Updated: Mar 19
If you've ever struggled with your dog's barking and lunging on walks, you know the immense frustration and even embarrassment this behavior causes. Reactivity can be a very hard behavior that pet parents deal with every day. Luckily there is a lot of progress that can be made with reactive dogs! Read below for helpful tips and resources to help you and your reactive dog.
What is Reactivity?
Reactivity is commonly confused with aggression. To put it simply, dogs who are reactive are overreacting to certain stimuli or situations.
These over reactions can be linked with a variety of triggers such as other dogs, cars, bikes, people with hats, umbrellas, etc. Genetics, lack of socialization, lack of impulse control, a traumatic experience, or a combination of these can also cause reactivity to develop.
You may be wondering is this my dog??
At its core, reactivity means "responsiveness to stimulus." These stimulus are often referred to as triggers that your dog is reacting to.
As mentioned above, in your dog's case, these triggers could be anything! It could be a person, another dog, bikes, cars, loud sounds, etc.
So, if you are wondering if this is your dog then ask yourself -
Does your dog whine or bark at people, dogs, cars, etc on leash?
Does your dog lunge or excessively strain at the leash when seeing a stimulus?
Does your dog redirect onto the leash or onto you by biting, nipping, or shaking?
Does your dog engage in similar behaviors behind a window, fence, or gate?
If you answered yes to any of these then you may be living with a reactive dog!
It's important to remember that your dog does not "have reactivity" like they have a black coat color, floppy ears, or a super fluffy tail. Reactivity is a fluid dynamic concept. It is a behavior that can increase or decrease based on the circumstances.
Getting Started : How To Succeed With Your Dog:
The biggest reminder we tell all of our clients is to prevent rehearsing reactive behavior. Dogs who are able to consistently bark out the window or bark at other dogs while on walks are rehearsing their reactive behavior which is further ingraining this response. The best place to get started is to determine how you can help your dog from practicing those behaviors every day.
This can mean:
Putting up privacy film on your windows (for dogs who bark out the windows)
Putting the dog into a different room if you expect visitors or deliveries (for dogs who also reactive to people coming to the door)
Changing your walking routine (for dogs who react to dogs/people on walks)
Draping a tarp over your fence or putting up a second makeshift fence consisting of exercise pens a few feet away from your actual fence (for a dog who fence fights or charges the fence)
Becoming a Consistent Trainer
Many owners start out highly motivated and train their dogs perfectly for 1-2 weeks and then life happens and the training stalls. Your dog is pretty much guaranteed to need more than 2 weeks of training to address their reactivity for long-term success. This means training needs to become a part of your daily life. Even if that is just 5-10 minutes.
A helpful tip for a lot of owners is to reward yourself with something fun after a week of consistent training, for example:
going out to see a movie
having some chocolate, cake, or wine
getting a massage or manicure
having a nice dinner
going on a quick weekend getaway
Whatever it is that you enjoy and that motivates you - you can trick your brain into liking the habit of training more by using it as a reward for yourself.
Utilizing The Right Treats
The right treats will make or break your reactivity training. There is no single piece of “equipment” that should be chosen as wisely as the treats you are using.
Getting started with reactivity training you will want to rely solely on treats to build a new emotional response (later on, if your dog enjoys toys, we can use toys - but for the beginning stages of counter conditioning they are not very useful.)
The right treats will also be a type that is highly valuable to your dog. We tend to look for a treat that our dog “likes”, and then train with that. For training such as obedience, tricks, etc. that works well - but for countering reactivity we do not want a treat our dog just “likes”. They should absolutely adore it!
Some good choices are - chicken, hot dogs, bologna, salmon, roast beef, ground beef, etc. Of course, our dogs shouldn’t eat vast amounts of these, so keep the treat size very small (about the size of your pinkie fingernail)
I also would not recommend using these in place of daily meals but keep in mind that a single hot dog chopped up into 100 tiny pieces is not going to have any negative impact on their health. However the resulting behavioral changes from training with this super treat will make a huge difference in your dog’s mental and physical health.
So, how does a dog become reactive?
There are three primary causes of reactivity in dogs. However, these are not the only causes of reactivity! If none of these apply to you and your dog reach out to one of our professional trainers for a consult to learn more about your dogs behavior.
Frustration - This often comes from a lack of impulse control. In puppyhood a huge focus of many puppy owners and puppy classes is to allow our puppies to say hello to anyone and everyone they pass on the street. This teaches an important step in socialization and is very reinforcing for our young puppies. However as they age, when we go out on walks we often take those greetings away, and suddenly your dog is left with unmet expectations, leaving you with a frustrated, reactive dog that desperately wants to say hello. If given the opportunity, these reactive dogs would happily greet the person or other dog once they reached out, although their greeting may be less than polite. These dogs are typically highly social and do well with other dogs or people off-leash.
Fear or insecurity. On the flip side of frustrated dogs are our fearful, insecure dogs. These dogs may have been poorly socialized or had a scary experience with another dog. This scary experience can be a variety of situations as well. Typically we think of the common off leash dog running up to our on leash dog but there are many other experiences your dog can have that they deem as scary. During these scary experiences your dog naturally goes into fight or flight but if your dog is on leash they no longer have the ability to choose "flight" – which most dogs will happily take when given the opportunity. So when an off-leash dog attacks your on-leash dog, this can cause an immediate desire to use barking, lunging, and other intimidating body language signals to deter other dogs from doing the same. These dogs can still do well off leash, they might be shy or on guard when meeting other dogs off-leash, although they may eventually warm up to new dogs.
