Reactive dogs are often perceived as the more challenging members of the canine family. They can be labeled and overshadowed by their more adaptable or easy-going counterparts. Yet, they possess a unique potential for us as humans to view the world through the senses of our dogs.

Interpreting a dog’s reaction to situations can be complicated.   It is helpful to try to understand the world through the mind of your dog and be willing to adjust the training techniques to suit your dog’s temperament and personality. Patience, reflection and positive repetitions help to achieve meaningful progressions.   Key strategies include identifying triggers, teaching alternative behaviors, agreeing with your dog’s good choices with positive reinforcement, and gradual exposure to various stimuli once your dog understands the training.  Controlling exposure to minimize your dog’s ability to rehearse unwanted behaviors is critical.  

Delving deeper, each strategy unfolds a spectrum of techniques, insights into dog behavior, and the pivotal role of the owner’s commitment.

Hundreds of studies have been conducted about how to help reactive dogs.  Dogs do not react to other dogs, people, and things in their environment for no reason.  This article was written to help you begin to understand why your dog reacts, and what you can do to help.  In no means does it have all the answers.  This is the beauty of dog training.  If we are open to learning from our dogs, they will teach us something new every day.  

Table of contents

  1. What is a reactive dog?
  2. Identifying triggers

Visual: unfamiliar people, dogs, moving objects

Auditory: loud noises, barking, doorbells

Environmental: tight spaces, high traffic areas

Tools:  collars, harnesses and leashes

  1. Learn to read your dog

Genetics 

Temperament and Body Language

  1. Socialization strategies

Controlled Exposure and Desensitization

Create Routines

Positive reinforcement 

  1. Professional training and support

Individual Private training with personalized plans

Group Training for Reactive Dogs

Board and Train Camps for Behavior Modification 

  1. Monitoring progress and adjusting strategies

Keeping a behavior journal

Video  

Recognizing Improvement

Dedication for the Lifetime of the Do

What is a reactive dog?

A reactive dog typically exhibits heightened responses to specific triggers in their environment, which can range from other animals and people to noises and moving objects. These behaviors are often rooted in frustration, anxiety, overexcitement, and improper use of tools.  We must also include genetics and temperament, because it affects how each dog navigates the world around them.  The environment coupled with genetics can cause a dog to growl, bark, and lunge when faced with triggers.

Reactivity is not a sign of aggression but rather a call for helpDogs who are reactive need clear communication and compassionate leadership to feel secure and open to training concepts.  Consider this, would you choose to follow someone into outer space if they were unsure or demanding, or would you feel more confident with a leader who prepared you for the journey?   Many dogs are reactive because they do not understand and therefore are conflicted.  Dogs that are prone to over reacting need to know there is someone in charge who will help them through the situation.  Through this process, a reactive dog can learn to navigate social situations with greater ease and less stress, improving their quality of life and their relationship with their person.

Identifying triggers

Identifying triggers is a critical step in managing a dog’s reactive behavior. Triggers can be:

·      Visual: unfamiliar people, other dogs, animals of prey, and fast-moving objects

·      Auditory:  sudden loud noises, barking dogs, the jingle of dog tags, the TV, the sound of doorbells

·      Environmental:  tight spaces, high traffic areas, narrow trails 

·      Tools:  harnesses, collars, leashes, tethers

Recognizing these triggers allows for a targeted approach in training, focusing on desensitizing and teaching alternative behaviors.

This process requires keen observation and an understanding of the dog’s past experiences and individual sensitivity. By pinpointing what causes a reactive response, we can create a more effective and personalized plan to help dogs become more comfortable and less emotional in various situations.

Visual

Visual triggers encompass anything within a dog’s line of sight. People wearing hats, sunglasses, and masks can activate a dog’s natural defense response.  Babies in backpacks can look like two headed creatures.  Another dogs’ body language or vocalizations can create frustration or territorial responses.  Fast moving objects such as bikes, vacuum cleaners, leaf blowers, sprinting animals can all trigger defense or prey responses.  Items a dog has never seen before such as umbrellas, balloons, and statues can be perceived as threats because they are not in their memory bank listed under “non harmful.”

Auditory

Auditory triggers involve sounds that can startle or arouse a dog, including loud noises such as thunder and construction sounds, the sound of other dogs barking, the jingle of a dog tag, doorbells.  The high-pitched sound of a ground squirrel, or the meow of a cat can trigger a predatory response.  These sounds can cause a dog to behave in a way that appears reactive, when in reality, the dog is doing what genetics programmed them to do.  The dog’s innate response may be to announce when there is something dangerous or something invading territory.  Genetics may cause a natural predatory response to chase, catch, and claim.   

