My Dog’s Reactive! What Should I Do?

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So your dog goes ballistic when he sees a dog walking on leash a block away. He barks, whines, and lunges as if he was Cujo.

Your Max is usually such a sweet dog at home.

You’re embarrassed and don’t know what to do. Don’t feel bad. Some great dogs are also reactive.

One of my rescues, a Lhasa apso named Mikey, was one of the most reactive dogs I’ve ever seen.

Reactive Yellow Labrador Retriever growling

He was the poster dog for reactivity.

He would bark and lunge in a very menacing way when he saw another dog. 

Mikey was a stray found on the streets. He had bite wounds and apparently a very rough life.

He was the cutest, spunkiest, black-and-white ball of fur. 

As a dog trainer and behavior specialist, I wanted to help him live a happy life. 

But I realized that it would take a lot of time and patience to see any progress.

And so our adventure began.

In this article, for simplicity I am using reactivity to another dog as an example. But the same techniques can be used for other things that your dog is reactive to, such as people. 

I am dealing with leash reactivity in this article. 

Dogs may be reactive at home too. Some dogs bark out the window when they see someone.

We call it the “mailman syndrome” because the person goes about his/her business. But your dog thinks that his barking sent the person away.

Again, as in every situation, manage it. Block your dog’s view. If your dog’s reactive to noises, play soft music or a television to block the sound. Or close the window.

And dogs who are reactive in their yards shouldn’t be left alone to practice their reactivity. Do the exercises below, then, when he’s ready, practice them in your yard.

So, first identify what your dog’s triggers are. Then, you can work with him.

Contents & Quick Navigation

What Is Reactivity?

Reactive dogs overreact to certain stimuli or situations. They respond to stimuli in a higher-than-normal level of intensity.

Some may react adversely to men or women or dogs. Or they may react to very specific things such as men with beards or women with hats. Others react to cars driving by or a bike passing by.

Each dog’s an individual.

Reactive dogs may demonstrate the following characteristics: 

  • Hypervigilence (a high state of alertness)
  • Restlessness (pacing)
  • Vocalization (barking, howling, whining)
  • Systemic effects (urinating, defecating, vomiting)
  • Displacement or stereotypic behavior (spinning, tail or shadow chasing)

I’ve successfully worked with many reactive dogs over the years. I’ve even conducted classes for reactive dogs for a local shelter. 

Reactive dogs are anxious, stressed dogs in the situations in which they’re reactive.

Signs of an Anxious, Stressed Dog

A dog that’s reactive is usually very anxious and stressed. He may show the following signs: 

Yawning when not tired: shedding dandruff; lip licking; tail tucked under body; leaving paw prints when it’s not hot; drooling; and sudden scratching.

A stressed dog that’s highly aroused by a stimuli or situation may show the following body language

Whale eye (whites of eyes showing); intense stare; tense/stiff body leaning forward; tail held high with a slow wag; raised hackles (hair on back of neck/shoulders); straining on leash/lunging; and ignoring redirection

What Causes Reactivity?

Generally, reactivity is fear-based. The dog is put in an environment where he’s scared.

Many things may cause a dog to be reactive. His genetic make-up may play a part. He may not have been properly socialized.

Or he may not have been sufficiently trained to have impulse control. He may even have had a frightening experience.

Any of these–or any combination–may cause reactivity.

With my rescue Mikey, it was obvious he had been attacked by or in a fight with dogs by the various wounds on his body. 

All he had to do was see a dog and he barked and strained at his leash.

The first few months with him weren’t easy. But he was worth it.

What Dogs Are Likely To Be Reactive?

Any dog can be reactive. But some breeds and mixes are more likely to be.

This is usually because of the job that they were bred to do.

Herding dogs are often reactive to moving objects. They may bark and lunge when a person on a bike passes by.

Or go ballistic when a car or motorcycle or jogger zooms past them. 

Shelties, border collies, German shepherds, and Australian shepherds are some popular examples. Their herding instinct makes them want to chase moving objects.

Working breeds such as boxers, doberman pinschers, and rottweilers also tend to be reactive with new things. They were bred to be watchdogs and family guardians.

Terriers can also tend to be more reactive than some other breeds. 

Scotties, for example, were bred to hunt and they make excellent watchdogs and, in the breed standard, they are known to be cantankerous towards other dogs. 

Westies also tend to chase after anything that moves.

So sometimes it’s truly in the genes. But that doesn’t mean the reactivity can’t be managed. 

I’ve had herding breeds for over 22 years.

Some have been obedience dogs, therapy dogs, and participated in other activities. 

Of course if I didn’t manage their innate predisposition to bark and chase things, there’s no way they could have participated in these activities.

And it would have been much more difficult for them (and for me) in everyday life.

