Ever wish people would give your reactive dog space on walks?

My personal rule is to leave plenty of space between the dog I’m walking and any oncoming people or dogs.

Most of my dog walking clients’ dogs are friendly, but some are not comfortable with strangers reaching out and touching them (can you blame them?).

So, I want to share a scenario that happens pretty often when I’m walking dogs and a major mistake I made recently.

Normally if I’m walking a dog and someone in the neighborhood stops me to chat about the dog it’s because they’re familiar with the dog. Usually they live on the same street as the dog or something like that and have interacted with the dog before.

When this happens, I judge the situation based on the dog. If I know the dog loves all people, then it’s no big deal. I usually let the person greet the dog. If I don’t know the dog very well or if I know the dog is at all fearful or reactive, we just keep walking.

Well, I made a mistake recently.

I made a bad judgement call.

I was walking two 90-pound dogs that are well trained but not overly affectionate. They won’t growl at a random person, but they’re not thrilled about people petting them and one can get a little nervous when his space is invaded.

So, when a neighbor said hi to these two dogs on our walk and began talking as if he knew them, I hesitated but stopped and let him approach. (Should’ve kept walking.)

He called the dogs by name, but I could tell the dogs were not interested in interacting. They weren’t tense, but they were looking away, sniffing the grass, etc.

I should have said hi quickly and then kept walking because, remember, I don’t know this person.

Then the man did something that absolutely horrified me.

He got down on the ground and put his face right up to one of the dogs.


I was screaming inside, but I knew if I tugged on the leash there was a slight chance the tension could cause an aggressive reaction.

I also didn’t want to tell the man to back off because his quick retreating motion could also cause an aggressive response.

So what I did was make that happy “click-click” sound with my tongue, followed by “Here boy!”

It worked.

The dog turned to me, and I patted his side to ease the tension a bit and boost his confidence.

Then we got outa there.

Reminders for adults around dogs

I’m the one who made the mistake in the above scenario by not protecting my dogs.

However, I also want to list out a few reminders that grown adults don’t seem to follow.

Rules around dogs

  • Do not put your face up to any dog unless you are 99 percent sure the dog is OK with it. This can scare, challenge or threaten a dog.
  • Just because you’ve met a dog before doesn’t mean the dog remembers you or is comfortable with you.
  • If a dog is not showing interest in interacting with you by sniffing, wiggling his body, wagging his tail, leave the dog alone.
  • Stand or sit with your side to the dog instead of face-to-face.

Those are the rules I follow with all of my clients’ dogs, foster dogs and other dogs I interact with.

Woman walking two dogs

Yes, I’ve made mistakes too (read them here). No one is perfect.

But I’m hoping the above “rules” can at least get people to think about their behavior around dogs.

Dog lovers can be the absolute worst because we have this belief that “Oh I love dogs! They love me!”

Have you noticed that if you tell a dog lover your dog is aggressive, it’s almost like an open invitation for the person to prove you wrong?

So, so frustrating! And scary. Unless you’ve walked an aggressive dog, you would not believe what people will do. Actually, I’d love to hear your stories!

The bottom line is, a true dog lover respects dogs and knows that even if she knows a dog well, that doesn’t mean he’s interested in being hugged, kissed, cuddled, etc.

Simon the Lab mix - Give dogs space

I’ve been growled at by dogs for stupidly trying to hug them when they were not OK being hugged by me. Thank goodness the dogs was polite enough to growl rather than bite.

Have you ever been in a bad situation with a dog?

Related blog posts:

5 mistakes I’ve made that resulted in dog bites

How to prevent a stressed dog from biting

Teaching dog bite prevention to kids (From Puppy Leaks)

My dog bit my child (from Lola the Pitty)

32 thoughts on “Ever wish people would give your reactive dog space on walks?”

  1. My mother’s dogs (2 golden retrievers) have not been properly trained. She’s getting on, so I always walk the dogs for her when visiting. Even in wide open spaces I have to keep them on the lead. On every walk I have to be constantly vigilant for encounters. The worst are mountain cyclists who can appear so quickly, spooking the dogs and not giving me or them a chance to prepare. Then it’s joggers – once my wife was struggling to control one of the dogs and a jogger kept coming straight at her. It’s our responsibility to control the dogs, but a bit of awareness and common sense from others would help.
    Thanks for the rules – I’m tempted to get them printed and start handing them out 😉

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Oh gosh. Yes, that sounds frustrating! Skateboarders are another big trigger for a lot of the dogs I know. And the worst is probably someone biking or rollerblading with a dog!

