be like, I’m careful to maintain a distance where no one will explode. I’m also very selective as to which dogs we’ll move closer to in order to work our protocol. Things have been going fairly … Read More […]

  9. Harry Steinman says:

    I think people assign a ‘small furry human’ character to dogs, what Jean Donaldson calls the “Pluto Pup” myth, as in Disney’s Pluto.

    When I was training Zippy for CGC and therapy dog work, I’d walk him at about 5PM by the beach because I knew he’d get lots of practice with ‘Reaction To Another Dog’. Problem was, I just wanted to pass the other dogs by; the other dogs’ handlers wanted playtime. I’d explain we were training. No response.

    I ended up taking the advice of another trainer–if I wanted other two-legs to leave us alone, as I’d pass by, I’d call out, “Stay back: gingivitis!” It would work…not that irritated gums are contagious.

    I also found when I was working on “Accepting a Friendly Stranger” the people I’d approach would be willing to help me by being the friendly stranger, but would invariably acknowledge, rather than ignore, the dog if it jumped up. However, big However…*children* seemed to understand the instructions and were much better at helping than grown ups.

    My guess, Nicole, is that you need to sneak into a kids-only dog park.

    Good luck!
    Harry Steinman

  10. cassiemily says:

    I totally hear ya! One of my reactive dogs I still try to work on, the other I just can’t take the risk because of other idots! Geesh! Leash laws folks! So fustrating!

  11. Lynne Fata says:

    Oh we have so been there, I would love to say to my dog Prince, look it’s a chicken nugget, and you thought we’d missed lunch!

  12. swaitela says:

    This makes me start to cry all over again. We no longer can take our one year old heeler/beardy anywhere. He’s so fearful on the one hand and so driven to protect the girls and I on the other that “public” just makes him frantic. So many people either don’t listen or let their dogs off leash that it’s dangerous for me to even try to train him. As a little puppy he was doing great with everyone and everything…until a lab attacked him and now…well…

    • wildewmn says:

      Please don’t give up on your dog. It’s terrible about the Lab attacking him, but with the proper guidance from a professional trainer, he can come back from this. What you need is a trainer who has their own calm, well-trained dogs to work with you, so that your dog starts to trust being around other dogs again. Please email me privately if you would like at author@phantompub.com so I can find someone in your area. Just let me know your zip code. At the very least, my book “Help for Your Fearful Dog” would prove helpful as well. (www.phantompub.com)
      Take care,

  13. Jerry Ingram says:

    A can of STOP pointed at dog, which might hit the owner out of your inability to maintain accuracy due to your fear might be effective. I’m considering getting a vest that says dog in training stay away. Think it will work?

  14. Geez, if I had a dollar for every person who didn’t listen, I’d be very rich. I’ve long ago given up on using the phrase “he’s not friendly” or “he’s aggressive” because I actually think it makes people come *closer* out of some strange curiousity or inability to understand what that means. As in, I think that people who’ve never owned a reactive or aggressive dog literally don’t understand it, and truly believe that “dogs like them”. I do coach clients to say “he’s contagious” (I LOVE Harry’s — gingivitis — I can totally see that working!) because their FIRST reaction is to step back and SECOND reaction is to question it, instead of the reverse.

    I doubt I’d do this again today (and would certainly never advise it) but about 15 years ago I had a dog who was dog-aggressive but not reactive, and we had loose dogs wandering up to us all the time. Since she had good bite inhibition, I got to the point where I’d yell the warning but then just stand still in a resigned manner as the “just being friendly” unleashed dog came running up to my leashed dog. As the snarl-fest ensued, I’d just look straight at the owner and say “Can you please get your dog?” They would typically put some hustle in at that point.

    It’s sad that we have to have strategies for how to get people to keep their dogs away, but I do think we need to be prepared with them because it seems to be very deep in our human nature (or our cultural nature?) to assume to calm dogs are going to be “friendly”.

  15. JJ says:

    My aussie is very much non-aggressive – in fact, she’s friendly – but I still follow the same protocols you describe. I don’t trust the other people or the other dogs, and don’t want to be so negligible with my dog that I cause her to have reactivity issues. (By the way, I’m that happy camper walking through the park with my dog and my Starbucks. =] But I do make sure to keep her on me and away from other dogs. We even follow good manners protocols, like moving off the path when other people or dogs are coming in either direction.)

