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Reactivity in Dogs

What is a reactive dog and how best to help them.
two small dogs on leads barking and lunging at each other with the caption reactivity in dogs

We’ve all seen dogs that can’t go out walking on leash without having what looks like multiple spontaneous nuclear reactions! 

Perhaps you have a dog who is intimidated by other dogs, moving bicycles, or thunderstorms. Some are over-emotional with just about anything that comes their way.

They may bark and lunge at everything they see and hear from outside the house, jump up on visitors or guests that come over, and perhaps even snap at them when they try to touch them.

Many think this is a sign of dominance or aggression, but that’s rarely the case. In many cases, dogs that are overly reactive with most things outside their house may simply be nervous and worried.

The good news is that you can help them overcome the fright they feel when they react inappropriately. You don’t have to wait for things to get better on their own, but you can choose to make a difference by using classical and operant conditioning training techniques, using treats and praise when you see Fido responding “normally” to the world around him.

The problem is more common than you think, but if your pooch is showing signs of this feeling anxious all the time there are things you can do to help them feel more comfortable and learn to trust that their environment is safe.

If you’re interested in helping Fido feel a little bit less stressed and a lot more confident, then you’ll want to read on.

What is reactivity?

Dogs that display a negative response towards other dogs or people can be said to be reactive. This is usually due to them being scared or anxious. The things that typically worry a dog and cause a negative reaction can include things they see, hear, or smell. They are trying to avoid or escape from anything they see as a threat. Another form of reactivity is based on wanting access to something but not being able to get it, such as with barrier frustration.

What does a reactive dog do?

Symptoms include:

  • aggressive body language – stiffness, stillness and staring
  • barking and lunging,
  • growling,
  • snapping and biting

These are all examples of actions that a reactive dog may resort to.

Intensity of dog reactivity.

There are different levels of intensity. It may take the form of seemingly innocuous excitement when approaching another dog or person, to a snarling, uncontrollable rage in some cases. However, it can be considered a serious issue that needs treatment.

The treatment is behavior training, sometimes in conjunction with antidepressant medications. If medication is used, this should always be paired with a behavior modification plan that aims to teach them a more appropriate way to behave upon being exposed to the trigger. It is of the utmost importance to work on changing the underlying emotion the dog feels when they encounter the stimulus by creating a better association, using counter-conditioning and desensitization.

Is reactivity dangerous?

It can be very dangerous for both the dog that acts this way, and other animals and humans in their proximity. The most notable and immediate danger is the possibility of biting, which often occurs when they act out of fear and try to escape from whatever they see as a threat.

Treatment should always be done under supervision by a qualified trainer or veterinary behaviorist.

How can I tell if my dog is exhibiting reactivity?

If your dog’s behavior meets any of the descriptions above, it’s time to seek help!

If you’re looking for professional help with reactivity but an in-person behaviorist isn’t an option right now, why not try this online course on reactivity from Canine Principles or this one on Tackling Reactivity by SpiritDog Training.

What are some behaviors that are sometimes confused with reactivity?

There are a number of other problems that can resemble it. To diagnose it properly, a veterinarian will need to rule out any medical condition that may be causing these symptoms, as well as finding out what sparks the behavior in order to create a suitable treatment plan.

It is sometimes confused with play that has become too rough due to misinterpreted signals from the dog or owner. Where a dog is responding to being treated or trained harshly, this can also look like they are reactive. 

The unwanted actions can also be easily inadvertently reinforced by dog owners, so it is important to seek professional help to overcome the problem.

What causes reactivity in dogs?

It can be caused by a number of different factors. Fear and anxiety are the primary causes. It is sometimes the result of inadequate socialization and negative interactions with humans and other dogs during puppyhood. Some puppies that display low levels of socialization during the early stages of development may never gain confidence in new situations.

It can be activated by a traumatic event, such as being attacked by another dog or even being hit by a car.

Genetics can also have a big role. Dogs bred to perform roles involving guarding property or livestock are more likely to display these traits. If the breed standard for your dog’s temperament mentions the terms “aloof” or “wary of strangers” you should assume this means “high incidence of reactivity in the breed”!

Pain can be a factor. A dog in pain is more likely to act this way because they don’t want anyone touching them or other dogs bouncing around near them. This is more likely in older dogs who are more likely to have undiagnosed joint pain, but is not as rare in younger dogs as you may think.

Dogs who do not have outlets for exhibiting natural species- and breed-specific behaviors (i.e. doing things that dogs love to do) are also at higher risk of developing behavioral problems.

