a photo of a small brown and white beagle mix dog barking and reacting to a trigger

What is Dog Reactivity?

Does your dog bark, lunge, growl or snap when another dog passes by? 

Dog reactivity is a common issue that many pet owners face. It refers to a dog's negative reaction or overreaction to certain stimuli (triggers), such as other dogs or strangers.  This behavior can manifest as barking, lunging, growling, or even aggressive behavior such as snapping or biting. It is important to understand that reactive dogs are not bad dogs, but rather dogs that need specialized training to overcome their reactive tendencies. Dog reactivity is an emotional response so punishing your dog will not resolve it. For dog reactivity training the is to work on helping them change their feelings about their triggers.

When training a reactive dog, it is crucial to choose high-value rewards. High-value rewards are treats, toys, or activities that your dog finds extremely motivating. These rewards will serve as a positive reinforcement for your dog's good behavior during training sessions. For some dogs, high-value rewards could be pieces of cooked chicken or steak, while for others, it could be a game of fetch or a favorite toy. By using high-value rewards, you can capture your dog's attention and motivate them to focus on you and the training exercises. This also helps to change their emotions - by presenting great things when triggers are present.

Understanding why dogs react is also an important aspect of training a reactive dog. Dogs may react due to fear, frustration, or a lack of socialization. Reactivity could be a learned behavior developed from past negative experiences, lack of socialization as a puppy or a genetic predisposition. By identifying the underlying cause of your dog's reactivity, you can tailor the training approach and address the root cause effectively. For instance, if your dog is reactive due to fear, you can work on building their confidence through desensitization and counter-conditioning techniques. You can also add in confidence building activities.

My approach to training reactive dogs is choice-based. Choice based dog training means that rather than punishing a dog for a normal behavior like barking or lunging (mind you barking and lunging IS normal to your dog) I train them to make a different choice - a new choice which is not barking and not lunging. Keep in mind that a reactive dog is coming from a place of emotion. In dog training we should always address the underlying emotion that is linked to the behavior. Rather than suppressing it by using punishment we dive into the dog's mind and help them to feel better about things that upset them. 

If a dog reacts to children, bicycles, plastic bags, the training remains the same and it's based on the science of how all living beings learn. Being "reactive" simply means the dog doesn't have the skills needed for the job at hand. Reactive dogs are usually afraid but there could be other reasons like a medical issue or simply frustration. Some dogs are considered leash reactive, also called leash aggressive. However, most reactive dogs are not aggressive but leash reactivity is the most common type of all reactivity. If your dog is leash reactive you are not alone!

I will dive into all of the main reasons for dog reactivity as they may help you to understand why your dog reacts and, once you do, you can begin to help them to change the way they feel.

Fear reactivity is based on a dog being afraid of something and, in an effort to make that something go away, they lash out by barking and/or lunging. They are saying "get away from me". Some fearful dogs cower and hide in fear where others direct their emotions outward which manifests as barking and lunging (reacting).  If your dog is afraid of other dogs the first step is working with them at a safe distance, around other dogs. We must expose them to the things they react to but it's vital to do so properly. The only way they can learn to feel better is by presenting the trigger (dogs) but it has to be at a distance where the dog can learn and not feel threatened. When a dog is reacting they are not learning and we've got to counter all of the negative interactions with many positive ones.

Another reason dogs become reactive (and this should be addressed FIRST) is due to an underlying medical condition. If your dog is in pain they can be VERY sensitive to anyone or anything coming near. If your dog suddenly becomes reactive a trip to the Veterinarian should be first on the list. Pain causes most animals to act differently and even the sweetest pup can become aggressive if they are in pain. 

Barrier frustration is another cause of dog reactivity. Does your dog only bark and lunge when they are on leash but they are fine with dogs otherwise? In this case, the leash is acting as a barrier - it's limiting the dogs access to the other dog and also prohibiting them from walking away if they need to. This can cause frustration which presents as reactivity.

All types of reactivity can be solved but it depends on the reason. I have a wonderful program available if you would like to learn how to help your reactive dog stop barking and lunging - whether they are on leash or not. If they only bark at the mailman, it will work too! 

You can visit ReliefForReactiveDogs.com to learn more.


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