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Does your dog lunge, growl, or bark every time it sees something moving? If so, then you may have a reactive dog on your hands.
Reactivity is a strong reaction to stimuli in a dog’s environment. Whether it’s a sound, person, animal, or situation, reactive dogs can be difficult to deal with. This is especially the case if the trigger causes your dog to become unsociable and uncontrollable in public places. Reactivity can develop from a lack of training and exposure, but it can also stem from genetics and breeding characteristics.
While reactive behavior can be challenging to manage, the good news is it can also be fixed. With the right techniques and training, you can rehabilitate your dog’s responses to its triggers, enabling it to become calmer and less reactive.
If you’re looking for tips, this article covers everything you need to know about how to rehabilitate a reactive dog and help it become a calmer canine.
What Causes Dog Reactivity?
Like humans, dogs react to their environment. However, for canines, an enhanced sensitivity to people or situations is often due to underlying discomfort. Whether it’s barking, lunging, or biting, dogs that over-react are often anxious, stressed, or overly excited. Getting to the root of your dog’s reactive behavior can be tricky, but it is possible.
The cause of reactive behavior can be due to numerous reasons, such as its previous history with other owners, traumatic situations, or its breeding characteristics. However, another key element of a dog’s reactivity is the energy it picks up from its handlers.
As dog behaviorist Cesar Millan often reiterates, dogs pick up our energy very acutely. Therefore, if you’re feeling tense or anxious, the dog will pick up on that and respond accordingly. In other words, a dog that defends its owner by barking and being dominant towards others may simply be trying to protect the human’s insecurities or unstable energy.
Another type of dog reactivity is withdrawal. Some canines are so nervous or unsure that they retreat and hide from the situation. Therefore, if you have a reactive dog, it’s important to figure out what the triggers are. Whatever the case, the good news is that the behavior can be changed!
Signs Your Dog is Reactive
If you have a reactive dog, it will often be obvious. Whether it’s attack or withdrawal, overly sensitive or reactive dogs will exhibit specific behaviors or bodily signs. Sometimes these start out small and then escalate, depending on the situation. Some of the signs to watch out for include:
- Body rigidity
- Stiff tail (it could be straight up and wagging, but there’s tension there), a calm dog will have a relaxed tail
- A fixed stare at a person or object
- Excessive drooling
- Non-responsiveness to cues or commands (e.g., calling his name or asking him to come)
- Straining or pulling on the leash
- Excessive barking
- Lunging at other dogs or people
If your dog frequently exhibits these behaviors in public, it could be an indication that it is reactive and stressed. Recognizing these signs is the first step towards rehabilitation — which is a good thing!
How to Help Your Reactive Dog
Having covered the signs and reasons for dog reactivity, below are a few things you can do to help.
One of the first things to avoid is punishing your dog for its behavior. While it may be tempting to treat it like a child and scold it for acting poorly, punishment is not a good way to train a dog. Doing so will only make them more anxious and reactive. Instead, try to maintain a calm assertive approach with your dog. Use positive reinforcement or gently encourage them away from the situation to help it calm down.
Be a Calm Assertive Leader
One of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal is calm, assertive energy. Your dog wants to know who’s in charge and that it doesn’t have to compensate by being protective. Calm, assertive dog leaders are firm while also using a gentle and non-aggressive approach. Remember: dogs are highly attuned to our energy. The calmer and more stable you are, the better behaved your canine will be.
Find Ways to De-Stress
If your dog is under stress, find ways to help it unwind. This might require a change in the home environment or avoiding stressful situations until their reactive behavior is under control. While you don’t want to get in the habit of chronically avoiding stressors, it can be a good idea to pare back on a few activities while they undergo a behavior rehab.
Set Up a Routine
Dogs are creatures of routine. If you aren’t feeding, walking, and putting your doggie to bed at the same time every day, it can create anxiety. Therefore, your daily routine is one of the things to look at first when it comes to evaluating your dog’s reactive behavior.
Making your canine’s world predictable can go a long way to easing its stress as it knows what to expect and when. If your schedule is erratic, find ways to implement a regular (and simple) schedule so that your dog can relax. As your dog unwinds and settles into its routine, it will be better able to handle other environments such as the daily walk and socializing with other dogs.
