Something as simple as a walk along the sidewalk or taking a stroll through the dog park can become a veritable nightmare if you have a highly reactive dog. Not only is the situation stressful for you, it’s stressful for the person or animal on the receiving end of your dog’s hyper reaction. Plus, it can be a little embarrassing. You may be worried people are looking at you, wondering why you can’t control your dog. Unfortunately, in most cases, you’re probably already doing all you can to remedy the situation.
It’s likely that your walks with your reactive dog is already tightly regulated. But you can’t control other people or the environment around you. You can’t plan for every contingency. You can’t expect every jaunt outside to go smoothly, no matter how much you plan ahead or how well-behaved your dog appears to be when they are at home. Just know that you are not alone in your frustrations. There are plenty of dog owners out there that face the same battles you are facing. It’s not your fault and it’s not your dog’s fault either.
What is a Reactive Dog?
In the simplest of terms, a reactive dog is just that… a dog that reacts to something or someone (a stimulus) in their environment in a way that seems excessive for the situation, and possibly even aggressive. A reactive dog could react to a new person, an object, another dog or animal approaching, or just about anything else you can think of. Reactive is the term used to describe a dog that overreacts to external stimuli, whatever that may be. Some dogs are reactive by nature, whereas other dogs may be reactive due to a previous traumatic experience or a lack of proper socialization as a puppy.
Dogs that are reactive can be tough to manage and will often require lots of training and help to move past their reactive behaviors. When a dog reacts, they might lunge at the offending person or object, bark at it, and even growl. A dog that is reacting may display a variety of behaviors that can seem very similar to canine aggression. The key thing to realize however, is that reactivity and aggression are not the same. This can be tough to determine on your own. You may need the help of a professional to figure out if your dog’s behavior is reactive, normal, or something else.
Why are Dogs Reactive?
A dog may be reactive for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s motivated by canine anxiety or fear, sometimes it’s a sense of frustration. Sometimes reactivity is the result of defensive or protective behavior, or even due to a neurochemical imbalance that could require medication on the recommendation of your vet.
There appears to be a genetic component to reactivity as well, with some breeds being more prone to reactive behaviors than others. Of course, environment plays a role in just about everything, including reactivity in a dog. A dog raised in a chaotic environment with a high level of stimuli could wind up reactive even if he has no breed propensity to be reactive. On the flip-side, a dog breed known for reactive behavior may never show it if properly handled and cared for.
Clinical Signs of Reactive Behavior in Dogs
According to Dr. Karen Overall in her book, Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, there are a handful of behaviors that dogs display when they are reactive that could be considered clinical signs of reactivity, or what she calls an abnormal (or overreaction) to normal stimuli.
Those signs include:
- Alertness or hypervigilance
- Restlessness like panting, pacing, lunging
- Vocalizations like barking, howling, and whining
- Systemic effects like vomiting, urinating, defecating
- Stereotypic or displacement behaviors like spinning, or chasing his shadow or tail
- Changes in behaviors
The important thing to remember when trying to determine if your dog is reactive or just being a normal dog with perhaps some bad habits, is to remember that reactivity is an abnormal response. All dogs bark at new things, get excited when new people or things wander into their environment, etc. But a reactive dog goes above and beyond normal, so much so that he could cause self-harm, or harm to those around him. A reactive dog won’t respond to any attempts to interrupt the reaction.
Reactive or Aggressive?
Sometimes people confuse aggression with reactivity. Dogs often present with two types of reactive behavior. One is fear-based, while the other is frustration-based. It’s called “barrier frustration.” When a dog’s reactive behavior stems from frustration, it’s because the dogs wants access to something but can’t get to it. The behaviors displayed can look different from fear-based reactivity. When a dog is reacting from fear, he is more concerned with making something go away, or getting away from something that is scaring him.
A dog that is reacting with barrier frustration may exhibit behaviors like barking, growling, lunging and pulling on his leash, jumping and bouncing, even flipping, twirling, and flopping in his frenzy to get access to whatever it is he wants to investigate. It may be he simply wants to check out the “new thing” and has no intention of causing harm, but his frustration is so great it can look like he is being aggressive.
A dog reacting with fear will react a little differently. His goal is to warn the threat away from him. Signs of fear-based reactivity might be tension in his leash, even if the perceived threat is some distance away, growling, snarling, and lunging once the threat gets too close. Again, this behavior can look like aggression, but the dog really just wants the threat to go away.
Both of these types of reactive responses in a dog can be highly stressful for all involved and make outdoor excursions less than enjoyable. That’s why it’s important to start early and remain consistent when trying to curb reactivity in your dog.
