Gaining Confidence in a Reactive Dog

reactive dogsDogs who react fearfully, including fear aggression, to certain specific stimuli are known as reactive dogs. There are many things that could cause this in your dog including a lack of proper socialization, breed characteristic and in some cases physical or diet responses.  It doesn’t mean that your dog is bad if they are reactive, it simply means you have to handle them differently and keep them out of situations that could cause them to react.

The first action you should take is getting with your veterinarian and ruling out any physical or dietary issues that could be causing your dog to be extra sensitive.  If that gets ruled out you will then need to discover what exactly triggers your dog.  NOTICE: If your dog is dangerously reactive, please consult with a professional dog behaviorist. What we are covering here is not suitable for a dangerous dog.

Anyone that owns a dog really needs to know common body language and calming signals in any dog.  With a reactive dog you need to be able to read your dog’s warning signs or stress indicators. Adverting their gaze, panting, lip licking and turning away are some common indicators your dog is getting stressed or uncomfortable.

I know we say this about almost all issues, but it is true.  Getting your dog into a sport like dog agility is one of the best things you can do for your reactive dog.  As we know, agility’s focus is on building a bond, gaining confidence and a strong communication line in and between both dog and handler.  You get to know your partner and read their body language and your dog trusts you more in stressful conditions.  Everything you need to succeed with a reactive dog.

When you understand what sets your dog off, keep them away from that stimulus in the beginning.  You want to gradually expose them to low levels of that stimulation always setting them up for success.  When starting with agility it may be necessary to keep your dog on leash until they are more confident.  This can be difficult for agility players, but a vital precaution, as some dogs will flee what is making them frightened while others may lash out at other dogs. Either way, you run the risk of losing your dog.

Have an end goal in mind and set up many little steps toward that goal. For instance, if your dog hates men in hats decide what behavior you would like your dog to display when confronted with a man in a hat.  If you focus on the negative like, “don’t bark at the man!” or “run away!” your dog will continue to associate that pressure with bad feelings.  Instead look for positive reactions such as “sit down and look at me when you see a man in a hat and get treats.”  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.  Many rescue dogs are in the rescue because they were not socialized and thus displayed unwanted behaviors that landed them in the pound.  Again, you want to take small steps with your dog by taking them to low stress locations such as a park and let them watch the activities.  Gradually get them closer to the activities until they can be in the activity and stay focused on you. This process could take days, weeks, months or longer.  And your dog may never “like” being in those situations, but you will be teaching them to accept them and trust you to keep them safe.

Don’t be afraid to protect your dog and educate others on proper behavior around strange dogs.  If you see rowdy or young kids approaching and know this is a trigger for your dog, politely tell them they cannot pet your dog without their parents.  Step between them and your dog if they will not listen to you or turn around and leave.  If the parents are there and your dog will tolerate strangers, educate them on the proper way to approach a strange dog, asking for permission to pet the dog, and the proper way to interact with a dog.  You can also make them aware they should NEVER approach a strange dog without their parents and never approach a dog that is not with it’s owner.

The same is true with strange dogs entering your dog’s area if this is a trigger for them.  Really it is just as rude as allowing kids to run up to strange dogs, but what can you do?  If the dog is approaching and is not in control, try retreating with your dog while keeping them focused on you.  If the dog is with the owner, be sure to tell them your dog is not dog friendly if they seem to want to let their dog approach yours.  Then be sure to work on this issue with your dog in a controlled environment with friends and their friendly dogs.  Again, your dog isn’t expected to become a outgoing, flamboyant dog lover, he just has to learn to accept it, stay focused on and trust you.