What is a Reactive Dog?

Leash Reactive Shiba Inu

A reactive dog and an aggressive dog are two very distinct types of dogs. What is a reactive dog? A reactive dog is reacting to certain specific situations that result in fear and stress. This could be just certain types of people, such as only children or men. Also, it could be only certain dogs, such as large dogs or even specific large dogs. This reaction is most often caused by a traumatic event or events that happened to them as a pup.

An aggressive dog behaves aggressively and is much more difficult to train. Aggressive dogs require much more specialized training to help them to become adoptable. Many shelters have programs to help these dogs overcome aggressive behaviors. This is great as it gives them a chance to be adopted into a forever home.

How Does a Dog Become Reactive?

Dogs become reactive mainly due to either their genetics or their environment or a combination of the two. An extremely stressed-out mother dog will pass the stress hormone, cortisol, on to the puppies. The worst possible condition for dogs to give birth is in a puppy mill. These dogs are usually neglected and kept in crowded, filthy conditions. Puppies born in a puppy mill are most likely to become reactive dogs.

Another contributing factor to reactive behavior is the environment the puppy was brought up in. A puppy that is neglected or even abused is more likely to become a reactive dog.

Another cause of reactivity in dogs is subjecting puppies or dogs to bad training methods, such as dominance training. Positive reinforcement training has been shown to be much more effective in addition to resulting in a happier dog.

Lack of socialization is another cause of reactive behavior in dogs. It’s very important to socialize a puppy before she is 4 months old. This is the age when she is most accepting and receptive to learning new experiences.

How to Help a Reactive Dog

The first step in helping your reactive dog is a visit to your veterinarian. You need to rule out any physical causes for her behavior. Dogs that are in pain can react badly in any situation due to pain or illness. Rule out any physical causes for the behavior first.

Once medical causes have been ruled out, discuss your dog’s behavior with the veterinarian. If your veterinarian is not all that knowledgeable about behavior, ask her to refer you to a certified dog behaviorist. The behaviorist should be able to help you and your dog through this. She should make a plan for you and your dog to follow to curb these behaviors.

Some Simple Considerations to Help Your Reactive Dog

Having a reactive dog can be upsetting to the whole family. Your dog will need specialized training. However, there are a few simple adjustments that you can make that can help to keep her calm.

Dogs really want predictability and routine. Set up a routine for your days and try your best to stick with it. Try to get up at the same time every day and feed her at the same time daily. . If you are walking her currently, be sure to take her on a walk at the same time.

The more upset and stressed your dog is the more she will want to stick to a routine. This helps to comfort reactive dogs. So do your best to help her by doing activities as a routine on schedule.

Make Needed Changes in and Around Your Home to Prevent Reactive Behavior

Another area in which you may need to make some changes for your dog in your living room. This will be essential if your dog gets reactive due to anyone showing up at the door or mailbox. Start crate training your dog as young as possible. If she is crate trained, put her in the crate to prevent the reactive behavior.

If your dog is a fence fighter, start walking her around the yard on a leash. In this way, you can prevent her from reactive behavior. This could be true for your front or back yard. However, this needs to be handled in a similar way. Walk her around the yard making sure the reactive behavior is stopped.

What Are the Steps Involved in Helping Reactive Dogs?

The first step in helping your dog overcome this problem is identifying the triggers that result in the reactive behavior. This is very important and there is usually more than one trigger. It is important to identify all of the triggers in order to effectively manage them.

A good way to begin this specific training is to temporarily keep her away from any possible trigger. This is going to mean no walks for a while.

You are going to have to keep her mind engaged by playing with her at home. Play with toys she loves to play with and get her involved in puzzle games. Try your best to keep her from becoming stressed for any reason, even due to a lack of activity. This could be more difficult with the herding breeds, such as Heelers, and Border Collies. This is due to the high level of intelligence in these dog breeds.

Your Certified Animal Behaviorist should set up a plan for you and your dog to get through this special training. However, it is up to you to determine all of your dog’s triggers that you possibly can identify.

