Dog reactivity is a common behavioral issue found in many dogs, particularly younger ones who are in the process of socialization and learning about the world.
A dog is considered to be “reactive” when they are triggered by a particular person, place, event, or object and their owner is unable to reclaim their attention easily.
To the untrained eye, a reactive dog can be confused with an aggressive one, but the body language of each is actually quite different.
In this article we will discuss dog reactivity, how it’s expressed, it’s root causes, and how to address a reactive dog with patience and training games.
Having a reactive dog is a cause for concern, but not for alarm. Many dogs who experience reactivity can improve their ability to control themselves when faced with their triggers through dedicated training routines.
All dogs are unique, but genetic traits across breeds play a part, as do hormones, prior socialization, experiences with different stimuli, and their particular neurophysiology.
If your dog is reactive, don’t think of it as a sign you’ve done something wrong as an owner because it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific cause to the behavior.
Just consider it a behavioral issue you get to work on together with your dog.
Reactivity usually doesn’t emerge in young puppies, so don’t be surprised when your dog begins getting reactive a bit later in life.
Also, it’s possible that older dogs who previously were not reactive can begin to exhibit reactivity when faced with unfamiliar circumstances.
Let’s dive in by describing what a reactive dog looks like in a real-world situation. A reactive dog is one who experiences a triggering stimulus like a loud passing garbage truck for example and then changes their behavior and emotional state.
They may start barking, growling, or lunging at their leash to chase after the offending stimulus, in this case, the noisy truck.
When in this reactive state, it’s difficult for an owner to regain control over their pet to calm them down and return them back to their baseline attention and energy level.
Dog’s can become reactive in any situation, it’s not necessarily an in-the-house or an out-of-the-house behavioral issue. In the home, dog’s may become reactive when a new guest arrives for a visit, or when the mail carrier drops off the mail.
Outside, there are nearly unlimited triggers that might put your dog in a reactive state. It could be people, other dogs, other animals like cats or squirrels, cars, alarms, the list goes on and on.
One of the reasons why we want to help our dog’s deal with their reactivity is that it helps to keep them safe while they are in our care.
This is especially the case for when you’re out of the home with your dog, and crucial if you ever plan to be in outdoor situations where your dog will be off-leash like at a dog park.
In the home, there are also safety concerns since a dog who’s pushed well passed their emotional threshold may lash out and attempt to bite a person who’s triggered them.
Understanding what your dog is experiencing in these situations is the first step to tackling the behavior in your training practice.
When your dog becomes reactive, it’s because they are experiencing an intense emotional state like fear, excitement, or frustration.
Perhaps a combination of the three.
They may have a desire to get away from a particular stimulus like a threatening person or animal or they may actually be excited by them and want to get closer.
This leads to “barrier frustration” when a dog is on leash. With larger dogs and smaller owners, there is a risk that the dog will take control and pull an owner by force.
Don’t confuse this with aggressive behavior, usually, your dog is just overly excited or aroused by something or someone in the environment. It’s important that you don’t give in to this response and below we’ll go over what training protocols you can use to help your dog manage their emotional states.
True aggression in dogs is rarer than people think and there’s often another underlying cause like fear, stress, or uncertainty that is making your dog act out. Sometimes it’s even you as the owner who’s the source of your dog’s rude behavior.
It’s not uncommon that owners will inadvertently trigger their dogs to act in ways that aren’t actually natural doggie behavior!
For instance, when dog’s greet each other they typically approach from the side in an arc so they can engage in the ceremonial sniffing of rear-ends.
They don’t approach one another head-on unless aggression is present and they’re going to be in a fight. But when humans meet we do face each other head-on to make eye contact and greet one another.
When dogs are on leash together in a public space, they may unintentionally be forced to meet head-on and it can trigger a fear response that looks like aggression.
Most dogs do not want to fight one another, and if threatened they will act in a manner that will hopefully make the threat go away — such as barking, growling, and showing teeth to name a few.
These behaviors are designed to put distance between themselves and the threat!
Owners don’t help by ignoring these signals and letting their dogs approach each other. They misread a tight leash as a dog’s desire to say “hello”, while a dog will read a tight leash as a sign of stress in their owner.
In these situations the threat may escalate into more aggressive posturing from the dogs. Owners can make matters worse here by disciplining their pets for the aggressive outburst.
