From Reactive to Responsive: Unleashing the Potential of Your Dog
There is hope for dogs who may bark or lunge at people, dogs, bikes, or wildlife. While it might seem impossible initially, we can find a point of success and gradually work towards peaceful walks.
What Is a Reactive Dog?
Many dog professionals will use the term “reactive” to describe a dog who gives a bigger response than is expected for the situation. Some of these dogs are incredibly excited and joyful. Others are fearful and want more space. Sometimes this term is used interchangeably with “aggressive,” and at other times, “aggressive” is used for dogs with an intent to harm.
Some dogs are more vocal because of breed type and traits that have been selected for over time. Some breeds, such as herding breeds, have been selected to be alert to changes in their environment. Historically, this was helpful for dogs working livestock. However, it’s not as useful for a dog living in an urban setting. Dogs may show reactivity due to a lack of early exposure or socialization. And there are dogs who have had a bad experience.
On occasion, some dogs have been accidentally trained to be reactive. Maybe a young dog was yipping with joy to see friends, and the pet parent walked him over to the other person or dog. That dog may grow up believing that pulling and barking is the way to get friends.
How to Socialize a Reactive Dog
On one level, the primary socialization period ends when puppies hit specific developmental milestones around 12-16 weeks of age. More casually, we refer to socialization as positive exposure throughout a dog’s life.
A common misunderstanding is that many families think socialization means interaction. Socialization does not mean interaction. Socialization can be positive exposure to something at a distance.
Reactive dogs should be exposed to people and dogs at a distance they can handle. We want it to be an enjoyable experience. If a dog is barking and lunging, we know we are too close, which is not a good experience.
It is a myth that playing in a daycare or dog park can decrease reactivity. Dogs with good social skills off leash may not have appropriate social skills when on leash.
Calming a Reactive Dog
When a dog is barking and lunging, our priority is to give him space. Gently and firmly move him away from the challenges until he has enough distance to stop lunging and barking. Once you are at that distance, you can offer food. This is not to reward him for barking and lunging but to get him feeling better and back on track. Some dogs need a break in the house to recover from the event; others just need that space and then are relaxed and ready to continue.
Sometimes we can use a retaining wall, corner, vehicle, or bush as a visual barrier as we move to give a dog more space.
While very slow, steady petting may help some dogs, it is essential to monitor your dog. Some excited or frustrated dogs may redirect and snap toward the person during petting because tension is so high - it’s not personal. Other dogs may be oblivious to the petting because of all the excitement. Pet parents often accidentally condition petting or “It’s okay!” to mean “There’s a dog or person nearby, be alert!” rather than pairing petting and talking with calm feelings.
Reactive Dog Breeds
Some dogs have been historically selected to use their voice to move livestock or to scare away predators or threats. Anxiety is hereditary in most mammals. Both factors can contribute to some breeds being more reactive, fearful, or vocal than others. That said, this challenge can come up in any kind of dog.
While we can use breed history to get ideas about what a dog may be more likely to do, each dog is an individual, and your dog’s behavior will give you information on what your dog finds enjoyable.
Counter-Conditioning For Your Dog’s Triggers
Make notes on the things your dog reacts to. These are sometimes called triggers. First, find the starting distance where your dog is comfortable. Then, give your dog positive exposure at that distance - lots of treats and praise. Over time, you can gradually move closer. For some dogs, this is a process of days or weeks; for others, it is a process of weeks to months.
Sometimes, we may have to take a trigger out of context or find a lower-intensity variation. For example, a dog who is reactive towards other dogs will probably find it easier to see one stationary dog at a distance than to see ten dogs playing fetch.
Counter-conditioning is about the right level of exposure and the right food or toy options to pair with the trigger. For example, if your dog is not eating eagerly, we may need to find other food rewards or starting distances.
A professional can help you make a plan for your dog and find appropriate training environments for your dog.