Reining in a Reactive Dog
Reactive dogs are defined as a dog who reacts fearfully or aggressively (which is just another fear-response) to certain specific stimuli. Recognize that just because your dog is reactive does not mean they are a ‘bad’ dog. It means they are special needs and probably sensitive. Please by all means talk to your veterinarian to rule out physical or diet related causes of reactivity.
The first action you should take is if you suspect your dog is reactive, find exactly what triggers them. Dogs do give warning signs, and it’s important to tune in to your dog’s signs of stress and reactivity.
Agility is already one of the best things you can do for your reactive dog. Agility builds confidence, and gives the dog a stronger bond to you as a handler, and allows you to learn to read your dog with more accuracy.
Don’t give up! Sometimes it may seem like you’re stuck and your dog isn’t hearing you, but they are. It may take a very long time, but you will see progress.
Keep them controlled. If you know what sets your dog off, keep them away from that stimulus, at least at first. Then, control your dog’s exposure to that stimulus. Also, depending on the reactiveness of your dog, don’t allow them offleash except when they are the only dogs out and the area they are in is enclosed. This can be difficult for agility players, but a vital precaution I believe, as some dogs will flee what is making htem frightened, and others may attack. Either way, you may stand a risk of losing your dog.
Have an end goal in view. Let’s say your dog hates men in hats. What do you want them to do when they see a man in a hat? Don’t train a negative, such as ‘don’t bark at the man! or run away!’, train a positive, such as ‘sit down and look at me when you see a man in a hat and you will have treats!’ or something of that sort. It is much better to train your dog to DO something than to train them NOT to do something.
Some dog’s reactivity is a matter of poor or no socialization. Carefully acclimatizing your dog to social situations can help tremendously in reducing your dog’s unacceptable behavior. Don’t just go to the vet where your dog is unhappy – go to the pet store and get treats from the bins and give them to your dog, or long walks on nature trails, through the city, etc.
Don’t be afraid to protect your dog! When my dog is approached by a child who looks like a head-smacking child, I tell the parent ‘don’t let your child touch my dog please’, and in a few cases, have used my body to keep the child away from my dog. (please note, I am careful not to touch other people’s children, the adults understandably get upset about that.) I also inform other people that my dog is not dog friendly! It’s amazing how many people can suddenly control their ‘just friendly’ dog. (an excellent, AMAZING article on ‘friendly’ dogs has been written by Suzanne Clothier, found here. I could not phrase it any better than she could when she says what seems ‘friendly’ is really just rude.).
This is by no means an end all be all article for reactive dogs – but by experimentation, patience, and attention to your dog, while controlling your dog and their atmosphere, you can at least make a good start towards a less fearful dog.