Updated: Nov 19, 2022
Are you embarrassed by your dog's barking and lunging? Wish you could enjoy walks more? Feeling anxious about taking your dog out of the house? Here are three steps to get you started training your reactive dog.
Why is my dog reactive?
The reasons behind your dog's behaviour are individual to your dog. Generally speaking, dogs behave aggressively or reactively as a result of fear, frustration or a mix of both. For more details on why your dog might be reactive, visit our page on training reactive, fearful and aggressive dogs.
Getting started: 3 steps to reduce dog reactivity, fear and aggression on walks
Step 1: Meet your dog's needs
Ensuring that your dog's basic needs are met is a critical step before attempting to modify reactive behaviour. This is because if your dog has underlying needs going unmet day-to-day, they will not be in a good space to learn what you are trying to teach them. So what needs are we talking about exactly?
A tired dog is a good dog, right? Well, not exactly. Although we all know that dogs need exercise to be happy, it isn't as simple as a walk around the block. In order to set our reactive dogs up for success, we have to make sure we are choosing the right type of exercise for them.
Neighbourhood walks can be quite alright for senior or low energy breeds, but for young dogs and those with higher exercise requirements, they just won't cut it. Furthermore, avoiding things that trigger your dog's reactivity on neighbourhood walks is difficult.
As much as possible, try to get your dog off leash in nature. This could be a trail, beach or empty field. If it is not safe to let your dog off leash, use a 15-30 foot long line to allow freedom of movement. Private play dates with other dogs are also a great option for those who enjoy them, as well as fetch or indoor play using a toy such as a flirt pole.
Just like we need hobbies and activities to keep from getting bored, so do our dogs. This is
especially important for working breeds, young dogs and high energy pups. If your dog does not receive regular mental enrichment, they will be more likely to seek the stimulation they're lacking in ways we don't like. They will also be less likely to progress in reactivity training.
Examples of mental enrichment include:
interactive food items (puzzle toys, snuffle mats, Kongs, chews etc.)
walks where your dog can sniff to their heart's content
play (e.g. social play, toy play)
Ensuring that social needs are met is a big piece of the puzzle if your dog is reacting out of frustration. With dogs who are friendly, but frustrated that they can't greet other dogs on leash, ensuring regular off leash dog play is necessary to see success in reactivity training.
Dogs need quality, uninterrupted sleep throughout the day and night to process and recover from stressful events. This means that if your household is too chaotic for your dog to nap or if they are never getting a chance to sleep for a good stretch of time, they will not be up for learning the new skills we are trying to teach them to recover from reactivity.
Mental and Physical Health
Your dog will have a hard time making progress in their training plan if they
are not feeling well physically or mentally. Make sure that your dog is checked by a veterinarian regularly to rule out medical issues that could cause or exacerbate their reactivity. Examples include anxiety/panic disorders, phobias and unmanaged pain.
If your dog has ongoing behavioural and medical concerns, seeking a referral to a veterinary behaviourist is a great option.
Step 2: Prevent Reactions
Your dog will not make progress if they are constantly exposed to triggers.
Although we do need to expose our dog to the things that trigger him/her to work on reactivity, we need to do so in such a way that your dog can be successful (see step 3). This means that we need to prevent your dog from being in situations, day-to-day, where in which they are likely to react. Every time we successfully prevent a reaction, we are stopping the reactivity from becoming more of a habit and teaching our dog that we've got their back.
How can we prevent reactions while we are working through reactivity training?
Walk at quiet times and in quiet locations where triggers are unlikely
Teach a few strong management behaviours to navigate triggers more easily (a certified, positive reinforcement-based dog trainer can help you with this)
Cover windows and/or use white noise to prevent in-home reactivity
Step 3: Modifying the Reactive Behaviour
Now that you are preventing reactions as much as possible, it's time to change how your
dog feels about the things that trigger them.
Make a list of the things that trigger your dog. Common triggers include other dogs, strangers and moving objects. Try to be specific; is it all strangers or just men? Is it all moving objects or just skateboards? The better you can identify what is triggering your dog, the more we can focus in on that specific thing when training.
Decide which triggers happen most frequently and are highest priority. If your dog reacts to every dog they see, but skateboards only once a month, it makes the most sense to focus on dogs at first.
Once you know which triggers you would like to work on, contact a certified, positive-reinforcement based dog trainer to help you make and execute a training plan. Your reactivity training plan should include one or a combination of the following:
Changing the underlying emotion causing the reactivity
Teaching your dog an alternative behaviour they can offer in the presence of the trigger (e.g. watching you, moving away from the trigger)
It is of critical importance that you set up your training sessions so that your dog can be successful. You can usually do this using a good amount of distance from the trigger and setting up your environment in a way you can control. This is where a qualified trainer can help.
Need one-on-one support?
Tess Morgan is a dog trainer in London, Ontario. She offers sessions in London and online to help families with reactive, aggressive, fearful and anxious dogs.