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.

5 Comments on “Reining in a Reactive Dog

  1. We have two 1 year old Jack Russell puppies. When seeing
    other dogs they sometimes become quite vocal and we do use sitting to calm. Any ideas on how to get them to
    “calmly greet” the other dog after they sit? They sit fine, but when it is time to approach the other dog get quite excited. Our female is the most anxious to meet the other dog–she seems to need to “meet & greet” first before our little male. The article and comments are very

  2. Sitting is a “submissive position”? Come on, really? Sitting is an incompatible behavior and has nothing to do with submission. A dog who is sitting cannot be lunging and barking. Sitting is a rather neutral position that is what it is. It’s not likely to make anxiety worse. Getting too close to that which scares a dog is likely to make the anxiety worse. I’m sorry but what a silly statement on “sit.”

    I’m glad you found something that worked. We all have to find something that works for our dogs and plenty of people have used incompatible behaviors (e.g. sitting) to help.

  3. Nice article. I never thought a Golden puppy would turn out to have fear aggression towards other dogs, but mine does. For 1.5 yrs, I’ve used a click-to-calm method I found online:

    The principle can be used for any anxiety-provoking stimulus. I have to disagree to ask your dog to sit when he sees a “man in a hat” or whatever sets him off. Sitting is a submissive position and may make anxiety worse. This is what worked for us:
    –The second he sees another dog, “click”, he looks at me, treat.
    –The dog gets closer, “click”, he looks at me, treat.
    –The dog gets close enough that my dog pauses 1-2 seconds after the “click” before looking at me. Treat, then walk away to remove the stressor. Praise.
    –Repeat day, after day, after day.
    My dog who used to react to dogs a block away can now walk past one within about 3 feet with no problem and is in agility classes.

  4. Also, I LOVE LOVE LOVE that article by Suzanne Clothier. The description of “Cream” fits my dog perfectly. I was so glad that I read that BEFORE I got Dahlia. I was able to realize quickly what was going on and even though I’ve dealt with the “aggressive dog” comments I’ve been able to shake my head at those folks and, on occasion, inform them of what was really going on.

  5. Just to add something else to this: Dogs can ALSO be reactive out of frustration and having a total lack of frustration tolerance. Which is neither aggression NOR fear related. My dog would go NUTS when she’d see other dogs. She desperately wanted to greet, but the leash prevented her from doing so. She’d get so frustrated that she would lunge and bark and look seriously aggressive. Yet she wasn’t (if she got to meet the dog she immediately calmed down).

    I dealt with her frustration reactivity in much the same way as someone who would deal with a fearful dog and it helped her SO much.