What are the Main Types of Reactive Behavior?

One of the main types of reactive behavior in dogs is caused by lack of socialization. This results in more fear and anxiety as these dogs have never been introduced to much of anything. Some have also had neglectful, or abusive behavior in her past. This type of reactive behavior can result in aggressive behavior.

The other major type of reactive behavior is caused by frustration. This mainly shows up when the reactive dog is on a leash and held back by its walker. This can also show up as dogs seeing another dog or the mail carrier from a window or door. This is another example of frustration-induced reactive behavior.

Reactive Dog Behavior- What is a Reactive Dog?

How is Reactive Behavior Displayed in Dogs?

When a dog is leashed and displaying reactive behavior you are likely to see barking and lunging.

However, in dogs with more fear-based reactive behaviors you are more likely to see displays of fear in the dog such as hiding, crouching, lying down, hiding, and bolting (this is why my dog’s name is ‘Bolt’ I adopted him 8 years ago as an extremely fearful dog, but that’s another story).

What Methods of Training Are Used to Correct this Reactive Behavior?

The methods of training that are mostly used to help reactive dogs are desensitizing and counter-conditioning. Unfortunately, there is no cure for reactive behavior as whatever the cause or causes of the behavior, genetics and past experiences can not be made to disappear. However, your dog can be greatly improved and can live a normal happy life.

She just may not be able to participate in all of the amazing activities you had hopes of her wanting to do. You may not be able to participate in a lot of activities where there is too much stimulation for her to handle, such as taking her to a dog park and playing with other dogs. You will know her triggers and through desensitizing and counter-conditioning you will be able to help her a lot however there will be some limits on what she can and can’t handle.

Desensitization means gradually exposing your dog to a trigger in very small doses and increasing the amount of exposure very gradually as long as your dog is not reacting to it. This gradually reduces the amount of sensitivity your dog has to this trigger.

Counter-conditioning is attempting to change your dog’s feelings about the trigger so that it no longer frightens her and may even start to please her. These two methods are often used together for best results and are referred to as DSCC.

One important fact to remember is to stay calm and relaxed. If you are tense and nervous, your dog is more likely to feed off of your tension and become more reactive. Even if your dog starts exhibiting reactive behavior when you are training her, just remain calm and walk in the opposite direction away from the trigger.

How Does DSCC Work?

The idea here is to change your dog’s conditioned emotional response (CER) to the trigger. For example, say every time you walk your dog past this house, even though you are on the opposite side of the street, two dogs that live there are barking ferociously at the gate. My dog reacts in a very strange way for him, he lunges (as he is on a leash) in the direction of the two dogs and before I knew about this method, I would attempt to just distract him as we quickly moved beyond that house.

When I did eventually learn about this method of changing a conditioned emotional response (CER), I started using this method on Bolt, my dog. It did take a while for him to get to the point where he would start looking to me for the treat instead of lunging and growling at the other dogs, however, after a sufficient amount of time, he has become so much better when walking past that house.

This is just an example of how CER can work to change your dog’s response to what was a trigger for a reactive response.

What is a Threshold and How does it Work in the Training of Reactive Dogs?

A threshold in reactive dog behavior is the moment your dog’s behavior changes from normal dog behavior to over-the-top reactive dog behavior, i.e. barking, snarling, growling, and lunging. When your dog changes from normal behavior into reactive dog behavior is referred to as “going over threshold”.

The point of bringing up the threshold is to provide you with the advice to always work under the threshold. You don’t need your dog to completely shut down (what happens in the case of frightened dogs) or to start freaking out. There is no need for your dog to display reactive behavior in order to correct it.

In fact, once your dog does start behaving reactively she will not be receptive to learning anything at all. The best thing to do if your dog gets to the reactive behavior state is to just get your dog as far away from the trigger as possible.

The way CER works, you need to give your dog the treats before the reactive response occurs. This will gradually condition her to look for a treat or toy before the reactive behavior occurs. This takes time so don’t rush it.

