How to Overcome Dog Reactivity

Nov 4, 2023 | Dog Behaviour

An evocative landscape image symbolizing transformation and overcoming challenges, tailored for a blog post titled 'Overcoming Reactivity_ Transform

What is Reactivity in Dogs

Dog reactivity refers to a dog or puppy’s tendency to respond with a heightened response to specific stimuli in certain breeds or situations, such as other dogs, people, or certain environments. This prevalent issue in modern society poses a challenge for many dog owners. However, with informed guidance and dedicated training, managing and overcoming this behaviour problem is achievable.

Understanding Reactivity

Dogs are naturally social species, yet some may show signs of distress when interacting with other dogs. This reactive behaviour in most dogs has complex origins and can be attributed to various factors:

  • Underlying Causes: To effectively address reactivity, one must first comprehend its origins. Reactivity may arise from fear, frustration, or over-excitement, leading to unwanted behaviours such as barking, lunging, or growling.
  • Past Traumas or Insufficient Socialization: Dogs with limited social interactions or negative experiences may develop ongoing anxiety or fear towards other dogs, impacting even those previously comfortable in social settings.
  • Changes in Social Dynamics: Dogs accustomed to frequent and unrestricted socialization may exhibit stress or confusion when their normal social patterns are disrupted.
  • Lead-Barrier Reactivity (LBR): The confinement of a leash can cause a feeling of entrapment, leading to reactive or defensive behaviours, particularly when the option to escape is not available.
  • The Anticipation of Discomfort: Previous pain or discomfort, whether from injuries or harsh handling, can lead to anticipatory reactive behaviours.
  • A Cycle of Fear and Frustration: Limited or negative past experiences can evoke feelings of threat or irritation, especially when leashed, prompting a variety of defensive actions.

Signs of Reactivity

Recognising the early warning signs of reactivity can make a significant difference in managing and overcoming these behaviours in dogs.

Look out for:

  • Aggressive Postures: Displays of defensiveness, such as raised hackles, stiffening, and intense staring, can indicate discomfort and potential reactivity.
  • Excessive Barking: Frequent, loud barking at common stimuli, such as doorbells or new visitors, is a clear sign of reactive behaviour.
  • Lunging: A dog making sudden movements towards other animals, people, or even vehicles is exhibiting reactive tendencies.
  • Hyper Vigilance: Constant alertness and an inability to relax, especially in familiar environments, suggest underlying reactivity.
  • Tail Chasing or Spinning: Repeatedly chasing their tail or spinning in place may be a dog’s response to stress or anxiety.
  • Snapping or Nipping: Quick snaps or gentle nipping at the air near stimuli can escalate to more reactive behaviour.
  • Pacing and Restlessness: Inability to settle down can often be a precursor to reactive actions, indicating the dog is stressed.

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An anxious dog surrounded by an assortment of overwhelming stimuli, depicting a sense of being overwhelmed. The stimuli could include various things l

Dog Reactivity vs. Aggression

Understanding the difference between reactive and aggressive behaviours in dogs is essential for effective management and training. These behaviours, while occasionally similar in presentation, originate from different motivations and emotional states.

Distinguishing Aggressive Behaviours:

  • Root Causes: Aggressive behaviours often stem from fear and a dog’s instinct to distance itself from perceived threats, which can include the protection of resources like a favoured human, toy, or food.
  • Pain-Induced Aggression: Similar to humans, dogs may exhibit aggression when in pain.
  • Non-Aggressive Actions: Behaviours such as predatory chasing, though potentially aggressive in appearance, are driven by instinctual pursuit rather than a desire to intimidate or harm.

Aggressive Behaviour

Aggression involves a distance between things: the dog actually wants to push the threat from its target. Often, aggression is triggered by fear. For example some dogs fear that they will lose access to a valuable resource like a favourite person or a toy. Dog behaviour may become aggressive when the dog feels unsafe (for example if someone enters a stranger’s room). Aggressive behaviour can have a direct and indirect effect on human life. Dog behaviours can often appear aggressive if chasing prey, but this technically is not aggression.

Identifying Reactive Behaviours vs Aggressive Behaviours:

In the complex tapestry of canine behaviour, distinguishing between these reactive behaviours and aggressive behaviours is crucial for effective intervention. Reactivity is often mistaken for aggression, yet these behaviours stem from different motivations and require distinct approaches in training and management.

Understanding the nuances between a dog’s reactive responses to stimuli—rooted in fear, anxiety, or overexcitement—and true aggression, where a dog’s behaviour is intent-driven and targeted, is the first step towards fostering a harmonious relationship between dogs and their human companions. This exploration aims to unravel these behaviours, offering insight and strategies to identify and address each appropriately.

