We all know that dogs can have different personalities; some are docile and quiet, while others are hyperactive. The breed of the dog often plays a role in this, but dogs of any breed can still have their own, distinct personality traits. One of these traits is known as “reactivity.” So exactly what is a reactive dog, and is it a bad thing?
A reactive dog is one that overreacts to various stimuli. For example, when a stranger knocks on the door, a reactive dog might start barking excessively and growling. Reactive dogs are often confused with aggressive dogs, but they are not the same. Although their initial behaviors are similar, their intentions differ.
Reactivity is not a positive trait as it can make life with a dog more difficult than it needs to be, and the dog can make strangers afraid for their safety. We’re going to examine how to tell if you have a reactive dog, and what you can do to address the behavior. It may be difficult with some dogs, but with effort and patience you can make significant progress.
What Are the Behaviors of a Reactive Dog?
As mentioned above, a reactive dog strongly reacts to things around them, leading to an over-excited dog or one that reacts negatively. Below, we will give some examples of various behaviors exhibited by reactive dogs.
There is a good chance that you have seen barrier frustration. The behavior is when a dog sees something that they want to check out but can’t because they are behind a fence or window that obstructs them. When a dog is experiencing behavior frustration, they might be:
- Pulling on the leash (barrier frustrations can also apply on walks)
- Twirling and flopping
Obviously, these behaviors can be mistaken as aggressive behavior. It makes it difficult for owners with reactive dogs to have them interact with other dogs as their owners will usually assume that the reactive dog is dog-aggressive.
In fact, the reality is almost the opposite: the reactive dog desperately wants to interact but is so frustrated by their inability to do so that they exhibit behavior frustration. It’s a catch-22 situation: the dog reacts to a perceived barrier to interaction but then is not allowed to interact because of this very reaction.
Barrier frustration can also be triggered by a reactive dog spending too much time in a crate without exercise. While all dogs will get antsy when deprived of a release of energy in this situation, a reactive dog may exhibit excessive frustration behaviors typical to the condition.
Another form of behavior that is mistaken for aggression is fear-based reactivity, which is when a dog is fearful for their own safety and will react to the supposed threat by baring teeth, growling, and barking.
Perhaps they feel threatened by someone they do not know (Chihuahuas are often prime grade-A examples of this behavior) or another dog.
Adding to the confusion is that fear-based reactivity is often referred to as “fear-aggression.” In this case, “aggression” refers to the dog’s aggressive-like behaviors, not their desire to attack. The reactive dog does not want to attack nor be attacked, which is why they exhibit these protective, aggressive behaviors. They have no desire to fight, but rather are expressing their fear in the form of a warning — much how a rattlesnake will rattle when a person gets too close.
Some dogs’ fear-based reactivity won’t be so obvious (no barking or growling), and you will need to learn to read the dog’s body language. A good rule is to never approach a dog you do not know, but you definitely should not approach a dog if they are licking, yawning, showing “whale eye” (the white part of a dog’s eye), or have their ears pinned back. These are a dog’s way of telling you, “I’m stressed — stay away from me.”
How To Calm and Counter a Reactive Dog
Calming a reactive dog isn’t always easy, but taking the right steps can make a huge difference and reinforce positive behavior. Remember, if your dog is exhibiting extreme behaviors, and you can’t fix the behavior, it is worth consulting a dog training professional, preferably one that practices positive reinforcement techniques (check out our overview of Positive Reinforcement vs. Correction-based Training Methods).
Here are some ways to calm and counter a reactive dog.
Set a Routine
We are all creatures of habit, but dogs are even more than us. Dogs love routine since they know everything is going according to plan for their benefit. For example, if you wake up at the same time every day, that means they get to be let out and eat breakfast, which is why sleeping in occasionally can upset them.
A good rule of thumb to follow is the more anxiety a dog has, the more routine they’ll want. Start with a simple routine and slowly add in more things once they feel comfortable. If your dog is anxious in public, stay as close to home as possible and not go anywhere too busy with activity.
Then, over time, you can slowly introduce them to public places in small increments. For instance, you can gradually extend your walks to include a trip down the sidewalk across from a park rather than just taking your dog directly to the park. Slowly, this can help them become more comfortable with seeing new people and possibly dogs over time, which ultimately may open up new doors such as visits to the dog park.
Use Appropriate Training Equipment
If your dog has a tendency to lunge and pull on their leash, you can use a Head Collar or Gentle Leader to inhibit this inclination. Another option is a no-pull harness such as the rabbitgoo Dog Harness or the PetSafe Easy Walk Harness. While this won’t train your dog not to pull, it will minimize the unwanted behavior while the dog is wearing it.
