Barking at squirrels, going nuts when the doorbell rings, getting in squabbles with other dogs – reacting is not unusual dog behavior. After all, dogs will be dogs, right? But what about when these behaviors affect your ability to enjoy normal activities with your pup? I worked with Canine Country Academy (Lawrenceville, GA) Owner, Behavior Consultant and Head Trainer: Paula Nowak, CPDT-KA, CTDI to answer these questions and more.
Learn the difference between a “normal” dog and a reactive dog, and what you can do to calm your dog’s fears so you can stop worrying about avoiding your dog’s biggest triggers.
Is Your Dog Reacting Normally, Or Are They Reactive?
It’s perfectly normal for dogs to react when they see a stranger, prey or another dog. But it’s not normal for your dog to be completely out of control and unable to calm down.
“A dog who tends to over react will have adrenaline levels increase in their brain so they might bark and bark and bark until the other dog is out of sight or the area. You may also see the dog use Calming Signals during a reaction trying to cope with the situation,” says Nowak. “These dogs are 95% of the time, if not more, great dogs! They just find certain experiences, environments or things scary.”
Also, take into consideration how you would like your dog to react to exciting triggers. When someone enters my home, Cow goes crazy, and she won’t stop barking until the guest is out of her sight. I’ve taught her to “go lie down” when she’s being reactive, and this works until the guest gets up from their chair or speaks or laughs too loudly for her comfort.
The “normal” reaction I want to see from her is a few barks when the guest first arrives, then some investigative sniffs, maybe even accepting some pets if the guest approaches her. She’s a huge cuddle-bug and such a sweetheart, but I think most people who visit would find that very hard to believe.
Why Dogs Become Reactive
Not all reactive dogs have a history of abuse or trauma that causes them to fly off the handle.
Dogs can inherit reactive personality traits. You’ve probably noticed that Retrievers often love strangers, while herding breeds and terriers take a longer time to warm up to new people. Chihuahuas were bred to be watch dogs – they bark to alert their owner of an intruder or visitor. Note the distinction between a watch dog and a guard dog. A guard dog is professionally trained to bite if needed, but most of us don’t want our dogs to attack people. It’s fair for your watch dog to be able to bark to alert you, but they should be able to settle down when asked, and they should not lash out aggressively.
There are even more contributing factors to reactivity besides trauma and breeding. A lack of socialization during your dog’s critical fear sensitivity periods can lead to a dog that does not know how to react to certain triggers.
“Puppies go through fear sensitivity periods as they mature. During these times they are much more sensitive to bad experiences. For example, if they have a negative experience with a person during developmental milestones and do not get support to overcome the negative experience that can last into adulthood,” says Nowak.
Overreacting is sometimes your dog’s desperate attempt to communicate with you when their needs are not being met.
“A dog who really does not enjoy being cuddled and prefers personal space, but is constantly hugged on may lash out to stop the interaction. They likely offer what we call Calming Signals to diffuse the interaction, but many people do not know what those are and miss the clues.”
Lastly, reactivity could have an underlying medical cause.
“There are also cases where the dog’s chemicals in the brain are not what they should be. They overreact because their brain cannot properly process the information,” says Nowak. “For some dogs, a Veterinarian and/or a Veterinary Behaviorist can help provide supporting natural or pharmaceutical support along with behavior modification.”
Why Some Reactive Dogs Get Worse
Each exposure to a trigger is a teaching moment. Your fearful dog needs to know that it’s not necessary for them to be upset or overexcited. It’s so important for you to stay calm and focus on teaching your dog an appropriate reaction, which could be walking away from the trigger instead of barking at it, or calmly alerting you in an appropriate way.
The last thing you should do is become reactive yourself. Having a reactive dog can be scary, irritating or embarrassing. These feelings can lead people to look for “quick fixes” that appear to fix the problem at first, but only contribute to a dog’s fear. Punishments teach dogs to suppress their reactions, but they don’t soothe the fear, and sometimes they just turn a scary interaction into a terrifying one.
“The punishment might be scolding, a leash correction, electric shock (e-collar) or worse. For a dog who is worried their owner reacting in this way confirms they SHOULD be scared of the person, dog, etc.They also will react more because they need the person, dog, thing to go away since their human is reactive.”
Make sure you have appropriate tools. Use dog-friendly tools to keep your dog under control in public and to help you get their attention back if they are triggered. Use a double clip leash and two point harness to gently encourage your dog to focus on you, rather than the stimulus. “We recommend Ruff Wear Harness or Freedom Harness and a Halti Leash,” says Nowak.
Avoid taking your dog’s reactivity personally. It’s not a reflection on who you are as a dog owner. Keep your expectations reasonable. Not every dog can fall in love with everyone they meet. But you don’t have to give up and isolate your dog forever.
“An owner may have the dog live in seclusion,” says Nowak. “They think managing 100% of their life will be the best option. Sadly, management almost always fails. A gate or door will be left open by accident. Then the dog bites someone. The management limits the reactions, but never really addresses the core issue of fear.”
How To Train Your Reactive Dog
The first thing you need to do is commit to positive reinforcement training. This is more than just shoveling treats into your dog’s mouth. It’s about building a trust-based relationship so your dog feels safe, and teaching them that it’s okay to make mistakes.
Becoming frustrated is normal, especially if this is your first reactive dog. It’s okay to feel a little embarrassed, and to wish you could just go to the park or have guests over without worrying about your dog having a conniption. Remember to work at your dog’s pace. If your dog reacts to cats, don’t put her in a room full of cats and force her to interact. You might start with teaching her to be calm when a cat runs across the street 100 yards away.
The exact steps you’ll need to take to create a positive reinforcement training program will need to be customized to your dog’s triggers, severity of reactivity and your available time, resources and tools. It’s never too early or too small of an issue to work closely with a reputable dog trainer on your dog’s reactivity.
“Be proactive in hiring a positive reinforcement trainer who knows how to work with dog behavior. Dog trainers are not always skilled in dog behavior. So do your research. Interview them over the phone and watch them work with other dogs,” recommends Nowak. “A skilled trainer with behavior knowledge can spot potential issues as they are puppies. Then you can work on skills needed to help the dog cope before they get worse. Many grow into the behavior issues vs. out of it.”
If you’re not making progress with training, you might want to seek your vet for medication. While it’s not a cure-all, it can be extremely helpful when used in conjunction with a training program. You may also consider seeking a board certified veterinary behaviorist.
Paula Nowak recommends three books to help you understand the world from your reactive dog’s point of view:
- On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas,
- If Bones Would Rain from the Sky by Suzanne Clothier
- Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson
If you live in or around Lawrenceville, Georgia, check out the Reactive Dog Program at Canine Country Academy.