Reactivity in Dogs: What causes it, and how do we fix it?02 May

Reactivity in Dogs: What causes it, and how do we fix it?

A large percentage of the calls we receive at Dog Dynamix are regarding reactivity, meaning dogs are barking and lunging at other dogs on leash. A lot of these dogs are not dog aggressive; they often are dogs that play with other dogs regularly off leash. So, what gives? Why are our otherwise social dogs turning into Cujo on leash? Let’s dive into it.

What exactly is “dog reactivity”?

Reactivity and aggression are two different things, although they can look very similar on the surface. Reactivity can best be defined as an inappropriate response to normal behavior from other dogs in public. If your dog is forwardly dragging you towards well-behaved dogs, and perhaps whining, barking, lunging, growling, or hackling while doing so, your dog is having an unwarranted response towards that dog! Dogs should be able to see other dogs in public, acknowledge they exist, and move on with their day. An extreme change in your dogs behavior at the mere sight of other dogs means we are approaching full on reactive behavior (leash aggression), if we aren’t there already. If you are starting to see your dog turning from dog social to dog obsessed, it is critical to start taking action.

Make sure your dog’s specific needs are met.

Genetic behavior has a big influence on a dog’s personality. Herding breeds are supposed to be reactive (and responsive) to their environment when working livestock to avoid injury and meet their goal. Guardian breeds are supposed to be territorial of their space. Working line dogs tend to be a bit over-the-top in drive to help get the job done. These genetic predispositions mean they can easily swing to “reactive” if dog owners aren’t aware of the warning signs and give these dogs an appropriate outlet. Fearful dogs tend to become reactive as a self defense mechanism and will need different mental stimulation than working dogs. Knowing what kind of dog you have (breed and temperament) can help you make better training decisions as your dog matures.

It is important that we give our dogs a job that they find fulfilling, so they can focus that energy somewhere appropriate. Taking into consideration our dogs genetic predispositions and their overall personality, we can pinpoint what specific jobs they may find fulfilling. Most dogs like to sniff, dig, run, fetch and climb… and it’s our job to provide them ways to express their doggy-personalities in ways that are safe for them, our property, and the public. Understanding who our dog is and making sure they are mentally satisfied is important when dealing with behavioral concerns.

Understand the cause of the reactivity.

Most dog owners know they don’t want their dog to lunge and bark at people or dogs. What they have a harder understanding of is WHY their dog is doing those things. Dog owners often unintentionally put their dogs in situations where they are actually creating reactivity, intending to solve it. A reactive dog should not be attending doggy daycare, dog parks, regular playdates, or other situations where they are allowed to be overly-aroused by other dogs. Well-meaning dog owners think that playtime with other dogs = a tired, happy dog, when really it is feeding the beast that is reactivity. If your dog cannot calmly walk past other dogs in public without exhibiting signs of frustration, aggression, or over-excitement, your dog should not be off leash playing with other dogs on a regular basis.

Reactive dogs generally lunge and bark for two reasons; they are either trying to chase the other dog off, or they are frustrated because they want to go see that dog. Regardless of whether it is fear or excitement causing them to bluster, our end goal is to create a dog that is neutral to the sight of other dogs; and that doesn’t happen if we continue to put them in playgroups regularly.

Fear-based dog reactivity

Dogs that are fearful quickly learn that barking and lunging gets them left alone. They generally don’t really want to fight, they just want the dog (or human, or bicycle, or trash truck…) to go away. Aggressive displays work. How many people stop to pet a dog that is snapping their teeth at them? These dogs need to feel confident in themselves, and know that their owners aren’t going to allow them to be accosted out in public or put them in situations where they need to be defensive.

Frustration-based dog reactivity

This is very common in otherwise-friendly dogs who regularly visit dog parks/daycare/boarding/playgroups. These dogs are generally not dog aggressive, but they have developed an obsession with other dogs and have an expectation of interaction. In the beginning these dogs are typically just excited at seeing other dogs and may try to go visit, but over time their frustration builds, and frustration often displays as aggression.

Regardless of the cause of your dog’s reactivity, it’s important to understand that both types of reactive dogs can bite. As fear and frustration build, the likelihood of an incident go up. Just because your dog is not generally aggressive towards dogs does not mean there won’t come a day when they attack another dog out of fear or frustration. Think of it like this: the social but overly-excited dog lunges and barks at other dogs regularly, each time the frustration builds higher. One day, they lunge at just the right moment, and the owner drops the leash. What do you think that dog does? How will the other dog respond to that “friendly” dog assaulting them? Considering a muzzle while you work through reactive behavior is never a bad idea.

Preventing reactivity in the first place.

There are many things we can do as dog owners to help prevent our dogs from developing leash reactivity. First, and most importantly, is to avoid situations where our dogs will learn to be obsessed or fearful with other dogs. It’s not a secret that most dog trainers absolutely despise most daycares and dog parks, and it’s not because we don’t love our dogs playing! Taking a young dog or puppy into a mixed group of strange dogs as their primary form of socialization and exercise is a total recipe for disaster. Instead, when socializing our puppy, we should be setting up intentional, stress-free interactions with adult dogs and other puppies that we know and that will be a long-term part of our dog’s life.

Speaking of socialization, though… a lot of dog owners don’t know how to properly socialize their puppy! Socialization is not necessarily about interaction, and, in fact, a lot of times it shouldn’t require any physical interaction at all. Socialization should be about your puppy experiencing something new and them feeling neither excited or scared. “Those people and dogs did nothing to make me feel one way or another” is a perfect socialization experience. Nothing builds confidence like new things being boring! Of course, positive experiences are great too… but we should make sure we are also focusing on boring experiences that make our puppies feel safe.

dog socialization pie chart

Obedience training is also key to avoiding reactivity in our dogs. How do we prevent our dogs from dragging us on leash towards other dogs? We teach them to walk politely on a leash! If your dog’s exercise routine is to arrive at the dog park, singing the song of their people, attached to a leash that they use to DRAG you to the front gate… STOP! Go back a million steps and teach your dog to pay attention to you on walks, to be mindful of your existence, to wait at thresholds, and to find more value in being with you, not just attached to you. Solid obedience training takes time and commitment to a program, but it opens up our world with our dogs so much. It’s not too late to start focusing on fixing it now if the previous scenario rings all too familiar.

Here’s a good question to ask yourself… honestly: if you are at the park with your dog, and you unhook the leash, where would your dog go? Would they come back to you if you called them? What if another dog showed up at the park? If the answer is anything except “my dog would stick with me if I unhooked them, or at least come back to me if I called them, regardless of who or what showed up in the environment” it is time to get working on your obedience skills and building a better relationship with your dog. Your dog should not choose other dogs or other humans over you. And until they learn that you are more fun and enjoyable to be around than strange people and dogs, the reactivity is going to be a long battle.

Now that you know what causes reactivity and have some steps to start helping your dog through it, it’s time to get to work. Here are some critical skills your dog should know, to get you started:

  • Walking on leash without pulling
  • Wait (at the door, coming out of the car, coming out of their crate)
  • Coming when called under distraction
  • Sit and down on verbal cues
  • Leave it
  • Muzzle training

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and need a hand, Dog Dynamix would love to help you with your reactive dog. We specialize in boarding and training programs and day training programs in the Denver metro area. Don’t wait until your dog’s behavior is unbearable.. if you’re starting to see the warning signs of reactivity, start making changes today and get help.