Effective Training Strategies for a Reactive Dog

dog reactivity

Dog reactivity is a complex subject. Different trainers define dog reactivity differently. However, for the most part, dog reactivity is offensive-defensive behaviour based on anxiety or fear.

A reactive dog might show reactions to stimuli that are greater than necessary. Often, this behaviour is termed as aggression since, most of the time, a reactive dog tends to lunge, bark, growl, or pull towards the stimuli.

free dog reactivity training

In this guide, we briefly cover the common triggers in dog reactivity, some basic obedience, counter-conditioning and desensitisation, and some frequently asked questions about canine reactivity.

What Causes Dog Reactivity? What Triggers a Reactive Dog?

reactive dog

According to the AKC, factors like insufficient training, genetics, past trauma, a lack of socialisation, or a combination of these factors can cause dog reactivity.

Each reactive dog is different and can have different triggers. As a dog owner, you will learn to recognise cues and study your dog’s body language to know what triggers your pet. 

A study analysing 37 years of behavioural data for service dogs found that puppies identified with reactivity at 6 months of age were still reactive when re-assessed at 12 months of age.

In general, the following are some common triggers for dog reactivity:

  • Other dogs – Dog reactivity can look like barking, lunging at, or growling at other dogs. This behaviour usually occurs on walks or at the dog park.
  • Strangers – Some reactive dogs are triggered when a stranger enters their territory. They may react or behave in a negative manner such as barking, snarling, or baring their teeth when a stranger approaches.
  • Loud Noises – Fireworks, thunderstorms, lightning, etc. are common triggers for some reactive dogs. 
  • Fast-moving objects – Some reactive dogs tend to chase, growl, or bark at skateboards, joggers, toys, vehicles, etc.

Signs of Dog Reactivity

reactive dog breeds

Here are some signs of reactive dogs:

  • Barking or growling – a reactive dog may bark or growl at the trigger. 
  • Lunging – it might lunge at the object or other dog or stranger
  • Leash aggression, or leash dog reactivity – is one of the most common signs of a reactive dog. It usually occurs when a dog is restrained by a leash and comes into contact with another dog.
  • Barrier frustration – the reactive dog wants to approach something but a barrier might prevent it resulting in signs like whining, excessive panting, barking, growling, baring of the teeth, etc.
  • Fear – Some reactive dogs cower, shake, tremble, hide, or run away to escape the object of their fear.
  • Raised hackles – some reactive dogs have raised fur/hackles on their back.
  • Maintaining intense eye contact – the dog may fixate on the object it is afraid of.
  • Tense/frozen body language – some reactive dogs freeze or show signs of extreme tension like leaning forward, raised tail, etc.

Basic Obedience Training for Dog Reactivity

dog reactivity cure

With basic obedience training, you can build a foundation to manage your dog’s reactivity.

Teaching your dog commands like sit, stay, heel, etc. can keep your dog safe and may even prevent behaviours like biting, excessive barking, etc.

Obedience training can also go a long way towards helping you redirect your reactive dog’s attention away from the object or trigger. You can use your dog’s favourite toy or treats to encourage them away from the other dog or trigger.

It can help you have better control over your pet in a triggering situation. Furthermore, it can build a stronger bond between you and your buddy and also give your dog a lot of confidence to deal with the triggers.

Positive Reinforcement Training

how to calm a reactive dog

According to the Australian Veterinary Association positive dog training methods are the most effective for reactive dogs as they don’t increase the dog’s fear and bodily stress response. Negative methods like hitting, punishing, or shouting will only make the dog even more reactive than it already is.

Positive training methods include rewards, praise, and treats when the dog behaves in a positive or desired manner. 

This means rewarding the dog when it is calm. The dog soon learns to create a positive association with the triggers. 

The positive reinforcement approach creates confidence in the dog and builds a strong foundation for other forms of training. It also encourages better behaviour and can go a long way in reducing reactivity in the dog. Furthermore, it can create a bond of love between the dog and the owner.

Counterconditioning and Desensitisation 

how to walk a reactive dog

These are two key techniques used to address dog reactivity.

Counterconditioning involves changing a reactive dog’s response to triggers by pairing it with a positive association. 

For example, giving high-value treats to the reactive dog when it sees another dog every time helps create a positive association in the dog’s mind. Over time, it helps replace the negative response (barking, growling, leash reactivity, etc.) with a positive one.

Desensitisation involves slowly exposing the dog to its triggers, but only up to a certain threshold level. For example, the reactive dog may be exposed to another dog far away, and the exposure is gradually increased over the next few days.

Sometimes, trainers combine both techniques to help the dog form completely new associations with the triggers.

