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How To Help Your Reactive Dog

Brown dog barking with green background

There are many many dogs that need help behaviourally. Rarely do we work with a dog that doesn't need some sort of help and, of course, owners who need help and support.


But what is a reactive dog and how can we help them? In this guide we will look at common myths that need to be busted along with some key tips to immediately help your dog's behaviour.


Table of Contents - How To Help Your Reactive Dog


What Is A Reactive Dog

The word 'reactive' is maybe a little overused and can mean a whole heap of things when discussing dog behaviour, but generally it is used as a label for a dog that is struggling with things (or 'triggers') in their environment. Sometimes dogs get labelled 'reactive' for very little and it is about understanding what is a reasonable behavioural response and what isn't.


A dog who barks a little at the doorbell, for example, is showing pretty common behaviour and these dogs will often settle quickly afterwards. There are some dogs who hear the doorbell and show an abnormal response which could include extreme lunging towards the door, excessive barking or even intent to bite the person at the door.


The most common or typical triggers include:

  • Noises

  • Other dogs

  • People

  • Traffic


'Reactive dogs' are dogs that show a stress response to these triggers that is a little more extreme then we would like, both for us and for them. These responses often present as:

  • Barking

  • Growling

  • Lunging

  • Running away

  • Biting

There are, of course, different levels of reactivity and it presents itself for different reasons.


The important thing is that the behaviour seems overly stressful for both the dog and the owner. Living with dogs with these reactions is often very tricky and can have a detrimental impact on life in general.


Before we figure out how we help our dogs, there are some key things that are helpful to understand.


Common Myths - Busted!

Pug lying on back of sofa

Your dog is not giving you a hard time...they are having a hard time.

It can be easy to think that your dog is being difficult or naughty. The key to improving your dog's behaviour is to understand the underlying emotional reason.


No, it is not because your dog is being a pain. Even though it might feel that way!


There are two main types of reactivity - frustration and fear. The majority of the dogs that we see for reactivity issues are struggling with an underlying fear and anxiety. Once we understand that our dog is fearful of something, we can start to put things in place to help our dogs feel safe.


Your dog is NOT trying to dominate you.

The alpha pack theory is not only de-bunked, but it is also irrelevant when understanding dog reactivity. What your dog shows as a result of their emotional response is completely normal dog behaviour. Your dog will show what they are programmed and designed to show in the face of a threat or trigger.


We need to read what our dog is trying to tell us through their body language and signals so that we can put training in place to help.


Your dog is unlikely to grow out of it.

These types of behaviours often become practiced over time and therefore more ingrained. Let's take the postman as an example. The postman arrives and your dog barks and lunges at the door - the postman goes away. This is repeated day after day. Firstly, your dog is learning that the best way to get the postman to go away is by barking and lunging at the door.


After a time, your dog will start to anticipate the arrival of the postman and their stress and arousal levels will start to rise before the postman has arrived. The barking and lunging becomes more practiced and can often become worse over time.


How To Help Your Reactive Dog

Management is the first key step to improving reactivity. Remember the postman mentioned above? The more your dog practices their behaviour, the more ingrained it becomes. By putting management in place, it prevents your dog from practicing the unwanted behaviour.


We sometimes call this a Stress Holiday.


It means that we strip away as much of the stress as possible from our dog's lives. This give us a more relaxed dog in general which makes any training that you do more successful because your dog is in a better mental state.


Decompression is such an important part of your dog's reactivity journey. Though we can strip out as many stressors as we can from our dog's lives, stressful things are always going to happen. Giving our dogs time to recover and relax afterwards helps to keep stress low.

Two dogs sleeping on a bed.

Let's say that your dog finds walks very stressful. If you then take your dog for 3 short walks a day, they are constantly exposed to their triggers and remain stressed throughout the day with little time to decompress. Taking a break from walks for an afternoon or even a whole day can have a profound positive effect on your dog's behaviour.


Decompression is not just about sleep (good quality sleep that is!), its about true relaxation. This can be achieved having extended quiet time away from triggers, appropriate enrichment activities, massage and so much more.


Training is, of course, a key part of improving your dogs behaviour but most people think of this in the wrong way.


Training with a dog with reactivity issues is not about 'fixing' the behaviour. Remember the behaviour is an emotional response, so we need to treat it as such.


One way to do this is to teach your dog alternative coping mechanisms. This could be:

  • Looking at you instead.

  • Moving away.

  • Engaging in a calming activity such as sniffing and foraging.

All of these give your dog a predictable coping strategy which is easy to implement in a moment of stress and anxiety.



What Not To Do If You Want To See Improvement


  • Don't use low value food when training. Find foods that are super high value for your dog when working around your triggers. Think sausage, cheese, chicken, sprats. Shop bought treats in a bag are unlikely to be successful.


  • Do not force your dog to face their triggers. The worst thing you can do is try to expose your dog to their triggers to get them used to it. This rarely works because your dog is not is a good mental state for learning and often you can end up re-enforcing their fear or frustration.


  • Do not tell your dog off or use aversive training methods. Remember your dog is struggling in that moment so if we are negative towards them, it is not going to help. These methods can stop the behaviour, but are likely to only suppress it and not address your dog's underlying emotional state.


  • Don't expect quick fixes. Working with behaviour issues like these often take time and we need to work at your dog's pace. This can feel frustrating but the more we rush it, the longer it is likely to take.


 

Reactivity in dogs is something that can absolutely be improved with the right combination of the points mentioned above. The biggest turning point in our client's journey is understanding the behaviour and what emotional state is creating it.


If you need any help at all with your reactive dog or would like more help and advice, please do contact us by dropping us an email at bookings@annabalchdogtrainer.com








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