Hormonal fluctuations can also affect behavior.

Digestive issues are another possibility. Studies of rodents suggest a link between gut flora, brain function, and anxiousness/depression.

What should I do if my dog is reactive?

There is no quick fix.

If you think your furry friend may have a serious issue, it is important to get the right help. This will allow you to find the root of the problem and fix it.

If you cannot control your dog, you should not continue to work with them on your own. If the behavior continues to get worse, it might be too dangerous for you to handle them. Get help before it gets to this point.

When to consult a qualified pro for help with dog reactivity.

Canine behavior problems should always be taken seriously and should be treated by a pro. There are many potential reasons for the issue, and each case is unique.

One of the most important things you can do to help your dog overcome their problems is to work with an experienced force-free trainer. They’ll be able to assess your dog’s unique situation and recommend strategies to help them overcome their issues.

IIf you’re looking for professional help with reactivity but an in-person behaviorist isn’t an option right now, why not try this online course on reactivity from Canine Principles or this one on Tackling Reactivity by SpiritDog Training.

What are the most important steps I can take if my dog is reactive?

Start with management to keep everyone safe. Aim to keep your dog at a distance from whatever it is that worries them where they do not feel the need to react.

Train focus games with your dog. Teach them to look at you on cue and train a hand touch, where the dog’s nose boops your palm. Use these skills to help diffuse situations by getting your dog’s attention and giving them a visual task to perform.

Maintain a relaxed, confident manner both when you are working with your dog. For example, if they bark at someone or something, your first priority is to add distance. After that, aim to act calmly and confidently around your dog. Speak in a normal voice. Do not babble or play excitedly. They do not need an additional reason to overreact.

Watch your dog for signs they are uneasy and try to keep them under their threshold.

Whether our dogs are excited about playing frisbee or stressed by a dog vocalizing at them, the same hormone is released – cortisol. Aim to keep things low key and peaceful for your pooch.

Block visual access to the things your dog is worried by, e.g. use window film or blinds to screen the view if they are scared of anything going past on the street.

Develop a cortisol reduction doggy-be-calm plan. This should include everything from controlled exercise to diet recommendations (looking at what you are feeding your dog can make a difference), plenty of naps and resting periods, environmental enrichment to training games, sniff walks, as well as ensuring your dog always has suitable items to chew on, eg bully sticks, rope toys.

Can a reactive dog be cured?

Positive reinforcement is an effective means of achieving lasting change. This type of training can be helpful in teaching Fido how to respond correctly in different situations, whilst also changing the underlying emotion that the dog experiences when they see things they’re worried by.

Can reactivity be prevented?

It is important for pet parents to be aware of the different traits that come with different breeds. It is also important for young dogs to be socialized, so that everyone involved (the dog and its owner) can have a fulfilling life.

If you’re thinking of getting a dog, watch out for puppies who are very shy, avoid contact or freeze up when faced with new situations. This may be the result of genetics or poor socialization during their first few weeks. Calm, confident, curious and content puppies are far more likely to become well-adjusted adults.

Effective socialization is the best way of preventing problems developing. Puppies should be introduced carefully to new experiences, including people, places, objects and other creatures, ensuring these interactions are unexciting and not overwhelming. This will help them learn how to respond to everyday situations appropriately.

What NOT to do when your dog is reactive

Do not correct or punish them if your dog is reacting. This will increase their distrust and make things worse. Avoid physical punishment as this can lead to accidental harm, and may damage your relationship with your dog.

Avoid allowing your dog to bark when they’re worried. This will only increase their stress level and strengthen the reaction.

Don’t force your dog to “face their fears”. Keep them away from the things they are scared of to avoid making the problem worse.

What are the consequences of owners’ inability to resolve this issue?

A 2018 study found that one in three deaths of 264,000 U.K. dogs younger than 3 years old were linked to “undesirable” behaviors. Dogs that act this way can be a danger to both animal and human health. They may be abandoned or even euthanized. Their welfare can be at risk due to emotional motivations for the way they behave or from the methods used by pet parents to resolve the problem.

What to do next…

The most effective way to treat this issue is through socialization and behavior modification techniques, so find someone qualified to help you resolve the problem and help your pooch live a happy life.

Check out my post on how to stop your dog barking at guests if your dog is reactive to visitors.

If you’re looking for professional help with reactivity but an in-person behaviorist isn’t an option right now, why not try this online course on reactivity from Canine Principles or this one on Tackling Reactivity by SpiritDog Training.

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