Congrats! If you are reading this, you likely have one of those o’ so embarrassing dogs.
Reactivity, is a dog that is “reacting” to som’ thing in its environment. The reactions generally involve barking/lunging/growling but can also involve whining/clawing/biting etc. Essentially, to the human, it would seem the dog is overreacting
to som’ stimuli in the environment
We call whatever the dog is reacting to, a trigger.
Triggers take infinite forms, from silly things like leaves blowing in the wind, balloons, far away sounds…to the more common stuff; strange people, and strange dogs.
Why does my dog behave this way??? Its embarrassing!
There are two primary motivations that cause this. One is frustration. The other is Fear.
Frustration type aggression usually occurs when the dog is restrained in som’ way. A leash, or a barrier like a fence. These barriers can turn the friendliest dog into a psychopath in moments.
They want to meet/sniff/go see/approach whatever the trigger is (usually a dog/person/animal for frustration based reactivity) and when they find they can’t, they essentially loose it for a moment. All that energy has to come out, and quite often it comes out as a screaming/barking fit. Many of these dogs, unrestrained are quite friendly.
Fear based reactivity can occur in both on leash and off leash contexts. It does however seem to increase, or manifest more often when the dog is restrained in som’ way. The barking/lunging/growling are all behaviors a dog employs to MAKE THE SCARY THING GO AWAY. It’s a distance increasing behavior. These dogs are on a spectrum, with som’ of them barking while retreating, to som’ full on charging at the trigger. When faced with som’ thing scary the dog will pick its default setting of fight OR flight. As you get to know your dog, you’ll see which one the dog has as its “default” because it will be the first coping mechanism the dog uses.
Frustration based is a bit easier to deal with. Since the dog has good feelings otherwise for the trigger, all you must do is teach the dog self control. Asking the dog to perform a behavior such as a “sit” or “look at me” before allowing them to meet the dog/person as a reward is very useful. Managing the dog so it has fewer opportunities to get worked up is very important also. If the dog barks in the yard, changing your fence type, or not leaving the dog out alone are important options. If the dog is a problem on leash, it will be best to avoid the triggers as much as possible while you work on getting your basic obedience perfected.
Playing lots of impulse control games help also. Most reactive dogs have issue with impulse control and not thinking before acting. These are the games I recommend Fear
Fear based is a bit more tricky. Since no amount of obedience training is going to magically make the dog unafraid of the trigger. So while you might be able to get your dog to sit down and “shut up” essentially. That fear is still there, and festering. Causing the dog tremendous anxiety and stress. Also many people are under the false impression that their dog is “fixed” once they’ve suppressed the barking/lunging/growling only to then have the dog bite som’one when the scary thing finally is allowed too close.
NEVER. NEVER punish your dog for reacting. It will NOT help. I know its frustrating, and embarrassing, but remember, your dog is essentially having the dog equivalent of a panic attack, and may very well think hes about to die. I know it sounds stupid, especially if your dog is reactive to say, a vaccuum or a plastic bag in the wind, but its very important to be sensitive to your dogs emotions. Hes not doing this to embarrass or hurt you. He truly is terrified and acting in the only way his genes are telling him to.
If you dog has a reaction, and you cannot get his attention, do damage control
; put as much distance between you and the trigger as possible as soon as its safe to do so
. Putting visual barriers like walls or cars between you and the trigger may help. Som’ times running the other direction and calling your dog may help. For som’ dogs, allowing the leash to suddenly become slack may help. You can experiment with things as long as they are not jeopardizing the safety of whatever your dog is reacting to. I do not recommend any sort of “holding the dog back” type hugging, or picking up of little dogs. This just intensifies the feeling of “I am trapped
” and will often make the reaction worse. Many dogs will redirect their emotions onto you, and as they say “if you can’t bite the one you want, bite the one your with”.
There are so many triggers I would take an eternity to type the rehab/training steps for them all, so I will cover only the most common ones reactivity to dogs (usually on leash/walks) and reactivity to strange humans.
Afraid of strangers.
Many dogs that are very reactive to strange people will never be the type that you can let just anyone pet them, even after rehab, they will have to be managed and setup to succeed the rest of their lives.. Its important to let this sink in, and to accept it. This is often the hardest part of the whole “reactive dog” thing
I don’t say this to be mean, or to discourage people, but its very important to accept this, so one does not get complacent, and then the dog bites som’ one. I am NOT saying that all reactive dogs WILL bite one day, or that all reactive dogs bite. Many reactive dogs recover tremendously, and dramatically. To the point you never knew there was a problem. That said, they are an animal, and animals bite.
Your goal with a dog that is fearful of strangers is to teach the dog that its ok to ignore people, and that people aren’t trying to kill you. With this training, You are not trying to change your dog into a social butterfly
. Forcing interactions with people on your dog is only going to reaffirm that people are scary scary things, and she was right, there is nothing to like about them…. If she has no interest in people, after the fear is gone… That is OK.
Som’ dogs, like people, are not as social. Its just the way she/he is. Love your dog for who he/she is. Even if that means they don’t want aunt Sophie to pet them when shes in town..