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Reactive Dogs - You're Not Alone

Updated: Mar 27

You're walking down the street with your dog, and suddenly, they're barking and lunging at the end of the leash at another dog. Your face turns bright red as you fumble to shorten up the leash and apologize to the owner and their dog walking by. Finally, you manage to get your dog to calm down, and you see another dog in the distance… Uh oh, here we go again… Does this sound like you? Well, you're not alone. Reactivity in dogs can be overwhelming and even potentially dangerous. In this blog post, we'll go over common triggers, how to tell when a dog is about to react, the side effects of a reactive dog, and training tips for reactive behavior. 

Person with brown pants walking a small

Understanding Dog Reactivity 

Reactive behavior can be overwhelming and potentially dangerous to the owner and the dog. Reactivity issues that are not dealt with through training can lead to severe anxiety disorders in the dog, harmful redirecting from the dog to the owner, and often leave the owner feeling depressed and isolated (which is often the opposite reason why most people get a dog in the first place!) 

Identifying Common Triggers

A key skill to understanding dog reactivity is recognizing common triggers. Common triggers typically include:

  • New or unknown people

  • Other dogs on and off-leash 

  • Skateboards and bikes

  • Kids running around 

Reactive dogs are often triggered by one (or all) of these, especially dogs living in areas where these triggers are common, like big cities. 

Recognizing When Your Dog is About to React

Paying attention to dog body language is critical here. Spotting signals like a stiff body, tight or closed mouth, fixated eyes on an object, or weight shifted forward into their front legs will help you recognize when a reaction is coming and manage the situation before anything happens.

Desensitization and Counterconditioning

 When dealing with reactivity, we want to change how a dog feels about something. We work to countercondition their feelings toward their triggers and ask them for an alternate behavior when they encounter a trigger. My favorite method is using clicker training to classically condition the dog to look at me when they sees a trigger. Once the dog can move through and past triggers, we can start desensitizing them to triggers. 

I like to use play during the desensitization part of training, as it speeds up the training process. Dogs can't play when stressed out but can (and will) take food, even when stressed- which often leads owners to think their dogs are starting to desensitize to a trigger when they are actually just stressed out and eating. This is NOT what we want. By using play, we have a clearer read on how the dog handles stress, and the dog is drastically changing their emotions around triggers while having a bunch more fun!

Clicker Training and Reactivity 

There are many ways to approach reactivity- my favorite way to start is with clicker training. Here's the clicker training method I use: 

  • Before working on the trigger, I "charge" the clicker till the dog has a conditioned response to the sound, which is to look at me. 

  • Once the dog is conditioned to the clicker, we start by working around the trigger, but far enough away that they aren't reactive. (Note, each dog has their own threshold for triggers) 

  • I practice having the dog notice the trigger while clicking the clicker and then quickly shuffling backward so the dog turns and follows me, and then receives a reward.

  • As we continue to work, I slowly start to close the gap between the trigger and the dog.  

Staying Consistent and Having Patience

This is the most important part. When dealing with a reactive dog, we're often working with adult dogs, which means they have been rehearsing this behavior for some time. This makes the behavior harder to counter-condition, as it has become a self-rewarding behavior. Staying calm and patient while working towards your goal will help you and your dog stay less stressed and reach your goal faster. 

Training Tool Options

Clicker training is just one of many ways to address reactivity. Some owners may find that their dogs respond best to tools like prong collars and e-collars to help through this process. These tools can be life-changing for owners and their dogs and are excellent at helping you manage reactivity when done right. 

When to Reach Out to a Trainer

 If you feel like you are not seeing results, are getting frustrated, or want some extra help, please reach out to a dog trainer so you can get to your goal as stress-free as possible and avoid creating a worse problem for you and your dog.

Managing Expectations

 I tell my clients we are the "0 expectations club". When working with a reactive dog, it's necessary to take all of your expectations and throw them out the window. When we have expectations, we put unnecessary pressure on ourselves and our dogs. For my clients with reactive dogs, we set goals every session and adjust them as we go. If we don't get to a certain point when we thought we would, THAT'S OKAY! Every person and dog will move at their own speed, and if we try to force it, that's often when things get worse. 

Celebrating Little Wins

Finding small victories along your journey will keep you and your dog moving forward and enjoying the process. With my clients, we set small goals like walking around the block without blow-ups or the dog choosing to look at you instead of the trigger. Even faster recovery time after a blow-up can be a cause for celebration! 

 At Body and Mind K9, we are all about building the bond between you and your dog, and we know reactive dogs deserve training so they can live a life with less stress. If you have questions about using tools in your reactivity training, recognizing your dog's triggers, or anything else, please reach out! 

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