You may have experienced this before: you're walking down the street and approach a dog being walked when you begin to notice her stop to eye you. You may even witness this dog's walker tensing up, pulling the dog closer, and yelling a series of "soothing" intentions that only seem to work up the dog more. This is likely a reactive dog, who is responding to your presence the only way she knows how — my overreacting in an inappropriate way. If you've been on the other side of this encounter, you may wonder if your dog is reactive, and what you can do to help her if so.
What is a reactive dog?
It's important to understand that a reactive dog is not necessarily the same thing as an aggressive dog. Aggression is regarded as hostile behavior, while reactivity is an overreaction to something. You've may have seen it before — a dog who barks at men wearing hats, chasing a moving car from behind a fence, or angrily lunging at a skateboard rolling by. Reactivity can certainly lead to aggressive tendencies, but what motivates those two behaviors is not the same thing. Common causes of reactivity in dogs include poor socialization, improper training or lack of training, or even a scary experience that's left them fearful (maybe your dog heard a loud garbage truck on a certain corner, and now every time he walks by that spot he cowers, in anticipation of that same loud, scary sound.)
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One very common type of reactivity is leash reactivity. A leash reactive dog may lunge, bark at, cower from or even attempt to bite a person or animal who encounters them while they are on a leash. This is almost always done out of nervousness that the person or thing will come too close to them, which can feel especially scary as they are physically restrained by a leash. However your dog's reactivity presents itself, it's important to identify the stimulus he is reacting to, and help him change his relationship, and reaction, to that stimulus.
How to help a dog with reactivity
The best and safest way to deal with reactivity in dogs is to find a qualified trainer or behaviorist who can work with you and your dog. (Check out our article on finding a qualified dog trainer for help.)
While certain behaviors can be dealt with at home, reactivity shouldn't be left to dog owners to figure out on their own. Unchecked reactivity, or the wrong dog training methods, can potentially make things worse. Trainers will use positive reinforcement training and counter-conditioning to help a dog develop a new, kinder association with a trigger, or change her emotional response to it.
One thing you can do in the meantime is to manage your dog's access to triggering things. This will require you to identify the specific trigger and do your best to keep your dog from encountering it. Environment management is beneficial for everyone in the household, including your dog, who will benefit from the reduction in stress hormones.
Common triggers and management techniques
If your dog's trigger is running into other dogs on leash, you can manage this by going for walks during less busy times of the day, or crossing the street if you see another dog on the horizon.
If your dog's trigger is people making noise outside your home, get creative in minimizing that noise for your dog. This may include things like putting on white noise videos (or buying a white noise machine) or moving the dog's bed further from the window. If your dog is triggered by the mail carrier, and the mail carrier comes at the same time each day, can you plan your daily walk for that time? If not, is there a spot in the home where your dog can't hear the mail carrier?
If your dog's trigger is seeing people outside the home (while the dog is indoors), close the blinds or otherwise obscure the dog's view, or move the dog's bed to somewhere that does not face the window.
Environment management will look different depending on your dog and your household. Use creativity and don't be afraid to consult your trainer for ideas!
Management is not a permanent solution, nor does it do anything to "correct" reactivity. However, harm reduction can keep everyone safe, and can keep your dog's stress levels lower, until a proper training plan is implemented.
What not to do
This is much easier said than done at the moment, but one big thing you'll want to avoid when walking a reactive dog is to stiffen up, pull him as close to you as possible, and just allow him to watch as his trigger approaches him. A reactive dog is likely either a fearful or frustrated dog, so looking out for certain body language cues, like raised hackles or tucked tailbones, can indicate when an overreaction is about to occur.
It's important that you never punish your dog for exhibiting these behaviors, and it's not recommended that you drag or pull your dog toward the stimulus, as this will not only trigger them but also encourages them to bark or lunge.
Reactive dogs are not necessarily aggressive dogs, although an overreaction can become aggressive if it goes too far. Barking and lunging are common traits of reactivity in dogs and are often responses to fear or frustration. Learning to assess your dog's behavior can help you determine if she is reactive and what she is reacting to. The best course of action for treating reactivity is to work with a qualified professional dog trainer who has experience working with reactive dogs.