Environmental

Environmental triggers refer to aspects of a dog’s surroundings that might cause a dog to feel trapped and the need to defend.  Some triggers can be:  fenced yards, tethering to a post, kitchens and hallways, narrow sidewalks, and veterinarian examination rooms.  A dog that is walked on the same circular path every day may begin to claim a neighborhood, in essence acting as sentry of the area.  These areas and patterns can trigger reactivity, especially if the dog has not been taught to have alternative behaviors.   

Tools

Sometimes we forget to consider the effect of the tools we put on our dogs.  Harnesses were developed to allow an animal to pull without tension on the neck.  They are a good tool when we want to give a dog freedom to roam while on leash.   However, if a dog is triggered by the sight of another dog or the sound of a ground squirrel, pulling back on the leash activates a dog to pull harder, lunge and bark.   A tight leash attached to a collar can cause a dog to feel trapped without options.  A dog tethered to a post may feel the only choice is to guard and warn others to go away. 

 

Learn to read your dog

A dog that goes from zero to one hundred in a flash can be scary.  But if you understand who your dog is and learn to recognize what your dog is thinking before they react, you will be better prepared to prevent an outburst.  First, treat your dog as an individual, without comparing your dog to other dogs.  Your dog has genetic traits and their own unique personality, different from any other dog.  Your dog may not be ready for a walk around the neighborhood or a visit to a café, and that’s okay.  Structure your training to gradually desensitize your dog to triggers and reduce the chances of your dog rehearsing unwanted reactions.  It takes some planning, but by keeping your dog under threshold you allow your dog the ability to think.  It’s very difficult to learn something new when in lizard brain mode.  

Genetics 

Genetics and temperament play an important part in a dog’s behavior.  A Norwich terrier, initially bred to seek and destroy rodents, can become highly aroused when faced with fast moving small objects. A Border Collie may attempt to herd a family if they split apart on a walk.   A ball obsessed Retriever will show frustration if not allowed to retrieve.  And a mix breed dog may have a variety of genetic traits.  Take time to learn about your dog.

Temperament and Body Language

When out on a walk in a safe location, (quiet outdoor malls, grounds of business complexes, church parking lots) release your dog from commands and allow your dog to be a dog.  We learn about our dogs when we observe how they naturally react to their environment without us telling them what to do.  Ask yourself, what interests my dog?  How does my dog feel about umbrellas, statues, doors that automatically open and shut, people in motorcycle helmets?  Observe your dog’s body language.  When your dog sees or hears something new, how does your dog’s body look?  Watch what your dog’s ears, mouth, tail and fur look like when relaxed, aroused, curious, suspicious.  

Now, think about your dog’s viewpoint.  Dog’s learn spoken language best when paired with our body language.  We show a dog how to sit by teaching dogs how to follow our hand gesture.  If we take that a step further, think about a dog that is reactive.  When we are tense, they become tense. When given a direct stare, they may become defensive.  Your dog may misunderstand an outreached hand from a stranger. 

Socialization Strategies 

Sometimes in the name of socialization we put too much emphasis on meeting and greeting other people and dogs, especially when our pups are young or new to us. This can cause a dog to learn that everyone is fair game for a meet and greet.  It can cause frustration if they can’t get to what they have been given before.  These dogs can be labeled as reactive, or even aggressive, when in actuality, they just don’t understand why they can’t go say hi.  Some dogs may have had an unpleasant experience and do not feel safe.  They may be ready to defend themselves, or run from the scene, but are not able to because they are on a leash.  The only alternative for them is to act scary so the “thing” goes away. 

Controlled Exposure and Desensitization

Managing and reducing reactivity in dogs involves a strategic approach that includes controlled exposure to their triggers and desensitization techniques. Desensitization techniques involve repeating obedience exercises while keeping your dog under threshold.  

Controlled exposure aims to gradually increase a dog’s tolerance to stimuli.  The distance, or threshold, could be 20 feet; it could be 20 yards.  Practice various commands your dog understands while under threshold, in a wide variety of places.  Your dog may understand the command at home, but it’s a whole new ball game when faced with something new.  Don’t rush the process.  It takes thousands of repetitions, in a variety of environments while under threshold, to desensitize a dog.  

