5 Tips to help you with your reactive dog.
Plus an added Bonus! 5 tips to help other people with their reactive dogs!
Fear is the most common cause of aggression in dogs.
5 Ways To Help Your Reactive Dog
Fear is the most common cause of aggression in dogs. Of course fear isn’t always the reason – sometimes there are medical reasons involved – but it’s true often enough that the following advice will help most dogs.
The first priority of any dog is to feel safe. I think that seems silly to many of us – why wouldn’t our dog feel safe when it lives with a family that loves it and gives it everything it could possibly ever need? When we think about it from our human perspective, we can’t fathom what there is about our dog’s life to be worried about? Even if we’ve adopted our dog from a rescue situation – even a really dire one – they’re living with us now and we love and care for them!
The reality is that dogs are a completely different species (no kidding!), and we have no way to know for sure what’s going on in those fuzzy little heads because they’re not talking! All we can do is observe their behaviour and choose our actions based on what we actually see and, to some degree, what we might like to see instead.
We have to be very careful, though, to consider each dog as an individual in this equation. We may want our dog to be a social butterfly, present at all of our child’s sporting events, happily playing in the dog park each evening – but what if he doesn’t want that? What if he’s not comfortable with that, or even afraid in those situations?
Consider the dog that has been shipped from a foreign country to save it from a life on the streets. If all that dog has every known is life on the streets, our so-called safe home environment might just feel terrifying to a dog that has never known such a life. While his old life might have been challenging and at times dangerous, it was what he knew and it was predictable from day to day. Very likely – certainly in the beginning – his new life will feel quite unsafe. He’s landed in a completely different environment devoid of any daily routines, companions or relationships he may have had.
Sharing our lives with our dogs should be very much a give and take relationship with plenty of give on our part because we are the ones at the top of the food chain. Our dogs are essentially captive animals, and we control all aspects of their lives. We need to be as helpful as we can to them, especially if they are displaying fearful, anxious behaviour. Simply put, it’s our job to make them feel safe.
Luckily, there are many simple things we can do to help them.
1. Go see your veterinarian.
Any trainer who works with dogs with any kind of behaviour issues – especially sudden onset or serious ones – always suggests a visit to the veterinarian as a first step.
It’s a good idea to rule out any health concerns, injuries or illness before any training begins. Dogs can act quite “protective” if they are in pain or discomfort, which can very easily present as aggressive or fearful behaviour.
Even upset tummies can have an impact on behaviour, making your dog a bit cranky, short tempered or even fearful. If you don’t feel well, especially if that feeling is one you’ve never experienced before, you can become fearful and very protective of yourself. Many wild animals feel extremely vulnerable and will hide themselves away when they are injured or ill.
Yearly veterinary care is important for all of our dogs regardless of their behaviour or their age. Dogs age quickly compared to humans and medical issues can crop up fairly fast. It’s clearly nicer for our dogs if we can catch potential medical problems early before it starts to also include unwanted behaviour changes.
*As a side note: If you have a pet who is uncomfortable, afraid or anxious at the vet, it’s worth taking the extra step of positively training them to be a lot more comfortable so they can get yearly care with as little anxiety as possible. Being generally comfortable at the vet makes it easier to detect health concerns now and in the future.
To this end, look for pet professionals who have experience using Low Stress Handling techniques (lowstresshandling.com) and/or Fear Free Techniques (fearfreepet.com search for a pet professional near you).
2. Take the pressure off your dog’s neck.
A lot of people have very specific preferences for the equipment they use to walk their dogs. Collars should definitely be worn for the purpose of displaying your dog’s identification tags, but in my opinion and in the opinion of many, leashes should be attached to a body harness not to a collar.
Keep in mind that if a dog is on a leash – even a loose one – he’s trapped and his “escape” options are non-existent. If you or your dog yanks or pulls on the leash, there is an immediate increase in anxiety and any feeling of being trapped will escalate. For a dog who may already be anxious, even a small amount of additional pressure on his neck can be enough to set off an explosion of barking and lunging or frantic flight behaviour.
Consider physical balance as well. If you’re a dog and someone is hauling on your leash trying to get you to move in the opposite direction, you actually aren’t physically capable of doing so in that moment because you are completely off balance. Anxious and off balance – a recipe for disaster!