  2. I never realised until I got Phoebe how many people seem to love collies. Every time im on a walk now I regularly have people coming up to me “ooooh I love collies” and are immediately on their hunkers going towards Phoebe…..why?!? I tend to notice a lot people putting their hand out to pet Phoebe as we are passing and although im pretty confident Phoebe wouldn’t do anything, it still makes me very nervous!!

    Its so funny you mention about dog lovers assuming all dogs love them. I was passing my local shop the other day and saw a gorgeous golden retriever outside. I approached it (cautiously), put out my hand for the dog to sniff! I got responded with a nasty growl and a very angry bark….fair enough! But I was actually offended that the dog didn’t like me! ha ha!

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Haha! I can only imagine how people are with Phoebe. Most people just ignore Ace the “boring black Lab mix.” But there are certain dogs I walk where so many people have to stop and comment. Sometimes they even stop their vehicles!

      And your example with the golden … been there! I always feel bad when it happens because I know I invaded the dog’s space. Oops!

  3. I LOVE this post! All of it is so important, and more people should understand that there are some ground rules that need to be followed around all dogs, especially if you don’t know them! Have you heard of the Yellow Ribbon Project for Dogs? You tie a yellow ribbon on your leash, which means please give my dog space. The great thing is people see the ribbon, and if they don’t know they ask you what it means. It’s a great opportunity to help people understand and learn. http://www.theyellowdogproject.com/The_Yellow_Dog_Project/Home.html

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Yes, I have heard of the Yellow Ribbon Project, and I really like it. Most people don’t know what it is, so it’s probably not all that effective (yet!). But yes, I love the idea. I have seen a woman walking with a yellow ribbon, but I’m not sure if it was for that reason or if she just happened to have a yellow ribbon on her leash. It might’ve been a yellow poop bag!

    2. I have an 8 pound Miniature Pinscher/poodle cross who we rescued from a hoarder home over run with dogs where he lived the first 3 months of his life, so he has a “survival of the fittest” mentality. He is super aggressive with strangers and other dogs on walks, especially when they are walking towards us. Whenever someone is approaching us, I have to rein in his leash so he is right beside me (and I know this is bad for me to do because it triggers him into that mode- but I can’t not do it cause he will lunge at them.. he has been hanging from strangers jackets and mitts from his mouth before!) and either keep walking or wait for them to pass. Either way, he he growls and/or barks at them and tries to get to them. Some people try to bring their dog up to him! I warn them he is aggressive and may bite and a few say “that’s ok!” and allow the dog to come over, and he has snapped at 2 (no injury that we could see). He is going into training soon because this is a concern for when we go camping and there are tons of people around. I am going to do the yellow ribbon thing too. I didn’t even know about that! I was thinking about making a vest for him that said “Please do not pet- I am still learning my manners”.

  4. Yes, what IS with people shoving various body parts (especially their face!) in some strange dog’s face?? Didn’t their mothers teach them not to do this when they were little? Also, those people that also have a dog and assume your dog must want to “say hi” or think it’s OK to pass a strange dog head on on a narrow sidewalk! My personal nightmare on walks with my crazy dog. I totally agree it’s our job as the handler to avoid these situations. I always feel so bad when I let people make Hiccup uncomfortable. It happened a lot when we first got him. I’d never had a fear reactive dog before, and I was not used to telling people ‘no’. Fortunately, he’s gotten more sociable and I’ve gotten better at explaining his fear to people.

  5. It is amazing how many people, strangers, get right up in a strange dog’s face! The bummer is, if the dog bites, the dog is in trouble, not the human.

  6. I made that mistake with Pierson. Normally, if another person walking towards me doesn’t also have a dog, I simply make sure I have a good grip on his leash as we walk by. But one time, rather than keep walking this man stopped in front of us and knelt down to pet Pierson in a very familiar manner. “Oh crap,” I thought to myself, sure that Pierson wasn’t going to like it. Thankfully, Pierson handled it pretty well. But still, I’ve seen Pierson react negatively to such situations in the past. So from then on, I give other people a wide berth when I walk Pierson.

