alert medium brown dog looking for something

Reactive Behaviour in Dogs

Do you have a reactive dog?

You have a reactive dog if your dogs behaves disproportionately, or in the extreme, towards a particular trigger or situation. This could mean he is over excited, anxious or aggressive. But whatever the initial cause, he is likely making too big of a deal about it.

Typically, he could be jumping and lunging, barking and squealing, or spinning in circles. He might also be acting aggressively towards whatever he is reacting to.

Dog staring at something in the distance

When dogs are stressed they aren’t thinking in straight lines and can easily over react to things. People do this too. The amount of stress we are under can seriously affect how we cope with everyday situations. If the same situation is repeated, it can become a habit, and before you know it you have a fear reactive dog.

This can also happen when dogs are over excited. In fact, any emotional state can affect the ways our dogs rationalise the situations they are in. And because of this, dogs can become reactive to almost anything.

The most common causes are other dogs, the door bell and traffic, but I have seen dogs that are reactive to skateboards, people with beards, umbrellas, people with bags, dogs on TV, ice cream signs, people with cameras, shadows, and even sliding shop doors. The list goes on and on, and I know that as soon as I hit publish, I’ll think of even more!

Read more about Fears, Phobias and Anxiety in dogs here

Handling Reactive Dog Behaviour

Every dog is different, so it would be impossible to talk about specific strategies. But, there are some things that can be done to ease all types of reactive behaviour, here are a few that you can’t go wrong with…

Slow Down

Yep, just slow down. Moving fast can be a sign of fear and stress, so don’t reinforce your dogs fear by getting faster yourself. Your dog is trying to go at 150 mph, but you can choose to do the exact opposite. Take a deep breathe and slow down your pace, and your reactions. Just take your time over everything. He’ll be confused at first as it’s the last thing he’ll expect, but it should help him to switch his brain back on faster.

Stop

If slowing down isn’t quite doing the job, then just stop what you are doing and wait for him to come back to earth again. This may not be a five minute job, or even a 20 minute job, but it’ll be worth the wait. Once he’s paying attention again, you can continue as if nothing had happened!

Reactive dog behaviour aimed at something out of shot.
Reactive Dog Behaviour

Be Quiet

Shouting just adds tension to an already tense situation. Remember the last time you reacted to something you were afraid of, would it have helped if everyone around you had shouted at you to calm down? Or to “sit nice”? For this reason it’s probably not worth using your voice at all. Your dog isn’t listening, so there is little point trying to get him to do anything.

Be Patient

Patience is a big part of managing reactive behaviour, being impatient is likely to reinforce the problem rather than ease it. There is really nothing you can do to speed things up when he is in full flight, so don’t bother trying to calm him, distract him, or give him a command. Just wait for him to settle by himself. Once he settles down the learning phase will kick in, if you are impatient you might accidentally skip this crucial stage.

Create Space

If his reaction is so extreme that there is no chance of him calming down, then you can move further away. Don’t go too far though, he still needs to be aware of the trigger. If your dog is reacting aggressively, then moving away will also reduce the chances of him redirecting his aggression onto you. Keeping everyone safe must take priority over everything else.

Creating space is also a great strategy for preventing reactive behaviour. Experiment and figure out the distance your dog can cope at, then stick with that while he learns to stay calm.

Leave out the treats

Things will go much more smoothly, for now, if you forget about any kind of reward, or distraction. We’re aiming to balance your dog emotionally, but more often than not, treats and toys just add excitement. This is the opposite of what you are trying to achieve. So, unless you have been shown, then keep it simple, and leave the toys and treats at home. I have more tips about when to treat, and when not to here.

What’s next?

Now you have a starting place, you will need to start addressing the root cause of the problem behaviour. Whether that be anxiety, over excitement or aggression, you’ll need a training plan. Otherwise, your hard work will be wasted.

I always recommend getting help from a local, experienced behaviourist. They will be able to properly assess the problem for you and give you good dog behaviour advice from the start. The internet has lots of advice, some good, some not so much. Getting a professional behaviourist from the start will save you a lot of time and effort. And, when you consider the cost of all the various training aids, harnesses, leads and medications that are available, your behaviourist could also actually save you money.

Do you have a reactive dog? What’s his/her stimulus?


Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area, and sometimes beyond, depending on the problem. If you are looking for advice for your dog then please get in touch!

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