When you have been training dogs for over a decade, you get to be very familiar with reactive dogs. In fact, it is the most common case that I am called out on. What is surprising to me is that in spite of this, there is still a lack of public awareness on how to handle reactive dogs. Many of the reactive dog owners I see come to me mortified by their dogs’ behavior, and clearly feel at a total loss for how to help their dogs. They often feel like they are the only ones in the world having this problem, when really even the best trainers have had their share of reactive dogs!
If you find yourself walking your dog at odd hours of the night and mornings to avoid other people or dogs; if you find that you will turn tail and avoid situations simply because there are other dogs present, this one is for you!
What is reactivity?
First off, what is reactivity? Simply put, reactivity is defined as the overreaction to external stimuli. Dogs can be reactive to other dogs, people, noises, motion, and can often be reactive to any combination of the listed stimulus. How each dog presents his reactivity can vary from barking, whining, lunging, pacing, hypervigilance, and so on.
Why can’t they stop?
Often, in my cases of reactivity, I find that the owners have already begun proactive steps to try and discourage reactivity. “But he just won’t stop, it’s like he doesn’t hear me at all.” The words echo in my ears time and time again. So why don’t they actually stop?
The reason that dogs often find themselves overreacting to situations and enter this state of hyperarousal is because of how addicting the reaction itself can be. Reacting is a self-reinforcing behavior, which means the behavior reinforces itself by providing the dog with some sort of satisfaction when they engage in the behavior. When dogs bark and become overly excited, it releases various chemicals in the brain that causes brain activity. Cortisol levels jump and endorphins release. These things can be extremely addicting for any dog. Plus, if the stimulus reacts back, it can be doubly reinforcing. No wonder dogs and owners have such a hard time with reactivity!
What can I do?
Now that we understand a little bit more about reactivity, how can you help your dog? Here are some quick tips that can make living with a reactive dog easier
Read, watch, learn. It can be very beneficial for you to understand why it is that your dog is being reactive. There are many resources available to better understand reactivity and to propose different solutions. A great book is “Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0” By Grisha Stewart.
Set yourself up for success. If you know that your dog has a problem with dogs walking down the street, set up your walks so that you may more easily limit the amount of dogs you come across on your walks. This may be as simple as changing the times that you walk, or as dramatic as changing the area where you walk your dog entirely. If you come across a trigger, be aware of any ways that you may escape and avoid. In the case of dog reactivity and many other behavior problems, it is often resolved by preventing the problem behavior from surfacing entirely, thus changing the dogs’ mind about how he should appropriately react to things.
Be sure you have adequate rewards. When you are working with a reactive dog and teaching them to have better behavior, it is important that what you use to reinforce your dog holds a high enough value to them. In these cases, I find often that high value meat based treats such as beef liver are well received by the most overstimulated of dogs. I subscribe to Real Dog Box, who rotate their treats every month to keep the most finicky of dogs satisfied. For dogs that don’t enjoy treat rewards or find themselves too spun up to receive them, you may opt for bringing a tug toy along with you on walks. My border collie does well with being allowed to sniff her environment as her reward, as she doesn’t have much interest in her treats or toys in some situations.
Sing. It is very easy when you are working with a reactive dog to become anxious and tense. This does not help your dog, because what you feel travels down the leash to your dog. If you are anxious and tense with rigid breath, your dog will feel like he needs to be on edge as well. You can easily combat this very natural inclination by singing while you walk past tense situations. I often recommend singing “Twinkle, twinkle little star” because it regulates your breath. This is something I learned not in dog training, but in my time riding horses, and for similar reasons.
Get some help. It’s okay if you are overwhelmed by your dogs reactivity. It can be a very stressful experience, and in spite of all your research and efforts, you may still find yourself at a loss for how to handle it. In cases like these, I always say that a fresh eye never hurts! Talk to trainers in your area, find one you like, and ask for their help! I find that even though I have been training and handling dogs for 23 years, there are things that I miss, simply because I can’t see the outsiders perspective. If you don’t have access to a trainer, consider setting up a camera to record your sessions working on reactivity with your dog. You can go back and review these and see where your mistakes are, and where you can do better!
With a little bit of persistence, and a lot of patience, reactivity is something that can be overcome by most dogs! Just roll with the punches. I found that with my personal reactive dogs, it was very helpful to join social media support groups. There are many out there, and remember, you aren’t as alone as you think you are! Chances are, reactive dog owners are right around the corner from you. I mean that literally, they are around the corner, waiting for you to pass with your dog so that they also may pass in an attempt to avoid a trigger!
Sources: https://paws4udogs.wordpress.com/2013/04/15/what-is-reactivity/ https://notesfromadogwalker.com/2013/10/21/reactive-dogs-interview-with-sara-reusche/ https://bullinthecity.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/how-to-live-with-a-dog-reactive-dog-and-not-lose-your-shit-an-impractical-guide/