Does your dog bark, growl or overreact at the slightest noise or provocation? There’s a chance they are being ‘reactive’ – and that may not mean they’re naturally aggressive. Many different sounds, movements and even types of people can trigger reactive dogs – but can you necessarily ‘fix’ dog reactivity?
Dog reactivity is simple to soothe and train out – you’ll need to be calm, consistent, and receptive to your pup’s needs. Toning down reactivity may be as simple as creating a more predictable routine!
Why is my dog so reactive?
A reactive dog may act out of fear, anxiety, pain, or even excitement. Dog reactivity ties in with your pet’s innate need to survive. Reactivity is behavior they’ve learned – whether during their puppyhood or later, a reactive dog may misbehave in a situation where they feel scared, or where they need to protect you.
What’s causing their reactivity?
If you’re not your dog’s first owner, they may have experienced trauma in their puppyhood that’s embedded in inappropriate triggers – but it’s not the sole cause of bad behavior.
- They may not be well-socialized. A healthy dog is one that’s socialized as early on in life as possible. You should gently introduce your dog to different animals, people, and situations as a puppy.
- They may have abuse trauma. If you’ve adopted a rescue dog, they may be reactive to specific situations, or people, if they were an abuse victim. For example, some reactive dogs may be aggressive towards men because they were physically harmed by a male owner early in life.
- It may be a breeding issue. In some cases, stress hormones are hereditary – mother dogs suffering from anxiety may pass these traits onto their children.
- They may even be in pain. Dogs are likely more sensitive to stimuli when they’re uncomfortable or in pain. Additionally, a reactive dog may respond inappropriately to a situation if it caused them pain or physical harm earlier in life.
How can I help my reactive dog?
‘Fixing’ a reactive dog is rooted in keeping calm and establishing clear routines – meaning you’ll need to moderate your behavior first!
Consult your vet
Before starting reactivity training, ask your vet for advice on what may be causing your dog’s inappropriate behavior. If they have underlying physical problems or are in pain, for example, your vet may be able to prescribe treatment to help soothe your dog’s mind and body.
Following a recommended treatment plan, you can gently train your dog into a calmer, more predictable routine.
Understand your dog’s discomfort
Many reactive dogs respond poorly to stimuli, such as other animals and their owners, because they don’t know how to react. That means scalding or admonishing your dog may make things worse! Instead, guiding your dog into a situation where they feel more at ease is essential.
For example, if your pet reacts poorly to seeing other dogs while walking on a leash, simply try to walk them into a quieter area.
Watch their body language
Dogs are incredibly expressive – they’ll typically stiffen up if nervous or aggressive and may even bare their teeth in their most reactive moments. They may even raise their hackles, stare straight forward, or dart around. Non-reactive dogs at complete ease are ‘loose’ – they have floppy ears and mouths, their tails raise and gently wag, and they move more fluidly.
It’s important to look out for ‘cues’ in your dog’s body language – each animal has their own ‘tells’, too, which should let you know when they’re starting to feel uncomfortable.
Work on your routine
Dogs thrive on routine – their brains can’t comprehend the little changes that can occur in our daily lives. Anxious, reactive pets demand more predictability than others – which means it’s worth establishing small moments at first, across your day, to reassure your dog that everything is ok.
For example, try taking your dog out for walks at set times every day. Signal your pets with a jangling of keys or using a verbal cue. It’s good to feed your dog at the same time each day and reward your pet when they heel or behave well in public.
An anxious, reactive dog will also pick up on your negative emotions and behavior. Be calm yet authoritative around your pet, especially when communicating directly with them.
Make scary situations fun!
Counter conditioning is helping your dog reassociate negative triggers with positive outcomes – providing they behave appropriately! Successful counter-conditioning lets your dog notice the trigger (whether a noise, smell, or sight) before you distract them with a favorite toy or treat.
If you’re consistent, this conditioning technique can help your dog to react less negatively to moments that scare them. It may take weeks or even months! You can couple this training technique with rewarding your dog for good behavior, such as coming to heel or obeying a ‘sit’ command.
Invest in the right accessories
Walking a reactive dog can be stressful for all involved – which is why using a leash and/or harness designed to curb reactive pulling can help establish good behavior. Leashes designed to pull away from your dog’s throat will help you quickly control your pet without causing physical distress. If vocal recall doesn’t stop reactivity, follow up by authoritatively steering them away.
Crate training, too, can help you create a ‘safe space’ your dog can retreat to if they’re feeling scared. Fill their crate zone with favorite treats, toys, and comforters that smell like you. Taking their crate with you when you vacation or ride in the car can help reduce reactivity.
Should I attend a dog training school?
Fixing dog reactivity takes patience, consistency, and, most of all, time! If you’re finding reactivity training frustrating or have tried the above tips to no avail, it may be time to enroll your pup at Delaware K9 Academy. Our fantastic facility offers exciting bootcamps, private sessions, and training for dogs of all sizes, ages, and breeds. Don’t let your dog’s reactivity rule their life – or yours, for that matter! Get in touch with the Delaware K9 team to find out more.