The why, what and how of reactivity
Reactivity cases are probably more than half my clients. It is a common behaviour issue that many people experience with their dogs — specifically on leash. These dogs will bark, howl, growl and lunge when they see another dog or person. They are hard to handle and sometimes it takes — what seems like forever — for them to calm down.
As someone who lives with 3 reactive dogs, I understand how you feel. It’s frustrating, because, there is no reason for them to freak out, yet here we are. It’s embarrassing when our dog starts yelling to the top of their lungs when they see another dog. Some are afraid at how aggressive their dog looks. And one thing we can all agree on, it makes our walks so stressful.
Why do our dogs become reactive?
There are 2 big reasons why dogs are reactive. Understand it’s not so black and white but for the most part, it’s those 2 reasons.
A dog who reacts out of fear genuinely fears for their life. They will lunge, bark, growl and make a bid dramatic scene to increase distance from what is scaring them. These dogs may have been under socialized, had a bad experience or they are just over all very anxious. These dogs often don’t get along with other dogs, or have “stranger danger”.
This dog reacts because he see’s his friend and can’t go say hi. They will lunge, bark, and growl, just like the fearful dog. They don't know how to control their impulses (wanting to go say hi) and it leads to them getting frustrated. Over time, this is just all they know. They didn't learn the proper skills to handle seeing another dog while out on a walk.
One thing I want to point out is that it's not always one or the other. You can definitely get a mix of both fear and frustrated.
Now they look so similar, how do we tell them apart?
History tells us a lot. However, we don’t need to know your dog’s whole life story to figure it out. Here's the common question I ask my clients:
Hows the play?
A dog with a play history can give me a lot of information to know whether it could be fear of frustration. Did they avoid other dogs or get into scuffles? Or do they play and play and play? A dog who had a good time around other dogs is mostly likely frustrated and I would even bet money on it. With this dog, I would provide lots of playtime with other dogs — as well as work through our training protocol.
Now, what if they avoid dogs, or got into a few scuffles? I would say fear and for this dog, I would avoid places like doggy cafes or dog parks because these situations may only increase their stress and anxiety around other dogs.
No play history? You might of adopted a dog from a rescue and the dog-dog information is not there. Or they became reactive so you stopped going to the dog park in fear they might hurt another dog? In either case, it’s trainer (and owner’s) choice. If I have access to a yard and a bomb proof dog, I would give a playdate a try. I often get a muzzle on board as a safely precaution. I’ve had dogs who played beautifully. I’ve had dogs who’s play skills are so rusty that they got themselves into trouble. And I’ve also had a dog who wanted to eat Harlow (For this reason — even though it only happened once, we use a muzzle)
1) One of the first things we do is management. Walk during off peak hours is one. We have less chances of running into another dogs so our walks are less stressful for both you and the dog, and we avoid having our dog rehearse this behaviour.
2) We practice what to do when our dog goes off. The “turn and go”. We are walking our dog, we turn the corner and boom, a dog. I like to teach and practice the “turn and go” because often we freeze up and panic. Turning in the other direction and walking away and just keep going till we’re out of the “woods”.
3) Enrichment: while this isn’t really managing reactivity, it’s important to provide our dogs with legal outlets of their natural behaviours. Having them work for their food will not only keep them occupied but tire them out mentally! Read our enrichment blog post here.
1) Creating new, better skills. We practice things like loose leash walking, eye contact and impulse control exercises to help build new skills for your dog. The important thing is to build a solid foundation before putting it into use when you need it — thats why we have some management strategies till we get there.
2) Tools: a front clip harness is my preference but some clients prefer using a head halter. A muzzle if we will be doing dog intros is a must. It is also important to train our dog to wear the muzzle so they feel comfortable in it.
3) Rewards: using the right rewards for the job. While, I understand the idea of wanting our dog to work to please us, it’s just not the case but thats a whole other blog post in itself. When we train in the house, we will use kibble and liver. The moment we step out the front door, we will start increasing the value and use something like cheese, chicken or steak.
4) Practicing the new skills around other dogs: we do this in a systematic way, we will hire a helper dog so we can go through the exercises multiple times.
5) Maintenance: after we go through our training plan and our dog seems “fixed” we will need to practice every so often to keep everything in check — like getting your car an oil change. Maintenance is important!
This might seem like a mouthful of information, but there is good news. Myself and my colleagues have had great success helping our clients with their dogs reactivity. Like I mentioned at the beginning, reactivity cases account for more than half of my clients. It’s important to work with a professional because we can:
- Help coach you through the process: we will demo and then coach you though the training. Help you troubleshoot if you get stuck and celebrate the successes!
- We can arrange for helper dogs who know the routine!
- We can make sure we are not just effective with our training, but efficient so we can get the most bang for buck to help you reach your goals!
Here's a video of one of our training sessions with my clients and a helper dog:
If you need help with your reactive dog, contact me here.
If i'm not in your area, i'd be happy to give you a referral!