Safety First

It’s important that everyone remain safe when working with a reactive dog. People and dogs should be at a distance that your dog cannot reach. 

Being too close passes the threshold of what your dog can handle.

Make sure that your dog can’t get out of his training equipment. I recommend a well-fitted harness that he can’t escape from.

If you feel that your dog can get out of the harness, try a different one. 

You can also use a double-leash system with one leash attached to the harness and another to a well-fitted Martingale collar from which dogs shouldn’t be able to get loose.

A leash with a tight collar conveys something’s wrong to a dog. This can set him off to be reactive.

When training a reactive dog, use a six-foot leash, keeping the dog close to you with slack so that the leash forms a “J.” 

Don’t use a flexi-leash or long-line. Your dog should never be able to rush another dog.

What Can You Do To Help Manage a Reactive Dog?

There are many things you can do to help your reactive dog make progress. 

First, his environment must be successfully managed.

For example, if you know he’s reactive to other dogs, you don’t want to take him to PetSmart on a Saturday afternoon where there will be a lot of canines.

Doing so will inevitably set back your behavior program and training. It will be too much stimulation for him.

1. Remain calm. 

I know that this is easier said than done. 

When I took Mikey out to walk him, I was always somewhat on edge about how he’d act when he saw a dog. 

But, as much as possible, I’d try to remain upbeat and calm. 

Dogs read our body language and scent; they can even sense our fear or     stress.

2. Train your dog. 

Training can not only get verbal control of your dog, it can also give him confidence.

It teaches him what’s expected and can give him something to focus on rather than being reactive to the environment.

You can teach him to look at you on command to redirect him away from what he’ll be reactive to.

Mikey developed a default behavior to look at me, which I rewarded.

Your pup can learn to sit on command to help get some impulse control.

3. Keep your dog under threshold. 

This just means not overstimulating him with things that he can’t handle.

Generally, this is done by keeping a safe distance from what he’s reactive to.

So if he’s reactive to moving cars or dogs, you want to stay at a distance at which he’s not reactive. 

This varies by dog. Some dogs can be fine at 20 feet away, but not at 19. 

When I first adopted Mikey, he couldn’t see a dog at even 60 feet away. He would bark and lunge at the dog even when the other dog was nonreactive.

I learned to work with him at his pace and what he could handle and wasn’t triggered.

4. Do science-based behavioral work. 

In classical conditioning, the appearance of another dog means food appears. So, when he sees a dog, give your pup high-value treats. 

This is what you’ll do in the beginning. 

PRO-TRAINER TIP: Use extremely high-value treats. For this work, you want to use something that your dog loves–not just his kibble. It should be a treat that he gets only for this. Some suggestions are: cheese, hot dogs, chicken, or Happy Howie’s meat roll. Cut up the treat in small, pea-sized pieces. Make sure that what you use is something that your dog’s stomach tolerates.

In operant conditioning, the dog learns that the appearance of another dog  means great treats will be given.

He learns to feel relaxed rather than tense what the other canine appears. He’ll learn to look to his owner for reinforcement rather than lunging at the other dog.

The dog performs the behavior of looking at the owner or away from the other dog without having any cue given by the owner.

The dog makes the choice to not react to the other dog and is reinforced for that behavior.

5. Do set-ups to work with the reactivity.

In the above method in #4, you can use a handler with a test dog. The handler with the other dog shouldn’t look at your dog and their dog must be nonreactive.

And, like all your training, the handler/test dog duo must be at a distance at which your dog isn’t reactive or stressed.

You can have them go in-sight, then out-of-sight.  When the duo is in sight and your dog is calm, you give him a series of treats until the duo goes out-of-sight.

Do this about three times during your session. You don’t want to over-do it and stress your dog.

Alternatively, you can have the duo in place and you and your dog go in-sight, out-of-sight. 

Of course, you give a stream of treats when the other dog is in sight and give no treats when the other dog’s not in view.

How long should your dog be able to view the other dog? It depends on your dog. You want to end the session before your dog shows any stress signals. 

Generally, it should be no longer than a minute or so.

Once your dog understands he gets treats when a dog appears and he’s not reactive, you can add the cue, saying in a happy tone “where’s the dog?” when the dog appears.

What if you don’t have someone with a nonreactive dog to practice? I’ve used pet shop parking lots.

I’ve stayed at a distance where my dog isn’t triggered as dogs exited the store or their cars.

Of course, do this for only a short time with a few dogs coming and going.

6. Make a u-turn. 

Life happens. So I teach clients to train their dog to make a u-turn and walk 180-degrees away from a trigger. 

A person walking a dog suddenly appears around the corner. That’s when you make the about turn.

Train it without distractions before you need to use it. Walk straight, then have a treat lure in the hand next to your dog as you make the u-turn. 