Try this experiment – hang on to end of a leash yourself and have a friend hold the other end. Pull the leash taught then have your friend try and yank you hard in the opposite direction. You’re immediately off balance and the tendency is to pull back. You simply can’t easily walk in her direction when you’re off balance. If instead she allows you just enough slack to get your feet squarely underneath you, you can shift your weight and more easily walk toward her.
I’ve both broken a leg and sprained both ankles and even though all are well healed, the memory exists. Any time I have uncertain footing or lose my balance it makes me feel very vulnerable and anxious. I can well imagine how dogs feel when they are pulled/yanked by their leashes by us, or hit the end of their leash during a bark/lunge episode.
Interesting side note: Your dog pulling against leash pressure is often referred to as the opposition reflex, which is actually an incorrect term as it’s not a “reflex” at all. I encountered this really interesting article recently from Eileen Anderson which gives a great explanation: Eileen and Dogs on Opposition Reflex
3. Use distance wisely.
This should be a pretty simple thing to understand. If your dog is afraid of something, give it a wide berth. If you don’t know if your dog is afraid of something but he’s displaying a behaviour you don’t like – barking, lunging, growling – err on the side of assuming he’s afraid and stay away from it.
Figure out your dog’s bubble zone – how far away does he need to be in order to act calmly or relatively unconcerned? For some dogs this could be 10 feet, for others it could be 100 feet – every dog is different. Look for your dog to appear loose in his body, relaxed, comfortable and responsive to you – not focused solely on the oncoming dog and looking tense and worried.
Use the distance of that bubble zone as your guide for how and where to walk your dog. Find parks that offer wide trails or the ability to get off the trail and safely take a wide berth. Look for quiet neighborhoods where you can safely cross the street or temporarily take refuge up a long driveway.
I sometimes hear from clients – “he just needs to get used to it, then he’ll be fine”. Unfortunately that rarely works. It’s actually considered pretty inhumane if your dog is really terrified of something and you insist on subjecting him to it time and time again in the hopes that he’ll get used to it. If you subject your dog to something at it’s full intensity – walking closely past every dog on the sidewalk or walking your dog through a huge noisy crowd - this is known as Flooding and it can be quite traumatizing for the individual involved.
I’m afraid of heights and I know without question that constantly insisting that I walk over a high bridge will most definitely NOT improve my ability to handle heights. In fact, if you did that intentionally, I would lose all my trust in you and choose to avoid you as much as possible.
If Flooding continues, the outcome then becomes learned helplessness, which can unfortunately appear to the uneducated observer to be acceptance or “getting over it” but in fact it’s simply a shut down dog. The dog (or any individual) faced with this situation and realizing he can’t do anything to help himself just gives up. A “broken spirit” - it’s quite sad. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the relationship most of us want with our dogs.
4. Provide daily enrichment.
How many of us could happily live a life largely devoid of mental stimulation? No movies, books, puzzles, music, web surfing, travel, or even simple neighborhood walks. That would basically be prison as we imagine it to be in the best movies (although even Hannibal Lector had music to listen to).
Every dog – behaviour issues or no – should get daily enrichment. A daily walk is fantastic and can be quite enriching even if you choose the same path each time. However, so much more than that should be our goal.
If you have a dog you can’t safely walk or for whom the walk is not particularly enjoyable due to fear and anxiety, then it’s not really enriching at all. If you have a reactive dog and you have restricted his access to the outside world because of his behaviour, he MUST have a wide variety of mental enrichment available in order to live any kind of humane life.
Mentally challenging activities are a great way to build your dog’s confidence, keep him content, get him pleasantly tired and they’re also a great way to build your relationship:
- Choose puzzle toys, treat dispensing toys, and investigate the various DIY enrichment sites on social media.
- Choose to participate in fun and engaging training activities like scenting sports, rally obedience, treiball or trick training as a great way to provide both your dog and you with some enrichment and fun challenges.
Enrichment can be as easy and quick as filling a slow feeder bowl with kibble, or it can be a more long term commitment like working with your dog to learn a sport like Nosework. I participate in Nosework with my dog and I’ve never seen anything quite like it for tiring him out, and his tail is wagging the whole time he’s doing it. He gets to use his nose and I get to learn how to read my dog - so much fun for both of us!
