The term ‘reactive dog’ can sound intense. So, it is important to understand what the term means and understand why a dog may react to something. Then, appropriate and ethical behaviour change can be implemented.
What is a reactive dog?
A reactive dog is a dog that has abnormal reactions to things usually considered ‘normal’. This can involve lunging and barking at triggers. Reactive behaviours can mean your dog is uncomfortable or struggling in a situation.
Reactivity can be triggered by many things. Triggers can include other dogs, bikes, cars or people and can be anything a dog is not familiar with, fearful of, or frustrated with. The cause can vary and unfortunately, it’s not usually a quick fix. Reactivity is often rehearsed and becomes learnt behaviour, so can take time to change. Here are some common reasons why dogs react:
Pain and discomfort
Often unrecognised as a cause for reactivity is pain or discomfort. Consider a vet check if you have a reactive dog. This should be the first step before taking your dog to a behaviourist. If pain is treated, your dog could still react at triggers, as there could still be a pain association. Nonetheless, relieving or managing any pain or discomfort is an important step to change behaviour.
Lack of socialisation
Introducing your dog to a variety of dogs, people, places and situations at an early age is important. However, make sure you do this with sensitivity. Your puppy must feel comfortable in new experiences, to prevent anxiety, stress and feelings of overwhelm. The puppy brain is most receptive to new experiences up to four months old. So, for the best chance of a well socialised puppy, be sure to find a trusted breeder. Then make socialisation a priority as soon as you get your puppy. Otherwise, a poorly socialised puppy may develop reactivity.
Reactivity may develop if your dog has experienced trauma in the past. This can include previous physical injury, feeling threatened or scared and even verbal punishment. Just like us humans, dogs are sensitive to raised voices and physical actions. So, avoid punishment and help your dog to feel safe. Read more on how to create a safe space for your dog here. Seek qualified support if you suspect your dog has experienced trauma in the past.
If scared, your dog may flee the situation, fight to protect themselves, or freeze. If you notice these reactions, take note of the trigger and remove them from the situation. Then seek support to ethically help them overcome the fear.
Walking on a lead may prevent your dog accessing a desired situation. For example, if they are unable to greet another dog. Alternatively, they may be prevented from escaping a situation they want to get away from. This can cause frustration which is a negative emotion and can cause your dog to overreact.
How to help with dog reactivity
Identifying the reason behind reactivity is important to address the problem. Then, a suitable behaviour change plan can be developed.
If your dog is put in a situation where they react and the problem is ignored, it may get worse.
Ethical and long-lasting behaviour change requires time and patience. Work with a behaviourist, so you understand why your dog reacts and have on-going support in behaviour change. The time and financial investment will be worth the outcome!