Whether you have a yappy yorkie, a barking bichon, a vicious vizsla, a lunging lurcher, a hyper hound or a bouncing boxer – there is hope for your “bad” dog.
The term reactive dog has become a sort of catch-all umbrella term to describe everything from nervousness to aggressive. So what exactly is a reactive dog? My definition is simply a dog whose reaction to something is over-blown or out of proportion. For example, while some barking is normal to expect from a dog, it is not normal for a dog to bark for 10 minutes straight at the slightest provocation.
There can be multiple motivations for this behavior – fear, anxiety, frustration, excitement – and several manifestations. While reactivity can look aggressive, a reactive dog differs from an aggressive one in that they lack the intent to do harm. It can come in the form of excessive barking, hyperactivity or aggressive-looking displays and be in response to people, dogs, objects, movement, sounds or any combination. It can have a specific target or be a more general behavior.
A very common form of reactivity is leash aggression, where the dog can be a perfectly friendly dog off leash but turns into a barking, lunging terror when on leash at the sight of other dogs, people or another trigger. These dogs clearly do not want to harm the subject of their over-reaction, but being on leash can greatly change their reaction. Why?
When your dog is off leash they are free to express their natural body language and they can move away if they feel uncomfortable. On lead they can do neither of those things and if your dog is a bit insecure this can cause them to feel nervous or frightened on lead. They bombard the subject of their fear with a slew of “go away!” signals which make them look quite intimidating. Of course this usually works as no dog or person in their right mind is going to approach the Cujo attached to you, which reinforces the impressive display.
It is also very common for on-leash reactivity to develop because your dog is friendly. It seems contradictory, but start with a dog who really wants to see that person or other dog and combine their frustration of being prevented from doing so with the unpleasant sensation of being choked when they pull and you enter the vicious cycle of creating some seriously scary on leash behaviour. While this can start out with a friendly dog it can create true aggression through repeated negative associations with the subject of your dog’s over reactions.
Another contributing factor to on-leash aggression or reactivity is that walking dogs straight towards each other is totally unnatural and can appear quite threatening from a dog’s perspective. When left to their own devices and given freedom to move and communicate natural, rushing head on towards each other would signal a threat. Proper communication would be done at a distance. When dogs first spot each other, they have a body language conversation to determine if each other are friendly and non-threatening. Being walked on leash straight on does not allow this and in fact, conveys quite the opposite message in canine language.
If you have a reactive dog, what can you do? First off I would highly recommend that you contact a trainer who is experienced with these type of issues and utilizes positive reinforcement based training methods. You can also try some simple things like switching away from a collar to a no-pull comfort and control harness like a Freedom Harness. Being vigilant about your environment and calmly turning in the other direction when you see another dog can prevent reactions, but will not fix the root cause of the behavior.
We have a very successful program here for reactive dogs that works for all reasons of over-reacting – anxiety, fear, frustration, excitement, hyperactivity or poor manners. It includes:
– Dog friendly respect and leadership training – this will help the dog become less stressed as his environment will become safe and predictable. It will also help you become someone your dog finds worth listening to.
– Making sure your dog gets enough mental and physical exercise.
– Careful environmental control to prevent the dog from practicing the reactive behavior when you cannot be in training mode.
– Proper use of walking equipment like a Freedom Harness. This provides you with great control and takes the pressure off the dog’s throat – therefore negating the negative associations formed from pulling on the collar.
– Careful, controlled exposure and counter-conditioning to make your dog feel happy about their triggers and remain calm when they encounter them.
– Teaching a simple cue with positive reinforcement that allows you to quickly get your dog’s attention.
– Relaxation exercises to help your dog learn to be truly relaxed around other dogs.
– Teaches you how to be calm, confident and in control with your dog.
– Gives you the support and encouragement of other dog owners dealing with the same issue.
If you think you may have a reactive dog, please don’t hesitate to contact us! We can give you more information about our program or help you find a trainer in your area who can help you fix the annoying, embarrassing, and concerning behaviors your dog is displaying. Whether you have a little barker or a large lunger there is help available. Plenty of trainers are having great success rehabilitating reactive dogs using completely dog friendly methods.
Let us help you bring the joy back in walking your dog.