The term ‘reactive dog’ can sound intense and is often confused with aggressive behaviour. Reactivity is often your dog’s way of telling you that they are uncomfortable or struggling in the situation. It is important to fully understand the underlying causes of a reactive dog and learn what this actually means, this way the problem can be correctly diagnosed and treated.
What is a reactive dog?
Put simply a reactive dog is a dog that has abnormal reactions to things most would consider ‘normal’. This can come in many shapes and forms and often involves lunging and barking.
These reactive behaviours can be triggered by many things and differ from dog to dog. Triggers for reactivity can include anything dogs are not familiar with, fearful of or frustrated by such as bikes, other dogs or people. There are many possibilities to consider about why it is happening and unfortunately, it’s not usually a quick fix. Reactivity tends to be rehearsed, becomes learnt and will take time to change. To help, we have listed some typical reasons for why these triggers can cause reactivity.
Pain and discomfort
Sadly one of the main and often unrecognised, if it isn’t noticeable to the eye, reasons a dog may be overreacting to everyday things is because they are in pain or discomfort. If you have a reactive dog, consider taking your dog for a veterinary check up, this should be the first step before taking your dog to a trainer or behaviourist. Even after treatment your dog could still react in situations that your pet associates with the pain, for example a person or location. However, identifying and treating the cause of pain or discomfort is an important step in the recovery process.
Lack of socialisation
It is important to make sure that your dog is introduced to a variety of different dogs, people, places and situations at an early age. However, make sure you do this with sensitivity. Thrusting your puppy into new situations where they feel forced can cause anxiety and stress. The socialisation process should be started before the puppy reaches four months old as this is when the brain is most receptive to new information. Therefore, a lot of this work should be carried out by the breeder, making it imperative that you find a trusted breeder who knows their stuff and is passionate about providing their puppies with the best start in life. If a dog isn’t well socialised as a puppy, it may mean they are more likely to develop reactivity as an adult.
Trauma from unkind treatment
A dog that has been treated badly in the past may come to associate all people and situations with this example. This can include both physical and verbal unkindness, for example violent contact or even raising your voice when they have done something wrong. Just like us humans, dogs are sensitive to raised voices and physical actions. They’re not necessary to gain control of the situation, so be sure to treat them with the same respect you would for another person. Otherwise, it may lead a dog to feel worried, which can cause reactive behaviours.
Feeling scared or threatened can result in one of two reactions; running from what is frightening them, or fighting to protect themselves. If you notice your dog trying to fight or flight, take note of the trigger and remove them from the situation until you have received the right amount of help and support.
Often being walked on a lead can prevent a dog from accessing a situation they want. For example, they may be prevented from saying hello to another dog when they really want to. This can cause frustration which is a negative emotion and can cause your dog to overreact as a consequence.
How to help with dog reactivity
Helping reactivity involves diagnosing the underlying motivation behind the reactions and developing an appropriate treatment plan. For the majority of reactive dogs, being in a space with other dogs that also react can trigger their reactive behaviour – likewise if the trigger for your pet is other animals, placing them into that situation, where their response is to react is not the right way to go about helping them! Reactive dog training is often a long process and will differ from dog to dog.
As mentioned, this type of behaviour modification requires patience and time to achieve its desired outcome, it is best to consult a qualified dog behaviourist for a professional service. A behaviourist will work with you, to help you understand why your dog reacts and support you in changing the behaviour.
An experienced pet behaviour counsellor can put together a structured plan to help you achieve the best results with your dog, get in touch with Wagg & Purr Pet Behaviour on 07507709685 for a discussion about how I can help you determine the cause, manage and modify your dog’s reactive behaviours.