  • Excessive Responses: Reactive behaviours often involve disproportionate reactions to certain triggers, such as overzealous barking, lunging, or alternatively, extreme withdrawal like cowering or hiding.
  • Anxiety-Induced Triggers: The root of these behaviours usually stems from anxiety, with common inducements including unfamiliar people, other animals, sudden loud sounds, or physical constraints like leashes and fences.
  • Stress Signals: Dogs may exhibit stress through various signals like pacing, whining, and shaking, which can precede or accompany reactive behaviours.
  • Behavioural Patterns: Recognising patterns in reactivity can help in identifying specific triggers and the contexts in which they occur, allowing for more effective management strategies.
  • Impact of Past Experiences: A dog’s history, including any traumatic events or lack of early socialisation, can significantly influence the development and manifestation of reactive behaviours.

Strategies for Reducing Reactivity Through Socialisation and Training

  • Trigger Identification: Keep a log of your dog’s reactive episodes to uncover patterns and triggers, which can be influenced by factors such as visual impairments or increased anxiety at certain times.
  • Counterconditioning and Desensitization (CC&DS): This technique involves gradually exposing your dog to their triggers in a controlled manner, paired with positive reinforcement to alter their emotional response.
  • Recognising the Signs: Identifying what triggers a dog’s reactive behaviour is a critical step. Understanding these responses is fundamental to setting a course for improvement.

Counter-Conditioning and Desensitisation (CC&DS)

CC&DS involves altering the dog’s association with the stimulus by pairing it with something they likes, usually high-quality treats. The discussion is focused on dogs that respond to others but it is possible for a dog to react to any stimulus that is responding to it. Keep your dog at a distance so they can stay under the threshold. When they look at another dog and feed them some chicken or other high value treat. Repeat countless times until you them respond differently.

Responding to Reactive Behaviour

  • Managing Encounters: If a trigger is present, remove your dog from the situation with a cheerful demeanour and rewards to avoid escalation.
  • Environment Control: Creating a secure and predictable environment can reduce the occurrence of reactive behaviours
Image of an overwhelmed dog with environmental distractions, suitable for a blog post on dog reactivity.

Behaviour Modification: Addressing Emotional Triggers in Dogs

Comprehending the emotional drivers behind a dog’s behaviour is crucial for successful behaviour modification. An emotional overload can significantly impede the ability to learn and exhibit new behaviours. Our primary goal is to reduce the intensity of these emotions to enhance cognitive processing and learning capacity.

Stress Management and Avoidance:

Initially, it is critical to manage and circumvent situations that may induce stress. Employing effective avoidance tactics allows us to subsequently focus on transforming the dog’s emotional responses through “desensitization and counterconditioning.” A positive shift in emotions paves the way for behavioural changes.

Practical Management Strategies:

It is essential to implement management techniques that minimize exposure to stress triggers during outdoor activities, which can be unpredictable:

  • Select alternative walking routes to avoid known stressors.
  • Schedule walks during quieter times to dodge peak traffic.
  • Proactively change direction to avoid confrontations.
  • Utilise distractions to redirect the dog’s focus.
  • Use a car to create a safe distance from potential triggers.

While these steps don’t directly alter the dog’s emotions or behaviours, they serve as a crucial foundation by preventing aggravation and promoting emotional stability for the dog’s triggers, and the handler.

Altering Emotional Responses:

The next phase involves managing the dog’s emotional threshold by keeping it below a level that induces stress, thus ensuring a controlled exposure to triggers. This requires careful monitoring of the dog’s reactions and discerning which situations to address and which to avoid. Introducing a positive stimulus, often in the form of treats, can help foster a more relaxed response.

The aim is to build a new, positive association with the trigger through “counterconditioning.” This method seeks to establish a new emotional response: seeing a trigger leads to receiving treats, resulting in positive feelings. Essentially the dog reacts with a lesser intensity and/or frequency.

Engage/Disengage Training:

Initially, avoidance may be the safest route. As the dog’s emotional state begins to stabilize, opportunities will arise to strengthen the new association of TRIGGER = TREAT = POSITIVE EMOTION. With increasing calmness and attentiveness, we can gradually train the dog’s behaviour to disengage from triggers and engage more with their handler. The “engage/disengage” technique is integral to this process, enhancing the dog’s interaction with their handler and making it more rewarding.

Reactive Dog Training Tips

Why do dogs keep their distance from their triggers? What do you think would be the problem if you were to go back? We have been programmed to remember the negative associations of a threat in our brains. In evolutionary terms, it makes great sense. Imagine dogs that have been chasing bears but can barely escape them. Even with a favourable outcome, dog owners should still remember their negative experiences and be scared. They can not learn anything “Oh my escape was not bad. I just want to try less. Having a positive attitude towards a stressful situation isn’t an intelligent choice.