You should definitely also try to train your dog not to pull on its leash. One good technique is to immediately stop every time your dog starts pulling. Wait about 10 seconds, and then resume your walk. This may take a while, but eventually your dog will learn that pulling means no walk, but that maintaining a loose leash will be rewarded with continued walking.
Use Counter Conditioning and Desensitization
Counter conditioning is training your dog to change its emotional response to a stimulus. In the case of a reactive dog, that stimulus is the trigger source. The first step is to learn the early signs of your dog’s reactive behavior. Once you can anticipate their reaction to a trigger source, you can preemptively provide a treat to distract them and start them associating the trigger with a positive reward instead of a horrible threat.
For instance, if your dog has a strong reaction to a certain fence on your walk (and what may be looming behind it), you can gradually counter-condition that reaction. The basic steps are as follows:
Start by walking towards the offending fence and when you’re a house or two away — before your dog reacts negatively — give them a treat. Then proceed in a different direction away from the fence so they don’t have the reaction.
The next day on your walk, proceed by a small increment closer in distance to the fence — say, 20 feet — and reward. Again, don’t go any closer to the fence.
Gradually over these training sessions each day, you will get closer and closer to the trigger source of the fence, but your dog will learn that doing so gets them rewards. It’s very important that you don’t rush this process. You want them to avoid reacting at all.
If you do move through the process too quickly and your dog starts reacting to the trigger, don’t reward them and simply turn and head away from the trigger. And the next day, don’t go as far and reward as you have in the past.
With any unwanted reaction, you are slowly teaching the dog that good things come from positive behavior, which is in this case, the absence of the negative behavior.
We recommended crate training for all dogs, but it can be particularly helpful with reactive dogs. It can help you control your dog’s exposure to certain triggers, and it also gives you the opportunity to counter condition .
For instance, window barrier frustration is a very common form of reactive behavior, and it can be hard for many people to figure out how to stop it. This can be tough to deal with because from the dog’s perspective, the behavior makes perfect sense.
For example, when the mailman comes every day, the dog reacts by barking wildly, growling, throwing itself against the window. And then the mailman leaves. For the dog, their behavior has been wildly successful! The dog is thinking, “The intruder came, I warned him to leave, and the intruder left. Now thank me for a job well done!”
If you have crate trained your dog and they are comfortable in their crate, you can take advantage of this by putting the dog in the crate when the mailman comes. This solves the immediate problem of the dog reacting if they are far enough away from the mailman to not know he is present.
But you can also use the crate to counter condition as noted in the example above with the fence. Gradually moving the crate to within earshot of the mailman and providing treats just before he arrives can turn the trigger source into a positive experience for the dog.
What to Do When Your Dog Shows Reactive Behavior
The most successful training techniques for reactive dogs all focus on what should happen before the dog reacts. But reactive episodes can’t always be avoided, especially early on before you have done much training with them. So how should you handle things when your dog starts going crazy in response to a trigger source?
The best response to a dog’s reactive behaviors is to stay calm, and do your best to get your dog away from the trigger source as soon as possible. Trying to calm a reactive dog mid-episode is generally futile; once they have been triggered, they are not in a good state to mind or learn.
Try to end the episode as quickly as possible by leaving the trigger source and redirecting their attention to something with which they are more comfortable. Then focus on how you are going to work to either counter condition that behavior in the future, or how you can eliminate contact with that trigger altogether.
Dog Reactivity: Preventing It vs. Curing It
Sometimes it is just easier to avoid the offending stimulus or environment than to try to train the dog to accept it. Better to focus your training energies on removing triggers that are more frequent and unavoidable in your dog’s life and turning them into positive experiences.
If you must take your dog in public on leash, we recommend the following to avoid bad potential bad experiences.
- Never let your dog greet others dogs on leash. 100% of the time, no exceptions!
- Don’t use retractable leashes! If you are having trouble controlling your dog six feet away, you’ll only have more problems when they are further away.
- Always make your dog sit next to you when greeting new people. Provide plenty of treats to let them know that this behavior is desirable.
- If in doubt about any potential reactive situation, avoid it completely! Chances are “this time” won’t be any different than “that other time” your dog reacted.
It can be tough dealing with a reactive dog; however, you can help mitigate this trait with time and patience. Remember, reactivity in dogs is not aggression, no matter how much it seems like it. Some dogs simply bond with people or other animals in the household and the “outsiders” make them uncomfortable or fearful.