Dog-Dog Reactivity: Emma’s Story

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: My dog used to love to play with other dogs, and then one day she didn’t.

A couple of years ago, Emma suddenly became snarky — growling, snarling, snapping, and lunging at other dogs. So hubz and I stopped letting her near them. Because of it, the “problem” got worse and worse over time. Whereas she used to walk on-leash fine, after that when we were out walking, she’d start whimpering and would freeze when dogs were nearby. If she got close enough where they could sniff her, Ems often growled and snapped.

Of course, given Emma’s general anxieties, we assumed she had become scared of dogs. Maybe she got into a fight at daycare when no one was looking, and it ruined the fun she used to have. But if this was actually a fear issue, why didn’t all dogs scare her? Or at least the really big ones. She’d snark at the tiny yappy dogs in our building, and then playbow to a Rhodesian Ridgeback. Could she be afraid of little dogs and like big dogs? Hubz and I were perplexed, but we didn’t want anyone getting hurt, so we stopped letting her near any dogs.

Fast forward to today: Emma the Beagle finally enjoyed herself in the dog park while another dog enjoyed himself there too. How did we get here?

Normal Dog Development

One day your dog loves other dogs; the next day she turns into the Tasmanian Devil around them. Why? Well, the most likely reason is that she grew up. When many dogs reach 1- to 3-years old, three things happen:

  1. They play less.
  2. They become more selective about with whom they want to play.
  3. Their tolerance for dogs getting into their personal space goes down.

This describes Emma perfectly. So Emma’s a normal dog. Great. That doesn’t change the fact that she snarking at other dogs, so now what?

Arguments Are Normal

People argue all the time, and unless someone is deranged, verbal arguments tend NOT to lead to a knife attack. When Emma snarks at another dog, she’s saying, “Back off, Buster!” She’s doing it because she wants personal space, which is the exact opposite of a fight. But Emma’s a dog, and dogs tell others to back off by showing off their pointy teeth and making growly sounds, so it tends to look terrifying to us.

I’ll admit: I was scared by it. How did my sweet little fraidy pup turn so ferocious? If she’s suddenly growling at other dogs, does that mean she’s going to do it to people too? Does it mean that she’s now an “aggressive” dog, and we should all fear her? 

In Emma’s case, the answer is no. She’s never broken skin on anyone (dog or human alike). But it was smart of us to keep an eye on her. When we adopted Emma, we knew nothing about her bite history. (Had she ever sent anyone to the doctor or vet for stitches?) Without that history, we couldn’t know if she’d ever bite with force.

As it turns out, Emma uses her mouth to give warnings, rather than dig into flesh. So, when she argues, it’s just that — a squabble. And when most dogs argue, it’s just a little argument too. Unless someone gets injured, these arguments are totally normal and fine.

So Emma is still a normal dog. She’s become pickier and less playful, and she gets into minor disputes when others get too close for her. That doesn’t change the fact that Emma snarks at other dogs, making other people uncomfortable and keeping us from hanging out with friends if their dogs are near. We wanted everyone to get along at least a little bit better. Ems doesn’t have to play with them, but could we maybe have a chat without anyone getting in a tiff?

The Good Ol’ Sniff ‘n Run

Emma had become frustrated by the fact that for more than a year, she did not have access to other dogs. She was pretty amped up when other dogs were near, and quick to growl if they came in too close or lingered for too long. So what we did was let Ems approach the dogs she wanted to say hi to (she got to vote with her feet), and then after a few seconds of sniffing, before anyone got tense, we happy talked her away. After about a month of this, Emma would go up to dogs for a sniff and then happy tail herself away all by herself! It was amazing to see. Over time, hubz and I even were able to resume breathing when another dog was near. Ems was doing great, and no one got hurt.

Next Up: Bomb-Proof Dogz (and Peoplez)

I needed to find dogs who spent time with so many other dogs that they had been snarked at a million times and didn’t mind it one bit. Being a dog trainer, I was able to call upon fellow dog trainers in the area to take their dogs on walks with me and Ems and then go off-leash in a park afterwards. Emma did fine. She snarked a couple times, and the other dogs were like, “Whatevs.”

But today was the real deal. No planning, no pre-prepped people or dogs — just regular old life. Ems led me to the dog park this morning and walked right up to the gate. I explained to the man inside with the 9-month-old German Shorthaired Pointer that Emma tends to snark, and he said his dog was fine with that. Being a puppy, he gets told off a lot. 🙂

After a few minutes of “Get away!… I mean it. Back off!… Seriously, dude. Give a girl some space!” the sweet puppy trotted away, leaving Emma to give her Beagle nose one acre of off-leash sniffing.

Here’s the best part: After her sniffs, rolls, prances, and sprints were over and Emma was ready to go home, she walked out the dog park and down to our house without freezing once. She ALWAYS freezes on the block where the dog park is located, but not today. She trotted home with a happy tail and a massive smile on her face.

The People Factor

I am so grateful to have neighbors and friends who understand that dogs argue, and that’s ok. It’s really stressful worrying that someone is going to label your dog aggressive, dangerous, or scary just because she politely asks others to give her some space. Now that I know that Emma can enjoy herself around other dogs and still snark sometimes, I’m going to let folks at the dog park know this upfront and make sure they and their dog would be ok with that. This guy this morning was wonderful. He was perfectly calm when Emma growled, and he actually found it funny. Because of it, everyone had a nice time at the dog park.

Until next time…

If you want to learn more about dog reactivity, visit iSpeakDog

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