  7. I have a Great Pyrenees I rescued in May of 2014. I’m still learning a lot about her as she grows with me and her comfort levels increase. She came from a bad backyard breeder (which for some reason Pyrenees BYB’s are super common in my state), she came from a bad home life, and was then abandoned at a boarding facility I was working at. That’s the long, long story short. I love to take her on walks and really love for her to go hiking with us (always on leash, due to her unpredictable tendencies). However, people make that very difficult some times. My boyfriend and I took all 4 of our dogs up to NC for some hiking adventures back in October. By then, I knew my Pyr had some spacial comfort issues, and would some times growl or bark at strangers when they would get too close, despite the warnings of, “Hey, we need space!” We were on a trail, and had stepped off trail in order to let a couple pass. They spoke and wanted to ask questions about the dogs, and I made the error of not telling her first that we preferred to have space, but would happy to talk about my dogs. All 4 of mine seemed fine with them having approached and were happy to sit quietly while we talked. Then, the woman reached out and tried to pet my Pyr, without asking. My Pyr made a very valiant attempt to bit the woman’s hand. It happened so quickly I didn’t really have time to react. I was fortunate that my boyfriend was quick, and no one was hurt. I apologized, and explained that you should ALWAYS ask before attempting to pet a strange dog. My Pyr is now muzzle trained just in case (though we have yet to be back on a trail busy enough to use it), and wears a DO NOT PET vest when we hike. It may be a bit much, but I’d rather have the warnings there until her counter-conditioning training in completed.

    Aside from adults respecting dogs, I think the bigger issue is parents who don’t teach their kids about how to safely approach dogs. I realize that a lot of time, the parents don’t know either. Our schools really should have pet safety classes or seminars. I think it would go a long way in decreasing dog bites, with both kids and parents. Any time a child asks to pet my one of my dogs, I always stop to thank the parent for teaching and enforcing that. Sadly, that does not happen often and I frequently find myself snapping at kids for trying to approach (no matter which dog I have with me, I have one who LOVES kids) because their parents aren’t near enough to even supervise.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Oh, that is such a good example, and you are such a responsible dog owner. I’m so glad the woman in your example wasn’t hurt. That sounds so similar to some of the situations I’ve been in with foster dogs, etc. I have made that mistake a few times where I figure “Ok, it’s safe to just talk to this person” and then the person reaches out to touch the dog. I guess we ALWAYS have to make it clear the dog could bite or to just physically stay far enough away. I know I’ve reached out my hand to block an adult from touching my past foster dog more than once. Sometimes you just have to be very direct, “This dog bites!”

      1. The directness is something I’ve had to learn. My Pyr is the first dog I’ve had who is reactive. Until her, all of my dogs from childhood up to now have loved people and attention. So, it was strange having to learn to tell people, “No,” and, “She may bite.” Some times I feel like people are silently judging me, but I’ve started to get past that. It just amazes me that people think dogs are these perfect beings who are always happy. Even a well mannered dog can have a bad day, just like people.

  8. I never thought about that, but yes, as a dog walker you would run into neighbors and friends of the dogs that want to greet them. That’s got to be really awkward because you don’t want to be rude but yet you have to maintain control of the dogs and situation.

    Haley gets a little overwhelmed when several young children come running and squealing at her with their hands reaching out to pet her. I find it really frustrating when parents are 20 feet away and don’t realize that anything bad could happen. Some parents seem a little put off if I don’t let their kids pet her, but I only let calm, well-behaved kids pet her, just in case.

    I used to feel bad about it, like I was being rude, but I also think it’s rude to not care if your kids are running towards a dog that you don’t know and you’re relying on the dog owner to manage the situation.

  9. Thanks to Lindsay for posting this checklist. I am always interested in reading dog etiquette related information, including this one to make sure that I conduct things properly.

    I do follow closely these two on the list practices:

    “. If a dog is not showing interest in interacting with you by sniffing, wiggling his body, wagging his tail, leave the dog alone.

    . Stand or sit with your side to the dog instead of face-to-face.”

