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Reactivity, On Leash Aggression, and Barrier Frustration

84029 Views 7 Replies 5 Participants Last post by  kmes
Congrats! If you are reading this, you likely have one of those oh so embarrassing dogs.

Reactivity is a dog that is “reacting” to something 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 some 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 some 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 some of them barking while retreating, to some full on charging at the trigger. When faced with something 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 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 someone 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 dog’s 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. Sometimes running the other direction and calling your dog may help. For some 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 some 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. Some 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..
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So where do I start?

The basis for all training/rehab with this, is to expose the dog to its trigger at a low level and then reward them for noticing and not reacting.

For some dogs/situations, the starting point may involve rewarding the dog even if it is still reacting, but at a lower level than normal.

Look at that (LAT) game

So for example. Lets say your dog reacts poorly to the sight of other dogs. Find a place like a dog park, or a yard with dogs behind fences that you can work near (do not try this IN a dog park, or in a place where a dog may run up to you). Start as far away from the other dogs as possible. Stand in one place with your dog onleash and wait. Be boring, let the dog look around, sniff around, etc.

The moment your dog notices the other dogs (looks at them, ears towards them) click or say “yes” and then give your dog a treat. Preferably, deliver the treat in a way that the dog has to turn away to eat it, or set it on the ground so the dog has to reach down to eat it. The idea is when you mark/treat, the dog must “reset” the game, and to do that, he must cease focusing on the other dog. Repeat ten times. If the dog is doing well, then take a few steps (or one, depending on your dog) towards the other dogs, repeat the process.

Your dog is learning two things;
  • Others dogs equal good things (treats)
  • I get a reward when I don’t react to them
Keep sessions short (10-15 mins TOPS) and don’t be stingy on treats. Practice from different angles, and at different approaches. Each time you intro a new angle or trigger, you must start over from FAR AWAY. You will find that as your dog gets good, you will be able to get closer quicker and quicker…and with each session, your dog will be able to start closer and closer. Keep in mind that many dogs will have an initial setback in the beginning…especially if you move to fast for him. Its OK, just start the game over.


“my dog doesn’t react when I click or say yes, instead he continues to fixate”

this means you are too close. Move away until the dog is reacting to your marker.

“my dog reacts no matter how far away I am from the trigger”

you will have to start dogs like these out with visual barriers. So you will need to find triggers that are behind a solid object like a wall or fence to practice on. Click for any barking or sounds the trigger dog makes, and also click your dog for attempting to sniff or approach the fence

Open bar/closed bar game

Another method, involves the trigger moving and you and your dog staying put. This works well for bike, pedestrian and car reactivity. You find a road, store, path, etc where you can sit with your dog and triggers are moving past you.

In this game, you are the bartender at the doggy saloon. And when the trigger appears, the bar opens for the day…and when the trigger leaves, the bar closes..

So your sitting with your dog, being as boring as possible …So lets say a person is walking by, let your dog notice, then open the bar and then feed, feed, feed, funneling food for the whole time the trigger is present (or until it’s a good distance away) then when the bar is “closed” say “all done!” and then go back to being boring.

Your dog should quickly learn two things
  • people equal good things (treats)
  • the dog should reorient back to you and look at you when a trigger appears
For dogs that are less reactive, or have been playing this a while, its OK to scatter the treats on the ground so the dog can still see the trigger walking by while he eats (not good for dogs that resource guard, or if you feel the person may approach your dog)

If your dog is a resource guarder, read this for help
Resource Guarding, causes, prevention and modification

The “keep going” game for damage control

Lets say your dog is doing well, but is still reactive to a point…you will still, on walks run into occasions where you just need to get the heck out of dodge… this game will help you with that.

Walk with your dog and say “keep going” and then toss a treat in front of them…rolling preferably…in whatever direction you are moving. Practice this in a boring place until your dog understands he should chase the treat.

Once that’s solid, practice with multiple treats, one at a time, so as soon as he munches one, say “keep going” again, and toss another. This should be an easy game.

Now you can use it as damage control…say you are walking by a fence and your almost, almost to the end of it, and a dog appears…you can now ask your dog to “keep going” rather than stop and fence fight with the other dog…use as many treats as you need to get out of the situation. If your dog is non responsive, do the best you can to get him out of there.

Silky leash for reactive dogs (last post in thread, links)

"Loose Leash" walking

This method is also very helpful for reactive dogs, particularly when doing damage control

That’s the games! If you have specific questions, please start your own thread

The "look at that game" here is adapted from Leslie McDevitt's version from the highly recommended book "Control Unleashed" many more games are described in the book.

These links cover the same concepts

Dog-Dog Reactivity – Treatment Summary

Finally, on keeping your dog ”under threshold”

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And -
Some copied over from the Helpful Videos sticky:

New to me but looks like good stuff! Ali Brown's site on reactive dogs:

Reactive Dogs | Information, Video, Books and DVDs for Owners of Reactive Dogs
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Premack for barrier frustration:

The Power Of Premack: Fence Fighting on Vimeo


Say no and get dog outta there.
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