Dogs have three types of personal space. The social distance is where they are happy to be close to peers, including ourselves.
A dog’s social distance will be determined by his personality. He might be happy sharing a bed with another dog, or your dog might like to snuggle with you on the sofa. Some dogs really don’t want either of those things, which we should respect as their choice. The next is the distance where a dog feels safe on walks, at home, and around new experiences. Physically this is the point that the sympathetic area of the nervous system starts to pay attention. I like to call this the dog’s safety bubble. It’s the dog’s natural flight distance. Imagine a bubble around your dog on walks.
Inside the bubble, he feels safe and can cope with everything outside the space, without getting too worried. He knows it’s there, but it’s outside his secure bubble walls, so that’s ok. Distance is safety. But then something (for example another dog) approaches the bubble and keeps coming. This is where we see the onset of worry because the dog is starting to feel less safe.
We now have two choices:
Here’s a big clue, always choose option one!
If we choose option two and expect our dog to cope with someone or something advancing beyond his ability to cope, we are always going to see reactive behaviour. The closer the “threat” gets, the more scared our dog is going to be. Soon the threat will get into the dog’s critical distance.
Critical distance is the distance where a dog feels the matter is of life or death. This is the distance he will bite because he feels he needs to, and our dogs should never be put into that situation.
Most reactive behaviours occur because the dog feels forced to make a choice early in his life experience. The choice is usually because he’s approached by something or someone that scared him and got into his safety bubble. If the dog chooses polite distance-increasing behaviour and is ignored, he chooses more overt distance-increasing signals. Those signals may also be ignored, and the dog by this point is panicking. Eventually, his loud behaviour is finally noticed, and the other party backs off, or his person takes him away. If put into the same position, the dogs practice this over and over again, eventually bypassing the earlier signals because everyone ignores them anyway.
All is not lost though, because dogs are amazing and we can reverse the whole thing with skill, care, and by creating trust. We begin with the safety bubble.