Some Tips When Training a Reactive Dog

reactive dog bite
  • Be patient and persistent
  • Celebrate small victories
  • Deal with setbacks positively
  • Develop strategies for maintaining progress
  • Incorporate training into the daily routine
  • Continue with the training throughout the dog’s life.

Know When to Work with a Professional Dog Trainer or Canine Behaviourist

dog reactivity training

Owners must know when to seek professional help for a reactive dog. In particular, if the dog poses safety concerns, if the owner is inexperienced in handling dog reactivity, if there is no progress, or if the case is particularly complex- then professional dog training may be the best solution.

Professional dog trainers conduct a thorough assessment of the dog and use specialised techniques to help owners. They may assist with counterconditioning and desensitisation.

Furthermore, they provide ongoing support, advice, and guidance to owners throughout the training process. They may also offer troubleshooting assistance, help owners navigate challenges, and adjust training methods as needed to ensure progress.

If you’re suddenly wondering ‘why my dog’s behaviour changed‘ suddenly’, it’s definitely worth visiting a canine behaviourist or vet to determine if your dog is in pain.

FAQs – Dog Reactivity

How to walk a reactive dog?

Owning a reactive dog can feel like your life is being ruined leading to feelings of hate towards the dog. A reactive dog will require walks in places that aren’t busy and where you can see people and other dogs approaching at a distance.
Ovals are a great place to walk a reactive dog but remember to keep your dog on leash so you’re able to redirect their attention should a trigger appear in the distance. Keeping your dog relatively calm and ‘under threshold’ will make your walk far more relaxing for both you and your dog.

Can a reactive dog be cured?

reactive dog hate

Yes, with consistent behaviour modification, counter-conditioning, desensitisation, and positive reinforcement, reactive dogs can lead fairly normal lives. Dog reactivity often has genetic components, so behaviourally speaking a dog or breed with this personality or temperament will always be predisposed to reactivity if they perceive a threat in their environment.
If you have a reactive dog that is a big dog breed, it can make living and managing them very difficult and seeking help from a trainer or dog behaviourist is recommended.

How can I stop a reactive dog?

You can help a reactive dog by developing their life skills such as impulse control, confidence, optimism, focus and tolerance to frustration. Avoid triggers as much as possible. If needed, make household changes. 
Reactive dogs can be calmed using positive training methods, like counter-conditioning, distraction and gradual desensitisation.

What dog is most reactive?

Some dog breeds are more prone to be reactive due to genetics. These include terrier breeds (Boston, Fox, Cairn, and Yorkshire), Pugs, Shih Tzus, Chihuahuas, Dobermanns, German Shepherds and Dachshunds.

Are reactive dogs bad dogs?

Reactive dogs aren’t bad; they are misunderstood. Unfortunately, without timely intervention, the reactivity can turn into aggression. That is why, you must take steps to improve the behaviour from the start – this begins by developing the dog’s life skills. Life skills are the foundation of a calm and confident canine companion.

At what age do dogs stop being reactive?

Reactivity in dogs does not diminish with age; rather, it may get worse. The behaviour crops up in puppies aged between 3-18 months and may progressively worsen as the dog grows older.

Should you punish a reactive dog?

You should never punish a reactive dog, as punishing can exacerbate the behaviour and make the dog even more aggressive, shy, fearful, or reactive.

Can neutering a dog reduce reactivity?

While desexing a dog can drastically change its behaviour, it has been found that desexing male dogs can worsen behaviour problems. Desexing can change male dog behaviour – reducing marking and wandering. However, the reduction in testosterone that a male dog experiences once desexed can also reduce their confidence and worsen aggression and reactivity.

Key Takeaways – Dog Reactivity

reactive puppy

Every reactive dog has unique triggers and may exhibit a combination of signs like barking, leash aggression, barrier frustration, etc.

Recognising triggers and signs can allow dog owners to proactively address their dog’s reactivity through proper training, management, and behaviour modification techniques. 

It may be worthwhile working with a professional trainer or dog behaviourist. These professionals can provide further guidance and tailored strategies.

With positive reinforcement, patience, and love, you can promote positive changes in your reactive dog’s response to triggers.

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Hi! I’m Tres! I’m passionate about dog behaviour and training. My dog training methods are effective for all breeds and goals. I have trained dogs for protection, obedience, manners, loose leash walking, crate training and have solved common behaviour problems such as reactivity, barking, separation anxiety and more. Let’s connect, sign up to my free newsletter (above) for helpful tips and upcoming training events.
dog trainer Sydney

Hi! I’m Tres! I’m passionate about dog behaviour and training. My dog training methods are effective for all breeds and goals. I have trained dogs for protection, obedience, manners, loose leash walking, crate training and have solved common behaviour problems such as reactivity, barking, separation anxiety and more. Let’s connect, sign up to my free newsletter (above) for helpful tips and upcoming training events.
dog trainer Sydney

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