This is a poorly thought out approach and reinforces all the wrong things to your dog. It teaches them that other dogs will trigger punishments, and therefore in the future they may be less social.
It can also teach them that barking and growling are behaviors that will cause punishment.
While we don’t always want our dogs to bark, it’s an important behavior and signal of your dog’s distress and the possibility of an imminent bite. If dogs are afraid to bark and growl they might just proceed right to a bite without warning, thus creating a more dangerous situation.
When your dog is in a situation where they are reactive, we have to help to de-escalate them and get our dog to focus their attention back onto us.
The best way to de-escalate a tense situation is to stop it before it starts via a dedicated training routine that begins after you start noticing reactivity in your dog.
The longer you wait, the more bad behavior will be reinforced and thus harder to untrain.
In the next section, we’re going to go over a few training methods that will allow you to refocus your dog’s energy and attention.
Here are a few training strategies you can use to help your dog have a better experience while you’re out walking them on-leash.
Being able to command your puppy’s attention is key to redirecting them from any triggers that cause reactivity. Before you leave the house practice saying their name and reward them when they successfully look at you.
Start in your home, since there are likely fewer distractions there than outside at a park or a busy street.
As your dog’s ability to focus on you at home grows, move on to busier environments like your front yard and up the block.
This will reinforce the behavior regardless of the environment.
While you’re out walking and you see another dog, allow your dog to notice them first. When they do, get their attention back on you again and reward them for it.
Don’t wait for them to become reactive!
What you are doing by interrupting the trigger response is allowing them to associate the presence of the trigger (in this case another dog) with a positive experience that you control.
As you find success with this step of the practice, move a bit closer to the other dog. If your dog begins to react then you’ve moved too close for now. Increase your distance and start the process over again.
There is no need to punish your dog for getting reactive, simply be calm on the retreat. You will also need to take care not to accidentally reward the reactivity itself.
You will soon find your “threshold distance.”
Remember to keep a safe distance from other people or dogs while you’re practicing reactivity training. Don’t let anyone come to greet you at this time, it’s best to avoid any potential negative experiences that might hurt the conditioning you’re building.
If other dog’s are unavoidable for whatever reason make sure you approach them from the side to keep your dog as relaxed as possible.
This is a variation on the Look-At-Me practice. For this training practice, you’ll need a bunch of your dog’s favorite treats.
When you’re in a situation with another dog or triggering stimuli, toss some of the treats on the ground a few feet from your pet and tell them to “find it!”
This gives your dog something to do that takes their attention off the other dog, person, or whatever. Allowing them to search out for the treat will calm them down as sniffing helps to decrease stress and anxiety in dogs.
Make sure you toss the treats before your dog has time to become reactive, otherwise this won’t work and you’ll be rewarding the reactivity response!
Practice this while you and your dog are alone to start and then move into more incrementally chaotic environments.
U-Turns are a great practice that you can use to redirect your dog’s attention by changing which direction you’re headed. Start practicing while you’re inside your home. Walk a few steps with your dog on-leash and then command them with “this way” or “with me!”
When your dog complies, reward them with a treat. You can then move your practice outside. When you see another person or dog, redirect your pet to another direction and keep walking.
To lock in the behavior don’t just change directions when you see someone, do it randomly as well and continue giving treat rewards.
This training game is quite simple. The goal is to teach your dog to look at a particular thing, thus redirecting their attention and preventing reactivity. Using a clicker can make this game easier, but it’s not necessary. Direct your dog with a “look at that!” and if they look and then look back at you, reward them with a treat.
You can use all types of objects, people, and animals as your “thing” but you will definitely want to start with less triggering things and work your way up to dogs, people, and any other triggers your pet has trouble with.
This game trains your dog to start associating these things with getting treats and turns what was once frightening into a positive experience.
Also, your dog will be able to see a triggering stimulus, acknowledge it, but then still turn their attention back to you for a reward.
Dog muzzles can be a great tool to help with reactive dogs as they are often used to desensitize dogs to being around other people and animals.
Like all pieces of equipment, it’s important to train your dog to work with them. They aren’t punishments and you should slowly introduce them to your dog so they become familiarized.
Remember, reactivity is a training issue many owners have successfully dealt with before you and many will after! Follow these guidelines and track your progress.
As always, if you need a bit of extra help feel free to give us a message or call and we’d be more than happy to assist you!
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