Teaching your dog to think is critical.  You want your dog to understand how to make good choices, and that you agree with those choices.  In essence, you teach your dog to have emotional control, and to put that emotion into a behavior that you like.

These strategies aim to gradually increase your dog’s comfort and confidence in various social situations, fostering a more relaxed and sociable demeanor. By prioritizing your dog’s pace and readiness, you can effectively guide your dog towards a higher quality of life.  

Create Routines

Building trust and a relationship between you and your dog begins in the home.  If we only require obedience with our dogs when we are outside, we may create frustration when out on a leash.  Teaching and holding your dog accountable to perform household manners will set your dog up for success while out in public.  Your dog counts on you to be consistent.  Avoid inadvertently teaching your dog that you change because a trigger is nearby.   Create routines that apply no matter where your dog is.  Try to make life more predictable for your dog.  Over time your consistent expectations help to foster a stronger, trust-based relationship affording the opportunity for closer positive social experiences.

Positive Reinforcement

Using positive reinforcement when we agree with the dog’s response motivates and encourages a repeat performance.  First, learn what reinforcement works for your dog.  Toys may be a motivator at home, but in public your dog may not be able to focus on play.  Teaching your dog to play with you in a variety of places helps with engagement.  Food may be a reward if your dog has not had a meal before training.  Time your feeding schedule around your training schedule.  Heartfelt praise can be a very strong reason to repeat a behavior, if it is reserved for when your dog makes a good decision.  It’s not one size fits all. We may use all three engagement tools, depending upon the situation.  

Timing is everything.  Your dog must understand that performing the desirable response, without reactivity, is what brings the highly desired motivator.  If not, we run the risk of your dog repeating the reactive response in order to obtain the reward.   The dog reacts, the handler redirects and rewards.  This can cause a loop affect.  Just remember, the goal is to channel your dog’s emotion in the right direction with less and less reactivity.

Professional Training and Support

If you are not seeing positive changes in your dog’s reactivity while training on your own, seek out professional training and support.  The more your dog rehearses reactive responses, the more ingrained the behavior becomes.  A consultation with a reputable trainer is a good first step.  The trainer can recommend whether your dog would be best suited for private sessions, a group class and/or board and train.  With private instruction the trainer can provide you with a personalized plan, tailored to the specific needs of your dog, offering strategies and techniques grounded in a deep understanding of canine behavior. Group training classes focus on developing social skills and obedience with the built-in distraction of other dogs and people.  Board and train is a good option if the reactive behaviors require a more intensive skilled approach from a trainer. Professional guidance will help jump start progressions towards a more social dog, and equip you with the knowledge and tools necessary for long-term success.

Private Individual Personalized Plans

Qualified behavior consultants offer personalized plans specifically designed to address the unique challenges of the genetic makeup and personality of your dog.  A qualified trainer will provide in-depth analysis and strategies that are tailored to your dog’s individual needs, ensuring a focused and effective approach to managing reactivity.  Do your homework and interview various trainers to find the right fit for you and your dog.  There are many differences of opinion in the training industry.  Choose a trainer who has years of hands-on experience, and one who considers the complexities of your daily life.  A trainer should be ready to alter the approach when needed to help with positive progressions for your dog.  

A qualified trainer will also help you choose the best tools to train with.  Remember, it is not one size fits all.  During the first consultation your trainer should explain the foundation training steps, and the equipment you should have to get started.  You should have clear directions for your training homework, with follow up sessions scheduled weekly or bi-weekly.  And, your trainer should be ready to change direction when needed, altering the plan to fit your dog’s progressions.  

Group Training Classes

Training classes for reactive dogs are specialized programs that focus on building obedience and social skills. These classes create a structured environment where reactive dogs can learn and practice behaviors with professional guidance.  Before registering for the class, ask the trainer what the facility is like.  Is it indoor or outdoor?  How many dogs are in the class?  What safeguards are in place to help control reactivity?  Describe what your dog’s responses are to triggers and have the trainer help you determine if a group class is right for you and your dog.

Behavior Modification Board and Train Camps

Sometimes dogs need a more intense solution.  Juggling the daily requirements of everyday life can leave us with little time to commit to the training necessary to make a change. Board and train camps for behavior modification might be the right fit for your dog.  If you are thinking about board and train, ask the following questions.  What is the trainer’s experience with reactive dogs?  What training techniques and tools will the trainer use?  Where will my dog be during the day, and sleeping at night?  How will the trainer transport my dog, and what environments will my dog be trained in?  How many dogs will be under the trainer’s care?  What should I expect when my dog returns home?  And, what follow ups are included in the program?

