How to Take the Spotlight Effect off Your Reactive Dog
Step 10 of 25 in the Dogly Reactivity Channel
with Karen Chapdelaine of TheTimelessDog, Training Advocate

Do you feel self-conscious and tense walking your sometimes-reactive dog, worrying about what might happen and that everyone is watching and judging you and your dog?

You're not the only dog parent adding social anxiety to the list of things that can bring stress to a walk.

Of course, stress is exactly what we don't want our dogs to pick up from us!

As both a certified professional dog trainer and the parent of a reactive dog, I can assure you that feeling self-conscious about managing your dog's reactive behavior under the eyes of the world is not uncommon. I can also tell you the social judgment that people imagine is greatly overestimated.

Rising above the imagined "spotlight" to focus on your dog's needs

The concept of the "spotlight effect" refers to the psychological phenomenon where we overestimate how much others notice our actions and appearance. When it comes to handling a reactive dog, this undue perception can cloud our judgment and amplify our stress, creating an unhelpful feedback loop that affects both us and our pets.

It's important to recalibrate our mindset, recognizing that the focus should be on our dogs' needs rather than the imagined scrutiny of passersby. By learning to rise above this false spotlight, we can redirect our energy towards supportive and effective strategies for managing reactivity in dogs.


What are Spotlight Effects and how can understanding them help our dogs?

The Spotlight Effect studies (from the APA and many others) show the more self-conscious we are, the more likely we are are to suffer a heightened sense of stress and concern for what others are thinking. And impeding our training progress in the process! The Spotlight Effect also explains why people feel social anxiety under scrutiny.

Findings from the Spotlight Effect studies to remember:

1) We're responsible for putting the spotlight on ourselves.

The Spotlight Effect studies proved, as much as science can definitively prove anything, that we tend to think everyone is watching, listening, judging, or talking about us when in reality they are not and we have just put the spotlight on ourselves.

It's important to remember that people do not pay as much attention to us as we think they do. So when you are out and about with your dog and your pup has a reaction to something, yes it can be embarrassing, but we need to assure ourselves that other people around us don't care as much as we think they do.

2) When we apologize for something our dog does, we are fueling that embarrassment.

Over time and with enough reactions and apologies for our dogs' barking etc, that embarrassment can turn into shame. Apologizing turns something into shame and then into a ripple effect that comes between us and our dogs. We get to the point where we don't want to do things with our dogs, because we're so nervous about what might happen. We end up avoiding walks and other experiences with our dogs.

It begins to change our relationship with our dog. Not only does our dog suffer from this lack of walks and shared experiences, but we suffer, and so does our bond with our dog.

Reactivity isn't something to be embarrassed about, but it does take time for us to change our natural "sorry" reflex to become comfortable taking our reactive dogs out and not apologize to passersby.

My best advice - when I'm out walking CJ, and the neighbor's off-leash dogs come rushing out, and of course, my sweet CJ reacts... Why in the world, would I diminish my life and my dog's life to appease people I don't live with, don't know, etc. by apologizing? Keep your focus on supporting your dog, whisking your pup out of there, and treating generously to reassure your dog.

Remember what matters - your dog

You most likely will never see that human again but you do live with your dog every day. Put your dog's needs first and try to learn to ignore any comments or stares. Most likely the people you encountered have already forgotten about it and you are just spotlighting yourself.

3) Ditch your own "cognitive bias" - stay on your positive path for you & your dog

Experimental social psychology teaches us that it's often our own cognitive bias that derails us from the positive path we're on.

What is "cognitive bias" anyway?

It's a pattern of deviation from rationality in judgment. We as individuals create our own "subjective reality" from our perception of what's happening. It's our own construction of reality, not the objective input, that often dictates our behavior, our own actions in the world.

Translation: science is telling us to reject old habits of projecting & reacting to our own perspective of false perceptions and stick to the reality of simply staying on your positive path with your dog.


How does the Spotlight Effect relate to our dogs?

Just like humans, dogs can pick up on our emotions and body language. If we are feeling stressed or anxious while walking them, they will sense it and may become reactive themselves.

Understanding the Spotlight Effect can help us be more aware of our own self-consciousness and how it may be affecting our dogs. By being mindful of our emotions and body language, we can better manage them and create a calmer environment for our reactive dogs.