Also give the cue “turn” simultaneously. Practice a few times per session.

After practicing this with your dog without any distractions, then you can use it in real-life situations.

7. Redirect your dog to something else. 

Train the following exercises without distractions so that you can use them when there are distractions.

Teach your dog to redirect to a game. Have a favorite toy and throw it right in front of him (not too far so that it’s well within the range of his leash).

Tell him “get it” and play with him with it.  After he understands the game, you can use it on his walks.

Another useful game is to have about five high-value treats in your hand and throw them down, telling your dog to “find it.” 

This engages his natural scent ability. 

Most dogs love this. Play this game without distractions. 

Once he understands it, he’ll look down to the ground upon your “find it” cue, looking for his treats when a dog suddenly appears in the distance.

These redirection exercises help your dog focus on something else. 

They also make him more relaxed, which helps because reactivity is usually caused by stress.

8. Teach a “settle” command. 

This is a great impulse control exercise. It teaches a dog to calm down on cue.

Granted, most reactive dogs won’t be able to do this with distractions in the beginning. But, after doing some of the exercises above, they often are.

Always start training in a calm atmosphere without distractions. Add distractions only as fast as your dog can handle them. 

There’s no cookie-cutter approach.

They need to learn that they are safe when they’re with you. 

Check out how we teach our dogs the settle command.

9. Teach a “place” command. 

Teach your dog to go to a place like a mat or bed, Then teach him to settle on the mat as described in #8 above. 

Although this is a command that you’ll probably only use inside or not far outside your house, it’s very important for impulse control.

Training exercises in which your dog learns impulse control will help him in other situations.

Check out how we teach our dogs the “place” command.

10. Exercise your dog. 

A dog who receives a sufficient amount of physical and mental exercise is less likely to be reactive.

It’s difficult when you have a leash reactive dog.

Try playing fetch or other games at home before your walk. Have him play with puzzle toys.

The more stress relief he has prior to the walk should help him.

Is It Aggression or Reactivity?

Both may stem from fear, anxiety, or stress. A reactive dog may become aggressive but not all reactive dogs are aggressive.

A reactive dog may become aggressive if pushed too far. 

As indicated above, there are certain stress signals that a reactive dog will send. 

An aggressive dog will escalate those behaviors. In the spectrum of fight or flight, the aggressive dog will fight.

He may: have a stiffened body; lip licking; muzzle punches (pokes with a closed muzzle); snap; or bite.

A good example of a reactive dog who wasn’t aggressive is my Lhasa Mikey. He had all of the posturing. 

But one time a beagle got off his leash and ran at us. Before I could pick him up, Mikey hid behind my legs.

Luckily, the beagle was very friendly and nothing happened. But Mikey then–and at other times–never followed through with his warnings.

Rule Out Medical Causes

Sometimes there are medical reasons for the dog’s stress and anxiety. A full physical should be conducted and any tests run, like a full thyroid panel, that your vet recommends. 

If there’s a medical reason for your dog’s reactivity, you won’t be totally successful in your behavior modification and training program unless that’s treated.

Get Help If You Need It

If you feel overwhelmed or if you haven’t seen progress, I recommend getting professional assistance. The same is true if you’ve seen any aggression.

A veterinary behaviorist or positive reinforcement trainer who has a successful record with reactivity and aggression issues can help.

Don’t Try This at Home: What NOT To Do

There are some things that you shouldn’t do. They can make the problem worse–much worse.

Don’t punish your dog. 

Doing so will make him more stressed and more reactive. 

And suppressing his reactive behavior may lead to him being aggressive and biting someone seemingly without warning. He may feel he has no choice.

Don’t let others ruin your training program. 

Be your dog’s protector and advocate. As much as possible, don’t let dogs or people (if that’s his issue) greet your dog unless you invite them.

And don’t feel obligated to let someone say “hello” to your dog. Depending on your dog, he may never greet dogs or other people face-to-face.

We have to respect what our dogs can handle.

Move at his speed.

Final Thoughts

If you have a reactive dog, don’t despair. Help is available. 

Many reactive dogs’ behavior can be very successfully managed to the point where a casual observer wouldn’t even know he has an issue.

Believe it or not, my reactive dog Mikey got to the point that I could take him places and he was a different dog. 

He went to obedience classes and learned to ignore other dogs.

I even showed him in obedience and he was a top Lhasa. 

Of course it took a lot of patience, work, and time. But it was worth it.

Have you had a reactive dog?

If so, please tell us what you did to help him in the comment section below.

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My Dog Is Reactive! What Should I Do - Yellow Labrador Retriever growling

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My Dog’s Reactive! What Should I Do? was last modified: May 10th, 2021 by Debbie

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