Imagine this: you are observing a human parent. Every time another child or adult approaches their child, the parent pulls their child back and yells at the other parent to get the approaching child away, or maybe they pick their own child up or run off. They react strongly as a matter of course and on a regular basis when nothing is actually happening, and their child is taking it all in. Because, it could happen. There are children that could lash out at your child and there are bad adults in the world.
and…with your dog?
Dogs are extremely astute observers of human behavior. If you react strongly simply because there is a specific change in the environment (a person approaching, a dog approaching, a car, a flower, a specific smell, etc – doesn’t really matter what it is), soon enough your dog can make the association between your changed emotional state and the thing. It’s pretty straightforward.
So if you see people and dogs approaching and you cheerfully tell your dog, a person! A dog! Or whatever… You are more likely to end up with a dog who shows a more positive emotional reaction than if you show an angry or panicked reaction as a matter of course – when there’s nothing in the situation that should clue you or your dog to a problem. Which doesn’t really mean you need to interact; that’s a different conversation and depends on the circumstances. Same as with children.
But wait! Who would do this? Who would freak out over a situation where nothing is even happening?
Well. Dog people. Dog people who don’t want off leash dogs in the world and are quick to say so – yelling random versions of “Don’t you know there’s a leash law?” at passerby, regardless of how the other dog is actually behaving. Dog people who have a puppy and who are terrified of disease. Dog people who want to do performance events and are bound and determined that their dog focuses on them and not alternatives in the environment – the puppy must not meet or greet a dog!
Consider further. If are fond of yelling at people and hyper protecting your dog, then consider that your preconceived notions and automatic reactions to the environment may be exacerbating the exact behavior you are trying to avoid. They are mirroring you. I mean, if mom panics and yells because a dog comes running over, then there must be a good reason for it. Right?
Set yourself up for success. Go places where you’re not routinely freaking out. Most parents don’t go to dangerous neighborhoods and hang out with their children, no matter how much they love that area. They go places where they can relax.
And with your dog? If you live in a place where walking outside your front door means you’re going to encounter a war zone of aggressive off-leash dogs then see if you can make better choices for yourself, because being mad about it isn’t going to change society, and you will likely poison your own dog’s emotional reactions to the world as a whole. And if you’re just mad because dogs exist and those owners might want to come over and visit, consider how your dog might perceive your behavior.
Some children (and dogs!) come wired with fearful/problematic behavior tendencies – no doubt! But hiding your fear and worry and anger as much as possible is going to serve you well, in particular when your dog is young and learning about the world, because dogs learn by observing us (and other dogs that we might have along), Control what you actually control – your own choices. Let go when you can – when it’s safe and all is normal around you.
Go places where you’re going to feel safe, wherever that might be. Choose busy streets or heavily policed parks if you want to guarantee on leash dogs. Choose dog parks with huge site lines if you want to play ball with your dog alone – and leave if someone else show up. Choose to stand back and allow greetings to happen if they are inevitable and you have no reason (besides your own fears) to be concerned – hovering CAUSES problems so stand back and keep moving! A short greeting and pleasant verbal exchange with the other owner is sufficient – now move on.
You can cause or exacerbate reactive displays with your emotional reactions and determination to go places that are not well suited to your dog or your situation. Being right at the expense of being happy isn’t much of a deal. Change your behavior and your dog has the opportunity to develop a much healthier set of social behaviors – by following your lead.
Bad things happen in the world. They happen to children and dogs and some can be prevented but many cannot. Choose your level of risk, assess various situations, and go from there. Dogs read our emotions very well, and your behavior matters in shaping your dog’s opinions and reactions. If your dog is already reactive then you’ll need some strategies to get you through when it’s inevitable that an event is likely, but more important to this point here, your calm and accepting behavior can prevent problems when nothing is happening that should cause the average person concern.
How about guarantees? Nope – no one thing can ever drive the entire end result. Genetics matter. Experiences matter. Circumstances beyond our control matter. Sometimes there’s no way to control one’s environment – it just is and it’s really really hard and in that case, I wish you the best with whatever approach you choose. Some dogs are going to have a terrible time with their behavior no matter what you do – it just is and it’s really really hard as well. I focus on what I have control over and accept the rest, re-evaluating, reflecting, and taking responsibility for what I can on a regular basis.