dog reactivity

How to support a reactive dog


What is dog reactivity?

A ‘reactive’ dog is essentially a dog that reacts to something in the environment with an abnormal and inappropriate level of intensity and arousal. Of course dogs get excited in various situations and that’s great, but a ‘reactive’ dog may spin out of control, chew compulsively or even appear ‘aggressive’.

 These behaviours include:

• Alertness & restlessness

• Whining, barking & lunging

• Vomiting, urination, defecation

• Displacement or compulsive behaviour 

What causes reactive behaviour in dogs?

We have all heard the term ‘Nature Versus Nurture’ and there are arguments suggesting behaviour is caused by one or indeed, the other. However, these days it’s generally accepted that behaviour is caused by a combination of both nature (genetics) and nurture (experience), with genetics providing us with certain innate behaviour and tendencies and these in turn are hugely influenced by environmental learning. When it comes to nature versus nurture for behaviour one cannot exist without the other.

Regarding the individual dog, reactivity is just behaviour that follows the same rules as all other types of behaviour. It happens because it is efficient and effective in allowing the dog to achieve what it wants at that point in time.

In general terms most behaviours serve to allow the dog to either gain or maintain access to something or to avoid or escape something else- and this includes reactive behaviour.

Why is your dog reacting in the same way?

Despite commonly used labels (stubborn, dominant…) dogs don’t set out intent on terrifying your neighbours or fighting local dogs. What they really want (in a reactive situation) is that the ‘thing’ coming towards them, simply goes away. If the dog has learnt that lunging and barking has worked on previous occasions then it will seem perfectly logical to do the same again.

Teach your dog new ways to deal with the same situation

The dog will continue to do what has worked in the past because they have yet to realise that there are other options available. Therefore, it’s our job to teach (train) the dog that there are other ways to achieve the same goals – but without the usual stress. We can train the dog to choose the alternative, calm and stress free path instead.

Leash reactivity in dogs

Some dogs may become reactive due to the frustration of being on the lead and owners often report their dogs are ‘better’ off lead. This may appear the case because the dog has ‘an escape route’ thus avoiding the feelings of frustration.

This strategy may work for most of the time but it can fall apart quickly if the other dog is not as welcoming as expected. Dogs that become frustrated on the lead often have poor social skills and so when they run up to another dog, whose response also isn’t that great, it may result in panic, barking and snapping  which can go badly, particularly if the other dog joins in.

Helping a reactive dog find calm

First step

Reactive dogs can be challenging but there’s a lot you can do to relieve stress for both you and your dog.

1. Identify triggers. Compile a specific list of all the environmental stimuli that set off your dog’s reactions.

2. Prevent access to the triggers. The aim is to attempt to change your dog’s environment as much as possible to avoid the behaviour being triggered. Examples include blocking the dog’s visual access to triggers or simply move your dog to another environment when the trigger is likely to be present.

Prevent and manage situations to help your reactive dog

Management and planning is crucial when helping a reactive dog. Once your dog has crossed that line of emotional arousal, it’s too late and your best option is to simply move away.

The only way forward is through a preventative program. Many owners even find that if their environmental management is particularly successful, then that’s enough and all that’s required and lots of people get by on a management strategy without ever actually retraining the dog.

However, we will often need to implement both environmental management and a behaviour change programme.  To change behaviour an owner will need to implement a behaviour change programme of ‘counter-conditioning, and desensitisation’ (exposing the dog to the trigger slowly and systematically while also changing the dogs actual attitude towards the trigger).