What To Do When People Approach Your Reactive Dog

TL:DR: There is no law that states that you have to interact with them. Leave before they get started if you can.

It is a perennial problem. How can you get people to leave you alone when you are out with your fearful, anxious, or reactive dog? There you are, out with your anxious dog, minding your own business. You went to a secluded spot. On a rainy day. And at a time when nobody else should be out. But here comes that person with the “All dogs love me!” look. Or the “I’m about to give you ridiculous advice about training your dog, whom I’ve never seen before” look. Or the “Can-my-kid-pet-your-dog-here-we-come” look. These folks often have this inexorable zombie walk straight at your dog and just Will. Not. Stop.

Not now, dude!

We all want there to be a perfect solution to this. I have seen it asked dozens of times online. There should be the perfect comment or perfect warning or perfect sign on the dog’s gear so people will leave our dogs and us alone. There must be an answer, right?

I hate to break the news, but there isn’t a perfect verbal solution. Whether you go for a visual signal or choose to talk to them, some people are going to ignore the content or try to argue with you. All while not slowing their approach.

Here are some reasons I think people do that.

 1. Dogs are magnets for a large subset of the human race.
2. There’s so much mythology about dogs that you can’t get people to be sensible.
3. A few people are just overconfident jerks and aren’t going to cooperate whatever the topic is. 
4. Most of us have a very hard time not engaging socially with humans who approach us.

You can’t control people with words. Not all the people, all the time.

If you ask for a solution to this problem in an online forum, you will instantly get two dozen suggestions about things you can say and products you can buy to ward people off. I won’t list them here because not one of them is foolproof. There isn’t a magical solution that works in all situations for all people all the time.

You will get some people who say their method works 100% of the time. Usually, they have been lucky—they just don’t know it. Or they may use a method that has other severe, even dangerous drawbacks. For example, yelling that their dog has a terrible communicable disease. And even these extreme methods don’t always work.

In my experience, once we start talking to the aggressive or clueless stranger, it’s too late. We’ve made social contact, and once that happens, it is very hard to break it. Even having a sign on the dog’s gear[1]In some areas, having a warning sign on your dog’s harness is not advisable from a legal standpoint is communication. There will be people who come in close to read the sign and some of them will want to “discuss” the situation.

What to Do

My modest proposal.

  • Teach your dog a Let’s Go cue or an Emergency U-Turn cue.
  • Leave the scene far earlier than you think you need to and don’t engage with the human at all.
  • Pick the appropriate body language or combination:
    • There is nothing in the world besides me and my dog
    • We have urgent business elsewhere
  • If you feel you must, you can shout an apology or excuse over your shoulder while you are getting out of Dodge. “Can’t-talk-right-now-bye!” But be sure you are at a safe distance and can continue your escape before you say anything, lest you get sucked in.

Here is an outstanding example. My friend Marge Rogers is working with a client who is learning to turn around and book it in the other direction when someone approaches her dog. You can see that she is also using the universal “Stop” signal with her hand up and facing, palm forward, at the pushy “stranger.” Once she also yells “NO!” Kudos to this great dog guardian! And I’ll mention that while both the hand signal and the “NO!” are forms of communication, they are not ones that invite further response!

I explain to my owners their first responsibility is to their dog. Not some random stranger they will never see again. Let their dog know they have his back.

Marge Rogers

It is perfectly OK not to socially interact with a stranger who is approaching you. Just give yourself permission. (This is also true if your dog is not reactive, or hell, if you don’t have a dog with you at all!) You don’t have to smile, you don’t have to say hello, and you don’t have to make an excuse. You don’t have to stick around for their training suggestions and critique. Do not make eye contact. Eye contact is the beginning of the end. Use your cue and get away when you see that person approaching in that “special” way.

No method is foolproof, even this one. Even if you do the above, sometimes the terrain may prevent a safe escape. Also, there is always that outlier who is going to get pissed at you for not interacting. Angry people can be a danger to you and your dog. All the better reason to escape early if you can. But every situation has to be read independently. Do your best to stay safe.

Tan and black dog Clara taking a rest on a riverbank. I to go secluded areas to avoid people approaching my reactive dog.
Like many people with dogs with special needs, I seek out secluded places

Loose dogs and people with unruly dogs pose an even harder—and more dangerous—problem. That’s a whole other post, one that I don’t feel qualified to write.

These thoughts about escaping intrusive people are mostly not original to me. They are things I’ve learned from a lot of different trainers, so I don’t remember to whom to attribute what parts. But thank you to those sensible people!

Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

Photo of the young man from CanStock photo. Photo of the adorable dog copyright Eileen Anderson.


1 In some areas, having a warning sign on your dog’s harness is not advisable from a legal standpoint
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