Physical exercise isn’t as important as you might think for your dog. There’s no question that every dog would benefit from a good walk every day – 45 minutes to an hour is the perfect amount for the average, healthy dog. However, no dog needs hours of exercise every day. The ideal is a healthy mix of both – just like the ideal scenario for us.
5. Understand trigger stacking and taking breaks.
A trigger is anything that starts a stress reaction in your dog – perhaps the sudden appearance of that dog from the end of the street which causes him to respond by barking and lunging. A stress reaction is a physical response and it’s not something your dog can control. We can’t control it either. Can you recall a time when a sudden scare – perhaps a near miss car accident – caused your to start shaking, your knees to wobble, maybe you went light headed or started hyper ventilating?
The physical stress reaction starts the ancient fight or flight response and the brain fast forwards into a reactive state. For a dog this can result in barking and lunging (even biting) if he’s trapped on a leash – a classic distance-increasing behaviour – “get that thing away from me!”
Depending on the severity of the stress, it can take a long time for those adrenaline levels to come down – days even.
If your dog goes on a walk every day, sees several things he’s anxious about and reacts strongly each time, that’s trigger stacking – a problem, on top of another problem, on top of another problem. There is no time for the brain to reverse the effects of the first stress response, which means he never has a chance to get all the way back down to “normal” stress levels.
Try using the above suggestions to help your dog avoid his triggers. If he does end up having one or many reactions on a walk one day, then take at least a full day off. Don’t go for a walk! Give you and your dog both a break and have a day chock full of puzzles, fun training and chilling out time. Let the brain reset itself.
If you’re lucky enough not to have a reactive dog, here’s 5 things you can do to help those that do:
5 Ways To Help People With Reactive Dogs.
1. Be compassionate and empathetic.
It’s not easy sharing your life with a reactive dog – be nice to people and smile kindly when you walk by. Don’t be judgmental - be helpful instead.
2. Give them some distance.
If you see someone struggling with their dog, move your dog away and give them lots of space however you can. It will be much easier for you to move away with your non-reactive dog than it will be for them. Smile and give your dog a cheerful “let’s go this way Buddy”, as you cross the street or veer off the trail to pass by at a greater distance.
3. Be a good neighbor.
There are a lot of shared residence situations where I live – condos, apartments, basement suites and multi-family dwellings. If you live in a building with an elevator, ask if the person and dog in the elevator are ok with you and your dog getting on. If someone has a reactive dog and the elevator or shared staircase is the only entrance/exit points, imagine how challenging this situation would be! Distance is impossible. Each foray in and out would be fraught with anxiety for both human and dog – fingers crossed every time they leave their home.
If your neighbor’s dog on his deck is barking at your dog even if your dog is quietly sitting on his own deck, bring your dog inside. Make a point of chatting with your neighbor to see if you can come up with a better solution so both dogs can enjoy their separate spaces instead of just taking the “it’s his problem, not mine because my dog is fine” attitude.
4. Be friendly.
Dogs can be extremely sensitive to the emotional state of those around them. They seem to instinctively know when someone is afraid of them or dislikes or disapproves of them. Don’t be that person. Keep a friendly smile on your face and tell that struggling person with the reactive dog to “hey – beautiful dog, have a good day”! You’ll be helping the dog too as he has now encountered at least one nice person on his walk that day.
5. PLEASE Obey the leash laws!!!!!
If the sign says “keep dogs on leash”, then keep your dog on a leash! I’m not sure why that’s so difficult for people?! If it’s a city street, keep your dog on a leash; if it’s an on leash park, keep your dog on a leash; if you’re not sure – then keep your dog on a leash just in case.
People with reactive dogs have very little choice where they can safely exercise their dogs. It’s not your right to take that choice away from them – take your off leash dog to an off leash area and don’t be difficult about it. No – your dog running up at top speed straight at my dog is in no way considered friendly behaviour from any dog – reactive or not. If you think this is what friendly dogs do, then you need more education about dogs!
Give the suggestions above a try – let me know how it goes! If you have a serious issue with your dog, I truly hope you consider finding an experienced positive trainer to help you. Living in a constant state of fear and anxiety would be a terrible way to live.
Above all keep it positive and be helpful – your dog needs you!