Use Tools and Equipment
Another way to reduce your dog’s reactive responses is to get creative with tools and equipment. Whether it’s e-collars, clickers, toys, or food, find ways to distract your dog from its stressors in a positive and encouraging way. This may require the help of a dog trainer who can guide you on how to use different tools, but it can go a long way towards redirecting your dog’s focus and energy.
Other tools you can use include a different leash or harness, which gives you better control over your dog on the walk. You might also want to invest in a puppy crate (if you aren’t already using one).
Crates create a safe, enclosed space where your dog can retreat if it is sensitive to noise and other people in the house. It may require some training, but over time, your dog will associate the crate with peace. Another benefit of this association is you can travel or transport them in the crate while keeping them calm.
Make Adjustments in the Household
Another thing you may want to try is amending the household, especially if your dog’s triggers are largely at home. For example, if its main trigger is people walking by the window, start training it to stay put. While this will take some patience, you can train your dog not to run to the window all the time and bark.
Other triggers could include the backyard, where your dog runs around the fence barking every time a car or person goes by. To amend this reaction, start training it on a leash and walk it around the yard. Each time it gets riled or excited, use treats, commands, or a clicker to redirect its attention. Over time, they’ll learn to be less affected by what’s happening outside the fence.
Learn About Canine Body Language
As well as helping your dog stay calm, it’s also important to become attuned to its body language. Learning to spot tension and reactive responses can enable you to intervene and stop its behavior from escalating.
If you’re new to this, start by watching videos and studying canine body language. By picking up on the cues and knowing what to look out for, you can better work with your dog and know when it’s agitated and when it’s relaxed.
Practice Counter Conditioning
Counter conditioning involves changing your dog’s response to its triggers. This could include noises, other dogs and humans, or objects like vacuum cleaners, bikes, cars, etc. In other words, counter conditioning involves creating positive associations with these triggers so that your dog no longer responds with fear or aggression.
To start this process, make a list of your dog’s triggers and put the most intense ones at the top. Work your way through the list and find ways to positively create new associations with treats, encouragement, or another activity. Again, you may need to work with a trainer, but there are ways to counter condition — such as using a favorite toy or sound. Each time your dog reacts calmly to the trigger, reward them with treats.
Take a Behavior Rehab Class
Lastly, take your dog to a behavior rehab class! A professional trainer can help take your dog from fearful to confident in no time. Many of these classes teach techniques for how to handle reactivity and keep your dog calm. Whether you attend an in-person class with other dogs (which helps with socializing) or take a series of online lessons, behavior rehab can make a fantastic addition to the techniques above.
Are Some Dog Breeds More Reactive Than Others?
Any dog can become reactive; however, some breeds have developed particular sensitivities. For example, herding dogs can become reactive to moving objects and sounds. The reason is that their herding abilities demand highly attuned eyes and ears; the issue with this is they can become overly reactive, which can lead to constantly chasing anything that moves or withdrawing from loud noises. With proper training, though, herding breeds can learn to tune out distractions so that they mainly implement their eye and ear sensitivity when they’re shepherding.
It can be useful to know the origin and breeding background of your dog to determine its unique reactivities. Guard dogs, for example, can display sensitivities around other dogs because they haven’t been bred to be social animals. Conversely, because hunting dogs are sight-oriented, they can become reactive to visual triggers.
Is it Possible To Cure My Reactive Dog?
While it may seem challenging in the interim, dogs of all ages can be rehabilitated with the right training. The great thing about dogs is they can be trained to learn new behaviors and leave negativity behind. Whatever is triggering your dog now can become a thing of the past if you employ the right techniques. It might require a few ups and downs, but be patient and don’t give up!
How to Help Your Reactive Dog
Dog reactivity can be difficult to deal with, but it’s not impossible to fix. While it is nerve-wracking if your dog lunges or barks at other animals or objects, this behavior can be redirected with patience and the right training.
By identifying your dog’s triggers and learning how to read its body language, you can become an active participant in the rehab process. The tips and techniques above are a good starting point to train your dog to be less reactive, become calmer, and redirect its energy so that its triggers are no longer a source of stress and anxiety. Good luck and happy training!