    My 3.5 years old female Rottweiler dog named Seven currently weighs 77 lb.; she is always friendly to children, adults who appear to be neat, clean and move normally. When she encounters the above mentioned types of people, she often approach them gently, like we do in a party filled with many strangers, looking for the opportunity for being patted: when the opportunity being materialized (patting falling on her), she follows this sequence – sits, lies down, then rolls over to show her belly.

    I brought Seven to the popular San Diego Balboa Park around this past (2014) Christmas time. A group of about 10 school children, in their age of 10 or younger, approaching her and asking me to let them pat her; I knew that Seven would welcome them. She did sit down calmly and enjoyed being surrounded by these children and all their attention. I always take the opportunity to show children and people, approaching Seven, who look not familiar to dogs how to pat Seven: no patting on her head, belly or tail; but great to rub on her chick, under her chin, around her neck (the collar area) and lower back. When people, who look rugged (like Crocodile Dundee), moving in an abnormal way or with unclean clothing, asking to pat Seven, I observe Seven’s reaction then tell them to approach with care because Seven is quite reserved with new people.

    I like Seven to experience as many situations (of course the non-abusive and non-violence ones) with other dogs and people as possible, thus I ask for less space the best I can.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Aww, she loves children!

      I notice that Ace is uncomfortable with people who move differently, like if they have a limp. He has also growled at a pregnant woman! And he’s growled at older adults before, like an old man with a beard who was probably also walking “stiffly.”

  10. My puppy barked at a fireman, of all people. Embarrassing. But the man came out of a “strange” truck, was confident and approached us head on to pet my dog and puppy got spooked. The firefighter is a public figure and he brings good, safe feelings when he’s coming towards you but had that be a random guy, from a loud and scary truck, with his big boots and confidence, it would spook me too, ha ha.
    Good article and a good reminder how to interact with unfamiliar dogs.

  11. People think my pomeranian is a teddybear and totally fair game to grab without any kind of notice. He’s never bitten anyone, but he’s still a lot more wolf than teddybear. I’ve learned to be very quick (to the point of reflex) with the clicking and sweet-talking and the moving right along.

    What drives me nuts the most is when I’m obviously working with him — having him sit off to the side, having him “leave it”, keeping his attention, etc — and instead of passing us by (which I’m actively trying to make possible), people stop and watch. Or worse, let their dog get in his face. Can’t they tell I’m just barely keeping it all together? Heh.

  12. Ya i recently adopted a pitbull mix, heavy on the pitbull it seems lol. i was walking him for the second time after i got him and i was nearing my friends house on the walk and my sisters kids who were with me had to go to the bathroom and so i knocked on my friends door to ask and while they were in there he came out to do a meet and greet. well he went up to him and when i adopted boss i was told there were times where he has bitten people so i was litteraly in the middle of telling him he can be aggressive and what does he do? goes right up to boss and deciedes to give him a big ole fat hug. when he released boss, boss had latched on to his arm and played tug a war with it while i was trying to get him off.

  13. My dog, a beagle, is extremely social and loves saying hi! To everyone. Sometimes I even need to stop him because he can’t understand that not everybody likes dogs. But strangely he hates a neighbor but the guy thinks he is a dog expert and that they all love him. My dog tries to escape from him but he has even sometimes tried to take the leash away from me to demonstrate me how much Warhol loves him. I don’t know how to tell him he is actually the only person on earth from who he runs away from.

  14. “I’ve had dogs all my life, they love me” YIKES I hate to hear that. I have the smallest prettiest cream golden, who is very reactive, especially with kids. She’s 11 I’ve had her 9 years and she’s so much better now, we’ve had extensive aggression training, and we compete in agility. People who do agility know reactive dogs. The sport works her body and brain. The first thing I did was get her on a prey model type diet, no carbs. That helped and then found a holistic vet who does acupuncture!

