Owning a reactive dog can be a very stressful experience for owners. “Reactive” dogs are dogs that react strongly or overreact to common stimuli. This might look like barking or lunging at other dogs, cars, or people, and becoming difficult to control. Dogs that are friendly, happy, lovable pups at home with their people may become unrecognizable around their triggers – and that is a distressing situation for their owners. However, there is hope. A reactive dog is typically fearful of their triggers, and needs assistance building confidence and overcoming their fear. Through consistent training, dogs can overcome their reactivity and live healthy, happy lives alongside their people.
Identifying a Reactive Dog’s Triggers
Not every dog that displays reactive behavior is reactive in the same situations. A dog that barks and lunges at strangers on a leash might be perfectly happy to receive friends in their own home and vice versa. Some dogs might be reactive around men with hats, but as soon as the hat comes off – it’s all smiles. Dogs can have unusual or unexpected triggers – it’s not always as obvious as it seems. After you’ve identified your dog’s trigger or triggers, you can get to work on the behavior.
Common types of reactivity in dogs include:
- Leash reactivity: Leash reactivity occurs when a dog is leashed, but not when they are unleashed. This does not mean that you should take your dogs for walks off-leash in public spaces. It’s never safe to walk an unleashed dog unless they have a rock-solid recall, especially if they have a history of reactivity. Like other types of reactivity, leash reactivity can be remediated through training.
- Barrier reactivity: This type of reactivity occurs when there is a barrier between the dog and their stimuli. This might be a crate or an exterior barrier such as a fence. This could look like barking at passersby when the dog is in the yard or becoming fearful and distressed while in their crate.
- Fear-based reactivity: Reactivity to strangers, cars, small children, other dogs, etc. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to many dogs’ reactive behavior – even if a dog does not have a harmful history with an object or person, they may still be reactive.
Reactivity in dogs can be caused by many things – lack of socialization (or the “wrong kind” of socialization), genetics, history, and more. Early dog socialization is often touted as the key to a well-behaved dog. Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions out there about what proper socialization looks like as a young dog. Proper socialization isn’t about meeting as many people as they can and getting pets by strangers. Socialization should be about teaching a puppy to be neutral in as many locations as possible – teaching them to be calm, to ignore strangers and other dogs unless they’ve been told it’s okay, and to be responsive to their handler.
Tips for Managing or Reducing a Dog’s Reactive Behavior
There are a few routes that a dog parent can go to reduce a dog’s reactive behavior. However, as with all things, consistency and patience is key. Dog training takes time and patience for both yourself as a handler and for your dog. Here are a few tips for managing your dog’s reactive behavior.
1. Counter-conditioning and Desensitization
With fear-based reactivity, you want to build your dog’s confidence and reduce their fear. When they are near their trigger, reward them immediately. Ignore any of the bad behavior – lunging, barking, etc. (But never place your dog into a dangerous situation.) For example, if your dog goes wild when someone knocks on the door, enlist a friend or family member to come over and knock. As soon as they’ve knocked, reward your dog with a high-value treat. Don’t wait until they’ve calmed down or stopped barking – reward them immediately. Repeat this over many different instances and times until the behavior has changed.
Let’s look at a different example. Counter-conditioning and desensitization are all about creating a positive association with their trigger rather than a negative one. It has nothing to do with their behavior. When the association changes, their behavior will change. Let’s say that your leashed dog is fearful of other dogs. Enlist a friend, trainer, or family member with a dog to stand far away from your dog – but close enough that your pup is aware of the other dog in a way that is not over-aroused. If your dog is already reactive and hard to control at your current distance, move away until they are willing to pay attention to you.
When your dog looks in the direction of the other dog, feed them a high-value treat. Every time they look at the other dog, reward them. Repeat this until you notice that your dog is starting to look at you immediately after looking at the other dog. Your pup has noticed that when they notice the other dog, they get a treat. However, don’t confuse this reward with behavior reinforcement – it’s the presence of the other dog that gets them reward, not the behavior of looking at them. As your dog becomes more relaxed, you can very slowly decrease the amount of space between your dog and the other dog. Repeat the rewarding behavior – feed them their treat as quickly as you can as they glance at the other dog. If they become more reactive as you close the distance, simply move further away and begin the process again.
Reactive dog training can take a long time. There is no quick fix when it comes to managing or reducing a dog’s reactive behavior. Consistency is key. Repeat this process many times with all kinds of dogs, people, and locations. Eventually, your dog will have overcome their fear and only remember that when they see other dogs – good things happen.
2. Teach or Reinforce a Replacement Behavior
In the case of dogs who aren’t fearful, but are simply frustrated that they aren’t getting what they want (such as attention from other dogs or strangers) it can be helpful to teach a different behavior instead. For example, when in the presence of stimuli, redirect their attention to a different command. Let’s go back to the dog that barks and howls at the doorbell or knocking. When the stimuli appear, direct them to a toy and reward them generously. The goal is to get them to hold the toy in their mouth. This behavior (holding a toy) is incompatible with the undesirable behavior (barking).
Managing a Dog’s Reactivity Takes Time and Consistency
No matter what method of management you take, it will require time and consistency to make an impact on your dog’s behavior. Give yourself and your dog patience and remember that they’re not bad dogs – they’re just afraid or frustrated.
Remember to enjoy the little things with your dog in the moments when they are not reactive – just happy pets at home. With time, patience, and positive reinforcement, it can be possible to mitigate your dog’s reactivity.