Desire to seek out conflict. It is very rare that we see behavior cases like this, but there are highly confident dogs with a "let me at 'em" attitude towards other dogs that is not rooted in fear or insecurity. They may redirect onto their leash or their owner by nipping or even biting. These dogs will generally pick a fight the moment they meet another dog on or off leash, and we recommend immediately consulting a qualified professional to ensure safety for you and your dog.
Okay so, how do I fix this problem?
To truly stop leash reactivity for good, you've got to address the underlying cause. Punishing the behaviors (lunging, barking, etc) is a bandaid at best but usually worsens the reactivity because dogs think they need to resort to another reactive response instead (biting).
Regardless of the cause of your dog's reactivity, they must learn better coping skills in the presence of a trigger, and must develop the impulse control to choose those coping skills instead of reactive behaviors.
We do recommend working with a professional on this, as your timing and technical skills are important.
Below is a sample training plan though to help you get started on your own. Our professional trainers are always available for any questions or assistance along the way!
UNDERSTANDING OUR RECOMMENDED TRAINING PLAN:
We like to teach a reactive dog to notice a trigger, and voluntarily look at its handler instead. Engage, and then disengage without reacting. To put it simply, we are teaching your dog a more appropriate response!
With that being said - too much exposure to a triggering situation can make the reactivity worse. Every time your dog is in a triggering situation, they are pushed over their threshold leading to a reactive response which then causes the reactivity to become more ingrained.
So it is important that we minimize exposure as much as we can and take the opportunities that are naturally presented to us without going out to search for them.
To minimize triggering situations we suggest following these steps to start out:
A dog that is triggered by other dogs should not be walked during busy times.
A dog that’s triggered in the yard should not be outside by themselves barking and charging the fence.
A dog that’s triggered by visitors should be put into another room when you expect people over or have deliveries scheduled.
REMEMBER: Tackling reactivity is not just : Retraining your dog’s reactive response. Tackling reactivity is actually:
Management : stopping the reactive response from getting worse / deeper ingrained
Training : Creating a new, positive/neutral response’
The two need to go hand in hand - one builds on the other.
Management is your foundation. Training goes on top.
Remember the best trainer in the world cannot change a dog who keeps ingraining his reactivity.
DO NOT SKIP being smart and proactive about management!
This can be a daunting task to take on so don’t feel like you are alone! Our trainers are available for in person and virtual sessions to help you get on the right track and prevent the overwhelm from taking over. Check out our links at the bottom of this article to schedule your session!
The Sample Training Plan
STEP 1: PRACTICE ENGAGING AND DISENGAGING INDOORS
First, we need to teach your dog that the word "yes" is relevant to them, and predicts good things. With your dog on leash either inside or in the backyard, practice having a helper lift up a toy or other item near your dog. As soon as your dog looks at the toy, say "Yes" and reward your dog.
For your reward, you should be using high-value food such as string cheese, hot dogs, or shredded chicken.
Repeat this over and over at various distances, walking towards the helper, walking past the helper, etc. Reward your dog every time they engage with the toy and then disengage to look back to you. This is mimicking the behavior we want them to do in the presence of a trigger.
Once you're feeling comfortable with your timing, it's time to take this into the real world.
REMEMBER! When beginning outdoors we want to start out with a big distance in between your dog and the trigger. This space should be far enough away that your dog can calmly see the trigger and be able to naturally disengage. If you are too close your dog is going to default back to their conditioned responses and will not be able to learn new responses.
STEP 2: TAKE THE TRAINING OUTDOORS
When you see a trigger approaching, find your appropriate distance from it. Ideally, you're seeing the trigger before your dog does. Keep in mind - as mentioned above, you likely need more distance than you think!
When your dog does notice the trigger, you simply say "yes!", your dog should turn back to you, and you will reward them. At no point should there be any barking, lunging, or other reactive behaviors.
If your dog ignores you or does begin to bark or lunge, you are simply too close to the trigger. Move further away and try again.
After doing this with enough frequency, your dog should be able to see the trigger and look back at you, all on his own. You will then mark "Yes" and reward.
We recommend doing this in a stationary position for a few weeks before passing in motion.
Over time, your dog will need less and less distance from their trigger, and many owners see complete resolution of their dog's reactivity.
PREVENTING LEASH REACTIVITY
As with most difficult things in life, prevention is easier than the cure. Here are a few tips to prevent leash reactivity in your dog or puppy:
Do not let your dog meet other dogs while on leash – ever. Trust us 🙂
Require that your dog sit next to you when meeting new people on leash, and use food rewards to reward appropriate behaviors. You want to be more interesting to your dog than anything else!
Avoid retractable leashes – nothing good comes from having a dog walking several feet in front of you with an unreliable retraction method.
Avoid corrective collars; we work with many dogs that develop reactivity due to receiving corrections in the presence of other dogs, causing a negative association towards other dogs.
NEED MORE HELP?
Need professional guidance on your leash reactivity issues?
We offer one on one training both in person and online! Click below to schedule a session with one of our trainers : Book A Session!
We also offer a comprehensive online leash reactivity course that will walk you and your dog through our leash reactivity protocol, including mentoring by one of our expert trainers. The course is open enrollment (so you can join anytime!) and can be completed at your own pace.
Good luck with your reactive training! Remember to take it slow and give you and your dog plenty of breaks through this process!
-- Muddy Paws Training & Behavior Team --