Raising Your Dog’s Threshold

The desired goal we want from this training is to raise your dog’s threshold. This is accomplished through a series of small steps gradually reducing the distance you have to be before your dog becomes reactive. Learn to spot the signals your dog is giving in her body language so you can catch her before she freaks out.

Reactive Dog Frightened - What is a Reactive Dog?

One way to determine if you are getting too close to the threshold is to offer her treats. If she accepts them and eats them as normal, then you are not too close. However, if your dog ignores the treats and is hyper-focused on the trigger then you are too close to the trigger. So, move back until she is in her comfort zone again and will accept the treats.

Be Sure You are Doing the Training Steps in the Right Order

For this training to work, it is essential that you perform the steps of the training in the right order. What this means is that each time you perform this training, you get your dog as close as possible to the trigger, and she must see the trigger and after that, you give her the treats for her good behavior.

Giving her the treats before she sees the trigger will not be effective in any way for what you are trying to achieve. You don’t want to show her that when you give her treats the trigger shows up. That is totally ineffective and could be counter-productive.

The order is very important here. You get her to the closest distance you can to the trigger without her behaving reactively and she sees the trigger. This is when you give her the treats.

Determine the Closest Distance to the Trigger in Which Your Dog Doesn’t React

When you know all of your dog’s triggers. Determine the closest distance you can reach in which the trigger is in view and your dog does not react. Do this before starting any DSCC training. They may not be perfect at first but get as close as you can to the closest distance and mark these distances in a spreadsheet or notebook, somewhere you can keep track.

This is where you will begin your dog’s DSCC training. Start working with each of the triggers. Depending upon what the triggers are, you can work on a different one each day, depending upon your schedule and availability of time. For example, one day take your dog on a walk where you know one of the triggers will present itself at some point and once your dog spots the trigger, start giving her a generous amount of treats that are very special to her.

Depending upon what triggers are available, use that moment for another training session. For example, many dogs are triggered by gardeners and their loud leaf-blowers. You can find out the days in which gardeners are present at homes in your neighborhood and use these as your triggers. These will most likely be more difficult due to the loudness. Also, this allows dogs to discover them a lot quicker than some other triggers.

Continue Gradually Reducing the Distance Between Your Dog and the Trigger

Get your dog as close to the home with the gardener as possible and feed her a lot of delicious treats. Keep working at this one as these are some of the most difficult triggers to desensitize your dog to. However, keep at it and don’t get discouraged as the result will be worth the effort.

Reactive Frightened Dog - What is a Reactive Dog?

Depending upon the severity of your dog’s reactive behavior, Keep feeding your dog the treats, then wait for about 5 to 10 seconds and stop feeding the treats. In the case of the gardener, just feed the treats to your dog while the gardener is in view then stop feeding and walk away from the trigger.

In situations in which you have someone else’s help, you can have your friend furnish the trigger dog in some predetermined spot and walk your dog to the pre-determined sport that is as close as possible to the trigger, feed her a lot of treats, then wait for 5 to 10 seconds then remove your dog from the presence of the trigger.

Continue repeating these steps until your dog has reached an improved CER. Note the distance at which each of these new milestones occurs and continue decreasing the distance and noting the closest distance achieved for each trigger.

Repeat these steps until you are happy with the results.

Increasing the Level of Difficulty

Once you are happy with your dog’s distance at which the CER is achieved, you can start increasing the level of difficulty of each of the triggers.

For example, increase the amount of time your dog can remain in view of the trigger without becoming reactive. Repeat the above steps of feeding but now you are attempting to increase the amount of time your dog can be in view or listen to the trigger without displaying reactive behavior.

Continue with the DSCC training as long as it takes to get your dog to stop the reactive behavior. Sometimes other types of training are introduced but that is usually more advanced and will not be discussed in this article.

Final Thoughts

I hope you have learned some techniques to improve your and your dog’s quality of life for years to come. To read about more advanced techniques, one suggestion would be to see what is involved in operant conditioning and if this could help your dog improve even more.

Please feel free to comment on your experience with a reactive dog or ask any questions you might have.

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.