This is honestly not an easy question, even though it might seem that it is. First of all, I will give a little background...many breeds are intended to be somewhat "reactive". Surpising as this may be, prior to about 150 years ago, many dog breeds were intended to be alert dogs, or protection dogs primarily, or aside from their other duties. The bahaviors that were prized in those dogs at the time would today be considered unsocial or even aggressive. Many breeds have been bred into "social" and "friendly" dogs because our society has changed.
*I will take a moment here to note that I am primarily speaking of the perspective of the general population of the United States, and owners in this country.
The Pyrenean Shepherd is a very old breed, and for the most part has stayed very true to it's original intent, without much changing within the last few hundred years. The temperament test for the breed still specifies that it is preferred for the dog to be cautious or wary of strangers, and it is entirely acceptable, if not welcomed, that the dog bark or show uncomfortability of a stranger approaching.
During this conversation I mentioned that my Pyr Shep, Andreu, often works as my distraction dog in my "Growly" classes and does very well. I was asked what I determine to be a "reactive" dog versus a "normal" dog based on the groups understanding that Pyr Sheps are expected to be wary of strangers, and possibly bark at them (as are many other breeds). The following is my response to this question:
"I constantly try to explain to people that each breed has it's own instinctual tendencies (and in my world this is difficult to explain to people who have been "trained" to believe that ALL dogs must be friendly and tolerant. . . often based on certain TV trainers telling people that a "balanced" dog is one who accepts and tolerates anything. . .). But, for those of us who are really involved in the dog world, we know that certain breeds are intended to be wary, or even protective, instinctually, and usually it is the breeds who are still closest to their original intent. It was only within our recent history, and only in certain areas (countries), that people seem to have a hang up that ALL dogs should be friendly and loving to everyone they meet.
OK, rant done. So, in answer to your question, I consider many different levels of "reactive" dogs, but for the class we generally have dogs who are difficult to take out into normal society because their barking, growling, lounging, etc. makes them a nuisance for their owner, or for society.
Andreu is the only Pyr Shep that I have owned, so I can only use him to explain my opinion on the line between "natural" or "normal", and reactive with the breed. First, I believe that even if a dog has natural tendencies, you can still train them to listen and overcome these tendencies when you want them to. It is still Andreu's natural tendency to be cautious with new people, and if they look particularly intimidating, or very different from most of the people he knows, he will still bark at them. He is much better with dogs than he is with people, but I think that this is because I spent much more time socializing him with other dogs when he was young than I did with people.
The reason he works so well in my Growly Class is that I use him as a distraction for the DOGS. He likes pretty much all dogs, and has also learned that when he is in public he should be focused on me and working. Now, if I put him in a crate, or tied him to a post, he would likely bark at any suspicious person who walked by, but when we are working he is focused on me, and so not paying attention to the people around.
Andreu has passed his CGC test, which includes being pet and examined by a stranger (but then again, so does conformation showing), but the entire time he was in "working mode", focused on me, and we had practiced each exercise regularly to get him used to them, and to teach him to understand that if I put him in that situation it is not a threat.
I suppose in general my answer would be, that I consider a "reactive" dog different from a naturally cautious dog because the reactive dogs I work with have been trained (which is a requirement for Growly Class) and are still having issues understanding how to be "under control" and follow their training in certain situations. We work on creating positive associations with whatever it is the dog reacts to in order for them to feel more comfortable encountering those things."
I felt that this was an important element to post because there are many people out there who are sincerely confused about why their dogs are reactive to new dogs, people, or situations. It is important for any dog owner to understand that when you choose a certain breed, line, or even a rescue, you have to be aware that just because your dog barks at new things doesn't mean that they are "bad". Often, it just means that they are doing what they think they should do, and what is instinctual to them. Our job is to show them that we prefer that they react a different way, even if it seems unnatural to them. They are never showing these behaviors because they don't "respect" us, they are showing them because want to protect us and themselves.
Please, don't punish your dog for trying to do what in his mind is "right"...protecting his family. Instead, work on teaching him what you WANT him to do, and practice socializing him to the positives of humanity and the human world with treats, praise, and play.
I offer my Growly Class to help people understand how to deal with their "reactive" dogs so that we can enjoy our experiences with them as much as possible.
Thank you for reading.