Reactivity is when a dog over reacts to things in their environment. These reactions can include: barking, lunging, and growling. However, these reactions do not make a dog “aggressive.” Reactivity is not uncommon in dogs. It may stem from the dog’s genetic make-up or could be from a lack of social experience or a particularly scary experience.
Having a reactive dog can be difficult to handle. It makes it hard to go out on walks, to the park, or being in public places. You probably do not have guests over often in fear of how your dog will behave around them.
Instead of trying to live with having a reactive dog, learn new ways to keep them calm and focused on you.
Set Up a Routine
It's not something dog owners think of very often or are even aware of, but dogs absolutely crave routine. Dogs know our own routines. They know when we wake up in the morning, and know putting shoes on means they should get excited for that morning walk. Routines make the world predictable. It helps them make sense of everything going on around them, good or bad. The more anxiety your dog has, the more routine they crave. A simple yet effective routine helps them feel more calm, focused and safe in otherwise stressful situations. Eventually, once your dog gets a handle of your routine, you can put your routine in action out in the real world, like: the park, on walks, or in public spaces.
Get Essential Equipment
To help diminish reactive tendencies, there are a few useful pieces of equipment that you can set your dog up with. First, is a Gentle Leader. Gentle Leaders are extremely useful for hard pullers and dogs that tend to be reactive while on walks. They can be useful when you may need to redirect their head in a new direction if your cues are not working. The Gentle Leader sits high on the back of the dog's head, which takes the pressure off of their delicate throat.
Next is an Easy Walk Harness. Unlike most harnesses, this one clips in the front of your dog. This actually discourages your dog from pulling on the leash. Your dog will be steered sideways when trying to pull, which will redirect his or her attention towards you. The Easy Walk Harness rests across your dog's chest, so there's no choking, gagging or damage to his or her throat.
A crate is also a great tool when it comes to reducing reactivity. A crate can be necessary to both ensure safety and help introduce the dog to a setting that they may not be comfortable with. Dogs, with proper crate training, think of their crate as a den. It is a space for them to safe. A crate comes in handy when you are transporting your dog. Being in a crate would lessen their reactivity in the car or being brought into the vet office.
Counter Conditioning is the process of changing the emotion or behavior a dog exhibits in response to a specific antecedent, or "trigger” (dog, human, animal, objects, vacuums, cars, bikes). It involves working with antecedents and consequences to change behavior. For conditioning to occur, two critical steps must take place. Step 1: The antecedent or “trigger” must be noticed (seen, heard, smelled). Step 2: Reinforcer must occur immediately (food or toy). It is important that the reward comes immediately and before the dog starts offering unwanted behavior. The first few signs a dog shows that they are uncomfortable is our opportunity to change behavior. At some point your dog may no longer feel the need to look at the trigger you have been conditioning.
To break the habit of reactivity at home, you might need to make some household changes. A common form of reactivity at home is window reactivity. The problem with window reactivity is that it is very rewarding. The dog thinks their barking made the person or dog go away, and it becomes a very reinforcing behavior to repeat. The best way to stop this is with using a tie down when you are home. It will teach your dog to stay in a certain spot and not go to the window. You can also use baby gates to keep them away from windows.
Another form of reactivity at home is backyard reactivity. Backyard reactivity is similar to window reactivity. It is very rewarding and will bleed into other areas of the dog's life. If your dog is a fence fighter or a fence runner, one thing you can do when you are home is walk them around the backyard on leash. Make sure you establish good recall so if they become riled up, you can get their attention and calm them down. If you aren't there to teach your dog right from wrong, then you must confine them away from the hot spot area in your yard. This may mean getting rid of your doggie door, confining them to inside the home, or creating a dog run for the backyard where they don't have access to the fence.
Understanding dog body language will help you communicate effectively with your pup. Dogs speak mostly through body language. Learning how to speak “dog” is important because you will be able to recognize when your dog is uncomfortable, scared, or threatened. First, understand that most dog body language is contextual. For example, tail wagging can mean several things, from “I’m so happy to see you!” to “Please don’t come any closer!” You will need to look at the entire picture of your dog and the surrounding environment to understand.
Happy dogs are loose and wiggly! These dogs typically have open mouths, relaxed or forward ears, and soft eyes. Pay close attention, however, because relaxed dogs can easily become uncomfortable with something or someone.
Nervous dogs have tense overall body posture. They will use calming signals and exhibit displacement behavior which calm themselves down, show non-aggressive intent, or diffuse situations. Calming signals are used to signal to other dogs that they mean no harm. Displacement behaviors are displayed when a dog wants to do two different conflicting things at once.
Alert dogs have tense or forward overall body posture. These dogs are interested in something and are undecided how to react. This body posture usually only lasts briefly before the dog decides to react in playfulness, fear, or aggression.
Dogs exhibiting aggressive body language will be very tense and stiff, possibly frozen. These dogs will probably be baring their teeth and their hackles will be raised. If you ever encounter a dog and he or she starts to exhibit aggressive body language, stop your approach, move slowly, and appear non-threatening. In addition, avoid eye contact, look away, and remain calm and confident. DO NOT run away!
Sign Up for a Behavior Rehab Class
One of the best ways to tackle your dog’s reactivity is learning from certified trainers on how to stop this behavior. At Wags & Wiggles, our mission is to help your dog be successful. We offer a terrific behavior rehab course in our Online Classroom called Zen Dog – based off of our in-facility group class. This course includes 15 lessons that teaches you and your dog how to handle reactivity and keep them calm. These lessons include video demonstrations and written descriptions that are easy to follow and understand. The best part about the course is that we provide real case studies of current and former clients. Some cases show reactive dogs before they underwent training, and follow through with their training lessons to show their progress. The Zen Dog course is also apart of our new Online Classroom Membership, Behavior Rehab. This membership gives you access to a variety of training courses that are beneficial for a dog going through behavior rehabilitation. Don’t let your dog’s reactive behavior go on any longer! Take control and teach them to be a more relaxed dog.