    Also, I’ve shouted SHE’S SICK at approaching people. It’s half true, utterly deceptive, rude, and okay – it’s a lie, insofar as ectopic ureters are not contagious – but it does work. People will get ticked, but they’ll keep their distance. XP

    We also had a similar problem with a guy walking his golden through our yard midday – when we practiced agility with our reactive lab mix…because, you know, no one was out at that time.
    So, we warned him.
    And he kept walking through our yard, making us have to leash our own dog in our own yard and take him back inside, effectively ended his training and play time early. It wasn’t fun.
    Finally, my brother – bless his black little heart – said to the guy, “I’m not leashing my dog this time, and he is dog aggressive. SERIOUSLY dog aggressive. Go ahead. Walk through our yard.”

    Guy hasn’t been back.

    (Worst part is, our black lab is nosy but is not actually aggressive… We take precautions because the way he’d have gone up to that dog could have caused a fight. He comes on too strong.)

  16. Lori Kline says:

    Here, Here! The humans tend to get worse as our dogs get better! I have the exact same problem and steer clear of Joe Public as much as possible. Because we do so much work to teach our dogs to remain calm, it does appear that they don’t have any problems. I even argued with a fellow classmate in agility that my dog will indeed bite if I wasn’t managing her. This girl insisted that I was just being paranoid, huh? She’s only seen the calm dog with me stuffing treats in her mouth at a rapid rate. Stupid humans!

  17. Hey Nicole, I know exactly the situation… My boy has gotten so much better lately with his leash reactivity.. and same problem, people are no longer warned off.. This morning at the park I was working with him with a small group of other trainers the their dogs. We were all in a circle at the end of our session chatting away with our dogs holding downs.. And suddenly this huge happy prancing shephered offleash makes a b-line for us. Me and another trainer with our reactive dogs got up, walked away.. This dog was able to sniff three dogs in the circle, all while we were ALL shouting ‘Our dogs are not friendly!’ “please put your dog on leash!’ and then he came straight for me and my boy who actually did surprisingly well with having this strange dog shove its nose up his bottom. Of course, he tried to have a bit of a spaz, and as it started to happen I guess this dog chose to FINALLY get the point and go back to his owner. She looked horrified, snapped the leash on and said.. ‘Sorry! He doesn’t poop when he is on leash!’ … I couldn’t find a response. Too busy getting my rotti/shep’s attention back and thinking ‘OMG’ ,

    Have you tried putting a vest on your dogs while working on the leash reactivity? I have a client who uses a dog jacket with patches on each side with huge letters – IN TRAINING. This makes people with dogs stay further away, or stop at a distance and inquire. It also makes people ask before approaching, which is awesome because her dog has issues with both people and dogs… Though I’m in a very small town, im wondering if maybe it might attract some people in some cases.. lol. If it doesnt help, maybe a nice vest with CONTAGIOUS written across it. hah!

  18. wildewmn says:

    Well, it certainly sounds as though a lot of you are having the same issues! Stephanie, that is really unbelievable and could have been so much worse. I need to start marketing those CONTAGIOUS vests, LOL!

  19. EmilyS says:

    I’ve heard that some people resort to saying loudly: “my dog has a dangerous contagious disease” in these cases…

  20. Heather Ide says:

    I go through the same things with my hybrid, Shiva. She is very nervous around other dogs without a long ‘formal’ introduction, and gets threatening/aggressive if they get too close, or too close to children (she’s very protective of young kids). She watches for those flexi leashes if she hears a dog and they make her uncomfortable because she knows they might be able to reach her. I’ve had so many people say ‘don’t worry, she’s friendly.’ or ‘he won’t be a problem’ or ‘he’s playful so they’ll just play’ after I told them outright “she isn’t OK with other dogs, DON’T bring it over here!” There’s a reason she’s on a 6 foot leash but only allowed a foot of it most of the time! That way, if you’re stupid and let your goofy lab come running right up into her face, I can keep her from eating its face off!

  21. Tamara says:

    Yes, a former co-worker who had small dogs (chis and doxies) would say re her off-leash dogs running around large dogs with unknown small dog skills “well, they’ll learn”. I always wanted to say that they couldn’t learn once they were dead! It does amaze me how people seem to not get it that dogs are predators, which means 1/they can bite and 2/they can seriously injure and/or kill smaller or other animals. When I was explaining to a client the other day how quickly a dog could injure (or kill) a cat, they were very surprised. They never realized that dogs killed cats :-O

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