Be leery of the trainer who guarantees a change.  Dogs are not robots and cannot be programmed to perform the same way all of the time.  Also, be a little skeptical if the program is shorter than three weeks.  It takes thousands of consistent repetitions to create a new habit, especially if your dog is now an adult.  Habits are not easy to replace, or quick to build.  Your dog should learn at a pace that reduces anxiety, and in an environment that is as stress free as possible.  This will help your dog be more open to the new concepts.   The board and train package should include follow up lessons so that you learn how to reinforce what your dog learned while at camp.  The trainer should also continue to be available in the future if your dog needs additional help.

Monitoring progress and adjusting strategies

It’s a good idea to monitor your dog’s reactions and progress and adjust strategies as needed.  Dogs don’t react randomly.  There is a reason why they become emotional.  Keeping a behavior journal helps track triggers, responses, and progress, providing valuable insights into what works best for your dog. 

Recognizing signs of improvement, such as reduced reactions and increased calmness, serves as positive feedback that reinforces the effectiveness of the chosen approach. By continuously assessing and adapting the socialization process, you can help your reactive dog achieve the best possible outcome.

Dog Training Journal

In your dog training journal note what happens right before your dog reacts.  Did your dog react because the skateboard came up fast from behind?  Maybe progress toward training your dog in the parking lot of a skate park. Logging in a journal allows you to reflect and think outside the box, gathering more insight into your dog’s behavior and how to help.  It’s a practical approach to tracking your dog’s triggers and thresholds and seeing the progressions from one week to the next.  

Make a list of your commands, and make sure they do not alter.  If sometimes you say “heel” and other times “let’s go” your dog has the added challenge of learning that both sounds might mean the same thing.  If sometimes you say “down” when you mean “off” your dog may choose to do neither, because the sounds do not make sense with the training they have received.  Dogs learn best when their person is a clear communicator. 

Dog Training Videos

If you can, video your dog while calm around the house, and then video when reactive to a trigger.  You can then play back the recording, slow it down and watch your dog’s body language.  Dogs speak loud and clear with body language, but it can be too quick for us humans to catch.  

Training is not a one-sided affair.  We are teaching our dogs to understand human language, and we should in turn be respectful and learn to understand our dog’s language as well.  We might miss that our dog was actually trying to get away from a situation, but was unable to because of the leash, or a tight walkway.  

With a video, you can learn how to read your dog.  This will prepare you to preemptively help your dog before a reaction.  Videos are also an incredible resource to share with your trainer. 

Recognizing signs of improvement

You may think your dog has not improved, but if you have a journal and recordings you can compare where your dog was, and whether you have reduced reactions to previously triggering situations.  These indicators of progress not only signal the effectiveness of the socialization strategies employed but also motivate continued effort and adjustment to achieve the best possible outcomes for your dog. 

Dedication for the lifetime of your dog

Reactive responses in dogs are not cured with a magic wand.  Some dogs will go through months of training and hit their peak tolerance for triggers.  Your neighbor’s dog may be great off-leash at a park, but that doesn’t mean your dog will be able to achieve that, too.  As caretakers of man’s best friend, we are entrusted with keeping each individual dog safe, given their genetics, their personality, and their tolerance for the sometimes-complicated world around them.  Bring out the best in your dog, and your dog will do their best in return.

Need help from an expert?

At Dog Dynamics Inc., we understand the unique challenges that come with raising a dog with reactivity.  That’s why our programs are specifically tailored to foster mutual respect, and deep, meaningful bonds between dogs and their owners.  Our team provides compassionate support and proven strategies to help you understand what makes your dog tick. 

Whether you need help with basic training or more specialized behavior modification, Dog Dynamics Inc. is here to assist every step of the way. Join our community and see the difference we can make in your dog’s life, and ultimately in your life, too!  

About Bonnie Brown Cali

With over 30 years of experience, Bonnie has a rich background in dog training, including work with service and protection dogs, wildlife conservation, and search and rescue. An AKC evaluator and an active participant in global workshops, she also competes in French Ring sport. Bonnie’s diverse expertise and dedication to ongoing learning make her a distinguished figure in the dog training community.

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