Lady walking her dog

Welfare and Behaviour

Minimising stress – maximising reward:new study points way forward for reactive dog ownership

The positive benefits of owning and walking a dog have been well documented by both scientific research and anecdotal information for many years. The long list of physical and psychological advantages covers everything from lowering blood pressure, heart rate and stress levels to help tackle loneliness , depression and anxiety.

But what is less well known or researched is the impact certain, more potentially challenging, dog characteristics can have on the accepted benefits of dog ownership. 

Senior researchers Dr. Carla Hart and Dr. Tammie King set out to learn more in the study "It's Okay He's Friendly: Understanding the Experience of Owning and Walking a Reactive Dog Using a Qualitative Online Survey." 

The study focused on understanding the real life experiences of dog owners who had acknowledged their pet dogs could be described as reactive - a term which defines displays of problematic behaviours. These can include lunging or barking at a specific stimulus of 'trigger' - and can adversely affect the human-animal relationship. 


What reactive means in real life

In the study, 37 volunteer dog owners completed an online survey with 14 open-ended questions. These questions were designed to dig deep into the day-to-day reality of owning a reactive dog. 

The results of the study show that exercising and walking reactive dogs is stressful and can be a source of anxiety. The five main recurring problem areas or themes were:

  • Lack of understanding from other dog owners
  • Situational control
  • Leaning and progress
  • Guardianship of the dog
  • Negative emotional response 

In particular, one of the main reasons highlighted was other people, or their dogs, acting inappropriately as they don't understand the unique needs of the reactive dog. And, on a practical level, it meant owners reported avoiding busy-dog walking areas or walked their pet at antisocial times in an attempt to avoid these negative experiences. 


Finding the positive - and moving forward

The study found that many owners felt that their relationship with their reactive dog meant they had to learn a lot about dog body language and training -and this had positively strengthened the dog-owner relationship. 

Another rewarding outcome respondents noted was when they saw a distinct and constant improvement in their dogs' behaviour. 

The study suggests that owning a reactive dog can be improved by increasing awareness of reactive dogs - and how other can help them and their owners.

"More research is needed to understand whether the same physical and psychological benefits of dog ownership are valid for owners of reactive dogs", says Carla Hart, Senior researcher at Waltham Petcare Science Institute. "Future research should also endeavour to evaluate the welfare of reactive dogs. For example, it is currently unknown if reactive dogs experience increased stress, particularly during walks. It also remains unclear whether they receive the same amount of exercise or visit a veterinarian as frequently as their non-reactive counterparts." 

"It is our hope that by facilitating the direction of future research into reactive dogs, as well as disseminating the findings of the current study widely, some of the challenges associated with owning and walking a reactive dog can be alleviated - improving the lives of reactive dogs and their owners", Dr. Hart added.