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How to Handle a Reactive Dog

Written by: Kassie Dickson, CDBC, CPDT-KA

As a behaviour consultant and trainer I am often asked about reactivity. Here are a few answers to more commonly asked questions the Chief Paw Officer - Kayo, at Super PawBox has been receiving!

How Can You Tell If a Dog Is Reactive?

When we talk about reactivity what we are typically talking about is a dog that has an overreaction to novel external stimuli. Which simply means the dog “reacts” in an undesirable way to things like people, other dogs or animals, bikes, cars, movements and even noises.

Typical presentation of reactivity is barking, lunging, and abnormal body language directed at a “target” stimulus. So a dog that barks and lunges when rollerbladers pass, or a loud vehicle passes would be what most consider a “reactive dog”.

How Do I Train My Dog To Be Less Reactive?

The most important thing in working with a reactive dog is to find the underlying reasons or emotions behind the reactivity. Reactivity isn’t aggression, they are not mutually exclusive. Reactivity can stem from a lot of places, most commonly we see fear and frustration as the underlying reason your dog may be reacting.

Paying attention to your dog’s behaviour history also matters as past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour, so the more your dog has the opportunity to “practice” reactivity the longer it can take to help your pup overcome the underlying emotional response.

So, my top suggestions:

Find a Qualified Professional To Help, Virtual or In Person!

A qualified trainer or behaviour consultant will point you in the right direction and be able to help you through struggles with constructive change! They can help to teach you more about reading your dog’s body language and the environment in order to better understand how your dog feels and in turn, help you change and reduce reactivity.

Management: The Key To Behaviour Change

By implementing appropriate management, you can help to avoid triggers keeping your dog under threshold and able to learn. Try to keep them comfortable and avoid their underlying emotion. Most often, this looks like keeping our distance! This isn’t always possible but management helps to make things easier on both you and your dog.

Protocols

Protocols are most often training exercises or “emergency” maneuvers that your consultant will teach you in order to help keep your dog under threshold and help change the underlying emotional response your dog feels when they see their trigger. Often these are widely known protocols and effective ways to help your pup. For example “emergency U-Turns” help you and your dog to get out of situations that may put your dog over the threshold.

Management protocols like a different walk route or the time of day that walk takes place, can help to manage your dog’s reactivity. There are even protocols to help you and your dog avoid trigger-stacking and keep you both calm and collected! Enrichment protocols and even decompression protocols will help you in all aspects of behaviour and training.

How Can I Manage a Leash-Reactive Dog?

Leash reactivity, often also referred to as “barrier reactivity” is a dog that may have difficulty as soon as they’re on-leash. This is because the leash creates a “barrier”, meaning it stops your dog from getting to things they want while also stopping them from getting away from things they don’t want to interact with. Barrier frustration can be difficult as the underlying reason is different for every dog and often different between triggers.

Your living environment can also play a large role for your dog. If you have a dog that displays leash reactivity with other dogs and if you live in a highly dog populated area, your dog may already be over-threshold as soon as they get outside on leash, so there are many ways to manage this while you find a trainer to help you!

  1. Avoid triggers
  2. Walk at quieter times of day
  3. Keep your distance when you see triggers
  4. Jump in your car and travel to somewhere with less triggers for your dog
  5. Implement other methods of enrichment: like sniff games, puzzles, and chew time
  6. Never punish reactivity by yanking on the leash, yelling, or forcing a sit or down; instead, gain distance and reward your pup when they see their trigger to better address the underlying emotional response

If you want to introduce your leash reactive dog to other pooches, take your time, go at your dogs pace, implement “buddy” walks with their dogs pals while under threshold, use long lines. To help reduce frustration, keep it short, safe, and rewarding. Find a consultant who can help walk you through appropriate greetings!

Can Dogs Grow Out of Reactivity?

Unfortunately, reactivity isn’t something your dog will just “grow out of” or “get used to” but it can be something your dog displays only in certain situations or during certain learning phases in their life. It’s important to create positive associations with your dog’s “triggers” if you happen to encounter reactivity, but much like anxiety or fear that a person could have, it is not something that just “goes away”. It can require a change of environment or a management and intervention plan.

If you do have a reactive dog, know that there is hope and it can be managed and oftentimes overcome! Read more from us.

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