Seeking Professional Guidance

For a thorough approach to managing reactivity, engaging with a certified dog behaviourist or trainer is recommended. They can offer specialised support and create a customized plan for your dog’s reactive behaviour, incorporating CC&DS techniques and ensuring that positive reinforcement is a cornerstone of the training process.

Understanding Your Dog’s Progress Post-Training

It’s essential to monitor and recognize the advancements your dog makes after training. Acknowledging even the smallest successes can greatly enhance the training atmosphere and encourage consistent progress.

Measuring Progress:

  • Objective Tools: Apply objective methods to track your dog’s development, offering clear insights into the training’s impact and identifying areas needing further attention.
  • Structured Management: Utilize these measurements to maintain a systematic approach to your dog’s reactivity management.

Celebrating Milestones:

  • Positive Reinforcement: Acknowledging your dog’s achievements in overcoming reactivity serves as positive reinforcement, which not only rewards the dog but also encourages both dog and owner to persist on this path.

Maintaining a Reactive-Free Lifestyle:

  • Ongoing Commitment: Recognise that managing reactivity is not a one-time effort but an ongoing commitment to integrate the training into the dog’s everyday life.
  • Professional Support: Don’t hesitate to seek professional advice if challenges arise, ensuring that you have expert guidance when necessary.
  • Continual Education: Stay informed about dog behaviour to further support your dog’s journey to a reactive-free lifestyle.

Everyday Practices for Management:

  • Structured Activities: Include activities such as routine walks, regular training sessions, and consistent positive reinforcement in your daily schedule to effectively manage reactivity and encourage a stable, balanced lifestyle for your dog.

About Me

Jim Gillies, a Certified Dog Behaviourist and Trainer in Glasgow with over 10 years of experience, prioritises canine well-being through modern, science-backed methods. Handling 4000+ cases of 1-to-1 behaviour training, Jim is fully accredited, insured, and recognised for addressing various behavioural issues including aggression, separation anxiety, and more. Jim holds qualifications in level 5 (merit) Advance Diploma Canine Behaviour Management and level 6 Applied Animal Behaviour. Explore his insightful blog and podcast, sharing expert knowledge on dog training and behaviour. Certified by the IAABC, Jim’s expertise makes him a reliable choice for addressing your dog’s needs.

Contact Information

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FAQ on Dog Reactivity

1. What is a Reactive Dog Harness and how can it help your dog?

A reactive dog harness is designed to provide better control over dogs that tend to react strongly to certain stimuli. It allows for easier management and training, aiding in reducing reactivity over time.

2. I have a Terrier, is there a risk the leash may wound my dog?

Yes, incorrect leash types or handling can potentially wound or cause discomfort to your Terrier. It’s essential to choose a leash and harness that are suitable for your dog’s size and temperament.

3. Where can I find Reactive Dog Trainers near me?

We offer tailored training plans for reactive dogs. Additionally, you can search online for “reactive dog trainers near me” to find local trainers specializing in reactivity issues.

4. What does a Dog Reactivity Chart represent?

A dog reactivity chart is a tool used to measure and understand the levels of a dog’s reactivity, which can be helpful in training and behaviour modification plans.

5. What is a Reactive Dog Lead?

A reactive dog lead is a type of leash designed to help manage and train reactive behaviour in dogs, providing better control in challenging situations.

6. How can I find Reactive Dog Training near me?

Search online for “reactive dog training near me” or contact us for specialized training programs tailored to address reactivity issues.

7. I feel overwhelmed, sometimes I think I hate my reactive dog. What should I do?

It’s natural to feel overwhelmed. Seeking professional help from trainers experienced in reactive dogs can provide support and effective training solutions.

8. Where can I find training for aggressive dogs near me?

Search online or contact us for tailored training plans designed to address aggressive behaviour in dogs.

9. My dog refuses to move when he sees another dog, what can be done?

This behaviour may be related to genetic disorder due to reactivity or fear. It can also be a learned behaviour. Professional training can help address and overcome this issue.

10. How can I find Dog Trainers that specialize in aggression near me?

Look for trainers with specific experience in dealing with aggression issues or contact us for professional help.

11. Can you recommend any other dog training Books for reactive dogs?

Yes, books such as “Feisty Fido” by Patricia McConnell and “Click to Calm” by Emma Parsons are great resources for owners of reactive dogs.

12. Are there any other forms of specific dog training collars for reactive dogs?

While there are collars marketed for reactive dogs, we recommend positive reinforcement & behaviour training and strongly advise against the use of training collars

13. What is the difference between a Reactive Dog vs Aggressive Dog?

Reactivity is an overreaction to stimuli, while aggression is intent to harm. Both require different approaches in training.

Learn more on this topic

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