  15. We acquired a dachshund when he was about one year of age. He came from a home with children who would terrorize him, and then he would be punished for growling at the children. This kind of thing particularly makes me mad because instead of teaching the children how to treat animals, they are taught they can do anything they want and there are no consequences to them, just to the dog, which creates a crazy, mixed up dog who doesn’t trust anyone. Over time and training and loving and neutering, he turned into a wonderful family dog, but he is definitely not a lover of strangers. He is extremely unusual looking, what is called a piebald, I believe, mostly white with lots of tan spots, and blue and black and white eyes that look like cracked ice, so everyone thinks he’s just adorable. He is small, about 15 pounds, low to the ground of course, and so unusual looking that people just can’t keep their hands off him. Every stranger we meet on a walk, I try to just walk on by but a lot of times they actually stop me to talk about my dog. I tell them to leave him alone, don’t touch, he does not like people he doesn’t know, but it doesn’t matter what I say, they insist on petting him! It is truly unbelievable how ignorant people can be. Yes, he’s cute. Yes he looks harmless because he’s small. No, you can’t pet him, he will bite you and it will hurt. As a side note, it’s usually the adults who refuse to listen to me. If I tell a child don’t touch, they almost always pay attention. He’s an old guy now, but he will still bite if a stranger invades his space.

  16. I have a 200# Neopolitan Mastiff. It constantly amazes me that people will let their toddlers and young children run up to him and grab at him without ever checking to see if he will welcome such interaction. Not my dog’s fault, but he will be the one blamed if there is an incident.

  17. My dog is dog reactive. I work with 2 trainers and they are convinced she was taken away from her mom way too early and never learned socialization. She reacts with a fight or flight instinct and is 71 pounds. My sweet dog is perfect with people, and even better with children, but turns into a lunging Cujo if another dog comes too close. Even when I use my high value treats, keep the distance with another dog/owner, at times the owner just keeps walking closer to us. At times I yell out “please walk the other way, my dog isn’t good with other dogs” and the owner yells back, ‘that’s ok, my dog is good with other dogs” and keeps walking toward us. At this point my big girl starts lunging and is hard to control (I’m 5’2’ and 115 pounds), and it takes all my power to pull her and go the other way…she at times has downed me. It infuriates me as the other person thinks just because their dog is good with other dogs, all dogs will be ok.

  18. Our GSD was never socialised at a young age. He was left outside in a shed with his litter mates to defend and fend for himself for the first 8 weeks. He was never like a normal puppy – we couldn’t get anywhere near him for a while. When we brought him home there was a full on fight with one of his litter mates because he was ‘on the others territory’ we assumed – no it wasn’t just puppy fighting – it got quite aggressive from the onset. When he went to the vets for his first jabs at 8 1/2 weeks old, he ‘shouted’ at the vet. He is coming up to 5 years old now, and if anyone so much as looks at him his alarm bells ring. One lady was walking our way, following us. When we got across the road she stopped and wanted to talk. Because she’d followed us, then stopped to look (& talk), although Odin can be polite, other people don’t seem to see him getting riled up and tense. its not until he moves on to the next stage because they haven’t listened to him and understood that dog behaviour that says “keep away”, they eventually go away. I just say he’s not good with strangers. Very few people can get within 6ish feet of us. Both me & my partner say that if he wasn’t ‘abandoned’ when he was young, he would be a totally different dog – a proper role model for his breed, and we see a half wild dog – as we called him when he was only a few months old. He doesn’t trust us as he should, but listens to his instincts because his “plastercine brain” hardened off to a great extent before we got him. Along with his past, and suspected blood lines (police dog), an interactive dog like this can be a handful – you really need to know how to handle & treat him. We even have to watch out for people carrying sticks/umbrellas – to him they are weapons.

  19. I’ve learned good information from all these dog owners. Never had an aggressive dog out of our five dogs, one Irish Setter and four Standard Poodles, but did have an incident where I was too friendly with a 110 lb. dog. Learned my lesson the hard way.

  20. I absolutely cannot stand how many people I have had try to approach my fearful dog, then they get all offended when she gives a warning growl, and then they tell me “I’ve NEVER had a dog not like me”. It’s kind of amazing how many people have zero concept that dogs can be afraid of you, no matter how many other dogs like you. Also, I have to say, it’s a little irritating when people see your dog once, they give a warning growl, and from that day on they hate your dog and consider it vicious. Yes, sensitive subject for me, I have a fearful and reactive dog who happens to be 7 year old lab/shepherd mix, so apparently that doesn’t help.

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