Tips for managing the Spotlight Effect

We know we want to shut off what could become a shame spiral where we get down on ourselves and even our dogs before we know it. But on a real life, everyday basis, how do we handle situations that tend to have us projecting and apologizing almost as a habit?

Your new natural go-to's: replacement behaviors and practiced lines you don't have to think about.

1) Don't apologize

Try this

Replace your usual apology with a laugh, a wave, and keep moving. And if you're not ready for that...

If it helps you to say something, have at the ready a quick line that introduces some lightness with a smile and does not denigrate your dog...

"Working on it!"...

"Having a bad day!"

"Didn't have his coffee this morning!"

Find a phrase that's comfortable for you and just reel it off and eventually find a second phrase until you get to the point you can laugh it off.

2) Prep for prevention

How do you create a force field around your dog to protect from reactivity-causing incidents that come at you? What to do when an off-leash dog in a leash area rushes you (and the parent is oblivious) or when a passing dog parent is bursting to have your dogs "meet and say hi" or is coming at you with the "he's friendly?"

First to start, for the off-leash dog, throw treats away from you (especially if there's no human around to recall) to buy you and your dog some distance and time if you can.

In all these cases in regard to the human, put your "good girl" syndrome or whatever aside and be the best advocate for your dog. If my dog is about to be injured or put in a difficult/dangerous situation, my only responsibility is being my dog's advocate and to protect him or her.

Try this

Again, have your responses ready as needed...

  • That might mean yelling succinctly to the off-leash parent to call their dog and get their dog on a leash or a quick, no-fuss/no-muss "No thanks!" to the he's-friendly person. If necessary for people who don't get it, "no thanks, he bites!" or even simply, "he bites!" always works (even if not technically true, worth it to protect your dog).

  • And a "no thanks, not a good idea" is an all-occasion line that's easy to throw out. Or a more emphatic modification I like, "no thanks, never a good idea" useful for situations that truly are never a good idea for any dogs. For example, mixing one dog on a leash and one dog not on a leash is a recipe for disaster even if the dogs are best friends.

For more pre-walk prep ideas, check out What to Bring on a Walk with Your Reactive Dog here where you'll learn what I never leave home without and why from my own experiences (for example, a super-compact, folding umbrella + how to use it!).

3) Practice a no-stress walk

Try this

Take a walk alone, same route as you would take with your dog, and soak up and memorize how a zero-stress walk feels.

Appreciate the sights of nature, etc. and how it feels without bringing any of your preconceived thoughts of what might happen (the root of so many anxiety disorders) and see how relaxing it can be.

Then next time, remember and try to actively feel that feeling as you walk your dog and consciously ditch those pre-worries most people tend to get before anything ever happens.


Develop new muscle memory in your brain & focus on your dog!

Try to change that spotlight effect channel in your brain, let it go, find humor... work on your muscle memory to not cater to what others think or what you think others think.

It's your and your dog's walk. Do what works for you (anything but apologize). Find the lightness and focus on what's good for your dog. You're here for your dog!

If you make a mistake or your dog reacts, give yourself some grace. When you have a victory, feel great about it. There are no straight lines to success so go with the flow and enjoy your dog!

Next up in the Reactivity Channel on Dogly

Now that you know The Spotlight Effect is actually a thing and that many dog parents share the feeling, you can move on and focus on what matters: your dog! Stay tuned for what's next - all the many ways you can support your dog and get through reactivity together here in the Dogly Reactivity Channel.

If you have any questions on management or working with your dog and reactivity, jump into our Community Discussion. Continue in our Reactivity Channel where you'll learn everything you need to know for your dog from our community of Dogly Training Advocates.

If you ever need more individualized guidance, get started in your dog's training plan here.

Karen Chapdelaine of TheTimelessDog

Training Advocate
Dogly loves Karen because she helps us live life with our dogs in a way that's rewarding, calm, and happy - and does it with empathy.

Karen guides you

Aggression - Basic Manners - Marker Training - Enrichment - Leash Manners - Reactivity

Karen is certified

Certified Professional Dog Trainer Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) - Fear Free Certified - DN-CET (DogNostic - Canine Enrichment Technician)