Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Reactive Dog Struggles

Reactive Dog Struggles and Strategies

As any dog parent who is struggling with a reactive dog knows, life is spent in management and/or response mode.  The dog can only be walked certain routes or certain times a day, guests are a rare occasion, and the idea of taking this dog in vacation is terrifying.  As owners we often feel ashamed of our dog's behaviors and may get bothered by other dogs being able to enjoy a park or hiking trail.  Owners often become reactive too, yelling for other people to leash their dog, pulling their dog in tighter and tighter as a person/dog walks passed, and yes venting about encounters on social media.  But really reactive dog owners often feel bad for their dogs, are frustrated because they don't know what to do, and resort to lashing out at others.

Wait? Was I talking about people or dogs in that last paragraph?

Let's look at reactive dogs a moment.  The dog spends much of their time in fight or flight mode.  They are not sure about anything in the environment so they are on high alert the moment they walk out the door.  Dogs just want to spend a nice, peaceful afternoon walking with their human & enjoying their human, but intruders (people, dogs, etc) keep showing up.  The dog often feels their owners emotions when an intruder is spotted.  They are frustrated because they don't know what that intruder will do or what they should be doing. And they lash out at the intruder or anyone around by barking, lunging, nipping the air (or the intruder if they are close enough)

Sound familiar?

What does the person want in that moment?
  • To create distance from others.
  • To love and care for their dog the best they can.
And dogs want that same thing, but both are frustrated and don't know what else to do.


We need to take a moment and look at the word reactive before we talk about solutions.  The most common reasons people label dogs as reactive is because they do a behavior the human doesn't like (bark, lunge, jump, etc) when something in the environment changes such as a new person or dog shows up.  The dictionary definition of reactive is much broader making it so every animal on the planet is either reactive or dead.  People get hungry, they eat.  The phone rings and we make a decision to answer it or silence/ignore it based on the criteria we've set for when we want to talk to people.  The dog needs to pee, does a potty signal to owner (dog's reaction) and the owner takes them out to potty (owner's reaction.) What happens if the dog or the owner fail to react quick enough???

In our world some how the terms reactive and aggressive became intertwined to mean the same thing.  But it's a ton more work dealing with an aggressive dog.  In reality reactive means the dog is over-reacting to something in the environment.  This could be a fearful dog who would rather run away, but can't so they prepare for the fight.  This could also be a young, adolescent dog that is struggling with regulating their emotions and behaviors. l while their brain moves from puppyhood to adult lift.  The problem then occurs that when these dogs over-react to something over and over without learning that distraction is safe, the problem continues to grow until this dog is now aggressive.  An aggressive dog skips the flight response and jumps straight to a fight response anytime they perceive something as dangerous.  There's no turning back to these dogs because they are running on instinct in kill or be killed mode.

Cam is afraid of strange dogs and men!
His anxiety raises every time we go in the car to walk in community places.
As a senior dog that has worked through so much, he spends his time sniffing rural environments away from dogs & men.  If he had a protective bubble that represented his safe zone, when he first came to our family, his safe zone was over 200 feet away from triggers.  Now his safe zone is more like 5 feet away from triggers, but his anxiety still raises the moment we step out of the car and he smells other people or dogs.

There is a solution for both over-reactive and aggressive dogs!

That solution has a ton of common steps with both dogs however the over-reactive dog will typically move through the steps much quicker and an aggressive dog is going to need more distance and time to heal and see a change in their emotions.

I don't talk about aversive tools much because it's such a hot topic, but I can't leave it out here.  Many owners & trainers switch to aversive gear with these dogs to control the situation.  That is NOT the right approach!  When we punish a dog for barking, we are telling them that whatever they are afraid of causes pain. 

(Dog: Every time I see a stranger my neck gets hurt therefore strangers cause pain.)

If our dogs are afraid and barking they are communicating that they need space.  If we take away that communication, the dog is forced to escalate to an even worse behavior. Barking didn't help so maybe they lunge...OUCH!  That didn't work so maybe they nip at the air...OUCH!  That didn't work, what's next?

The only real solution is to change how the dog feels about the intruder.  And yes, the longer & more frequently your dog has practiced these behaviors, the longer it's going to take to change the emotions.

Often the only real solution is to work with a Behavior Consultant who can help you figure out a few things and give you exercises to practice to grow your partnership skills.  This should involve teaching your dog how to safely process the environment without any distractions around.  You would then begin the process of changing the dog's emotional response to a triggering distraction with desensitization and counterconditioning.  This is done by working on focus and basic skills at a distance that dog can feel safe, reinforcing them for focusing on their handler more then the trigger and slowly reducing the distance between your dog and that trigger.  This needs to be done in very controlled conditions where you can set the environment up for success, communicate with the other people that are helping you, and work with a dog professional to determine the best approach for your dog.  Some dogs can move through this process rather quickly while others take more time.  Then last but not least, teaching the dog a new language for communicating their needs and emotions without doing the behaviors we don't want. Instead of barking, maybe they stand between our legs.  Instead of lunging, maybe they sit or down.  Instead of nipping, maybe they grab a tug toy or ball to carry in their mouth.  The alternate behavior doesn't really matter as long as they have a way to communicate with their person.

The very last thing you need to do to solve your reactive dog struggles is to LISTEN to your dog!  If they are telling you they don't like other dogs, walk in more rural areas or walk at a different time of day with less dogs.  If they are telling you that kids make them nervous, avoid walking around playgrounds, schools, or other places filled with kids.  Listen to them and stop putting them in situations they are not prepared to handle.  

Work with a professional to figure out a plan to that will work with your dog.

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