Reactive Dog Training: How to Manage
Though it can often feel as though your dog may be wildly unpredictable, reactive behavior usually has some kind of trigger or triggers that with careful observation, you can learn to identify and limit your dog’s exposure to. Reactive dogs may have a number of triggers. It’s your job to learn specifically what sets your dog off within his environment, so that you can take steps to limit his exposure to those triggers when possible.
Find the Triggers
For instance, some dogs may be triggered by other dogs. Some might be triggered by dogs of a particular sex only. Sometimes a dog may be triggered only if another dog comes near your dog’s food bowl or favorite toy. There are dogs that are triggered by people, whether that’s men or women specifically, or kids, or people on bikes or that wear hats or joggers on the sidewalk. It’s important to note and write down every instance that triggers your dog to go ballistic, so that you can identify the areas of most concern and start working on them with your dog.
The next thing to do is to try to limit your dog’s exposure or access to the offending trigger. In some cases, you may have to try eliminating those triggers entirely if possible. Maybe that means taking another route on your daily walk or walking your dog during times of the day that are less busy and populated. It might mean putting up some kind of barrier so that your dog can’t see whatever it is that sets him off each day. Maybe it means using special tools, like a head collar to help you guide and redirect your dog’s attention away from a potential stimulus, before your dog reacts. Interrupting visual contact before your dog responds inappropriately seems to be helpful for many pet owners.
Find the Threshold
Get to know your dog. Learn his body language. Do what you can to help him feel safe and secure. There is a point before a dog is triggered where he is considered under threshold, meaning he has no reaction to the trigger. Once the trigger gets closer, your dog begins to react. One way to help your dog is to desensitize him to the trigger by moving it closer and closer over time, creating positive experiences around it, while still remaining just under the threshold and at a “safe” distance.
Modify or Avoid
Sometimes, certain triggers are unavoidable, which means you will have to work with your dog on modifying the behavior. Try pairing your dog’s trigger with something pleasurable to begin to change their response. This can take time, but it’s worth it in the end. At other times, avoiding certain situations may be the best call, especially if you don’t know for sure how your dog might react.
Always remember that punishing your dog for reactive behaviors is never helpful. A dog that is reactive isn’t “bad” he is simply reacting. There are no real thought processes involved, it’s a purely physical response that is often reinforced in a negative way. For instance, a dog that sees someone outside and barks incessantly is only concerned with alerting you there may be an intruder. When that person leaves the yard, the dog thinks his barking made it happen. He has no concept of the idea that the person would have left the yard anyway. That’s a negative reinforcement that prompts him to react again the same way the next time someone walks into your yard.
Establish Yourself as Pack Leader
Understanding the doggie mind and the way dog’s work is key in helping you manage and train a reactive dog. Another way to help modify a dog’s reactivity is to establish yourself as pack leader. All dogs have a pack mentality. They run in packs, packs are their family, and all packs have a hierarchy. Someone has to be the leader and it has to be you in order for your dog to be obedient and not go wild over perceived threats to the family.
Basic obedience training can help with establishing pack order in your home, as well as using training tricks like “nothing in life is free.” This method basically teaches your dog that to get anything, like time, treats, food, or a walk, he must do something first. For instance, you might teach your dog to sit or shake in order to get a treat or go outside. These are basic obedience commands that help your dog to recognize and establish you as pack leader. Once you have some of those basic commands down, you can start working on other obedience commands like “stay” to help circumvent some of the dog’s reactive behaviors.
Consider Other Interventions
In very severe cases, some vets may recommend anti-anxiety medications. It’s up to you as the pet owner to decide what’s best for your dog. Just bear in mind that all medications come with side effects that aren’t always pleasant. There are natural alternatives for anxiety that you can investigate that could bring some relief when it comes to certain reactive behaviors.
Long-term, it’s always better if you can find other ways of managing your dog’s reactive behavior and use training and modification methods to help control the problem before resorting to drugs or substances. Yes, behavior correction can take time. But by using some of these tips for training a reactive dog, you can help mitigate his triggers and modify his behavior enough that, eventually, you’ll realize life has become just a little more pleasant for you both.
- “Tips for Managing a Reactive Dog.” Barkly Pets, 4 Oct. 2018, barklypets.com/blog/tips-for-managing-a-reactive-dog/.
- “10 Tips To Teach Your Reactive Dog To Stay Calm.” Pet Central, 7 Mar. 2019, petcentral.chewy.com/10-tips-to-teach-your-reactive-dog-to-stay-calm/.
- “Causes of Reactive Dog Behavior and How to Train Accordingly.” Whole Dog Journal, 1 Nov. 2003, www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/6_11/features/5585-1.html.
- “Canine Behavior – Canine Conversations.” Canine University, www.canineuniversity.com/articles/behavior/behave_12.html.
- “Dog Reactivity.” ISpeakDog, www.ispeakdog.org/dog-reactivity.html.