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Ask The Dog Trainer: 10 Tips to Improve Reactive Dog Behavior

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10 Tips to Improve Reactive Dog Behavior

I want you to feel at home with me, this is a safe space.

I have walked in your shoes if you have a reactive dog. A little story from my experience; It was early in the morning and I was walking Baxter at our campground in New Hampshire. He decided he needed to go, I got my bag ready and proceeded to pick it up. Snap! He flew to the end of the leash yanking so hard my finger got caught in the ring by the handle. I heard the snap and I winced knowing something had gone extremely wrong.

Behind me while I had reached down in the opposite direction to retrieve the “gift” Baxter left for me, I hadn’t noticed the large shepherd and owner walking toward us and before I knew it Baxter flew off the handle or leash so to speak. After going to the hospital I had learned I had broken my finger in three places and now have a permanent misalignment.

Reactive behavior in dogs can be dangerous not only to your dog, and other dogs or persons, but also to you.

You may have a reactive dog if they show several or all of the signs when seeing a person, dog, or object make the dog uncomfortable and the dog wants it to go away:

  • Barking
  • Whining excessively
  • Growling
  • Lunging and pulling drastically on leash
  • A tall and forward body
  • Ears forward or high
  • Erect fur along the spine

Ask The Dog Trainer: 10 Tips to Improve Reactive Dog Behavior

train a reactive dogLet me be clear, your dog is not a bad dog, this is an appropriate response to fear and the automatic response of flight or fight and the dog’s predicament of being confined on leash. Getting bigger and badder, ultimately is an attempt by the dog to make the fear causing dog, person or object that causes the reactivity, to go away. My dog was still a wonderful dog, as I bet your dog is, too.

I know from experience that this display of behavior makes it challenging, embarrassing and sometimes an emotional drain to attempt to enjoy walks when you run into these situations.

I have also seen reactivity triggered by moving cars or specific loud trucks and people. The dog is reacting in an over-the-top way to avoid the person, dog or object and make it go away.

Lukas was a dog, whom every time a Fedex truck would go by or be close he would fly to the end of the leash barking and growling. The owner had to be very aware and listen carefully, but also learned the neighborhood Fedex truck delivery times!

I am going to provide with ten top tips to make your walks better with your reactive dog, this will greatly improve your relationship with your dog and provide you with the tools to enjoy your walks.

Your reactive dog can be helped by using positive methods.

Aversive methods should never be used as they cause more harm than good, ruin the relationship of trust with your dog and promote serious consequences in advancing reactive behavior. Work with an experienced reactivity trainer, such as what we provide at Life Is Dog Pet Care, one that uses strictly positive methods.

I’m overwhelmed. How do I begin working with my reactive dog?

Reactive Dog Top 10 Tips

  1. First, consult with your veterinarian to be sure there are no underlying pains or physical concerns. Your veterinarian may consider natural, homeopathic or pharmaceutical advice in addition to behavior modification.
  2. Exercise! Exercise helps with reactive behavior, stress relief and calmness.
  3. Learn about your dog’s body language and “tells.” A tell is a sign your dog is just about to go over threshold and display the reactive behavior. Threshold is the point at which your dog begins to display the reactive behavior sometimes barking, growling, lunging, pulling toward the dog, person or object. Learn to observe his body language when he is comfortable and uncomfortable
  4. Learn to breath and be calm, teach your dog to be calm. A good behavior modification program includes teaching the owner to be calm, to mark and reward the wanted behavior, to have patience and to learn to work under your dog’s threshold in controlled settings first. Remember and remind yourself to breath and keep the leash loose, don’t yank on the leash or freeze up. This takes practice!
  5. Avoid exposing your dog to the things that make him fly off the handle. In the beginning restrict areas where you can have accidental exposures such as going on a path other dogs frequent. Stacking stressful events is counterproductive and causes your dog to randomly practice the unwanted reactivity but may also result in his being set off more than expected in future.
  6. Learn to how to calmly move away from the dog, person or object with your dog’s attention on you. Distance is your most impactful management tool. Emergency get away techniques: learn to do a getaway u-turn away from the stressor and gain distance under more control. Distance is your best friend. Distraction techniques-teaching and using cues to interrupt before the dog is able to react. Practice loose leash control- tightening up on the leash may cause your dog to think there is something to fear and also can make him feel more unable to take flight away from the dog, person or object causing the fear.
  7. Teach your dog self control. For self-control, we implement a “Say Please” protocol at home creating structure and relationship-building where the owner learns to lead and the dog learns to love to follow. Not only is this helpful in self control but also makes the dog aware they should look to you for leadership and guidance in any situation.
  8. Teach your dog to an alternative behavior to the reactive behavior. After we, as dog trainers, set the foundation, we work on a substitute alternative behavior (automatic attention and sit), these are put in place to be the result instead of barking and lunging. Your dog should offer an Automatic sit — when your dog sits automatically offering the behavior without cue and Automatic attention or look at me when your dog looks at you offering attention automatically when he observes the reactive stimulus.
  9. Teach your dog to tolerate or even like seeing the dog, person or object by working with a professional on counter conditioning and desensitization techniques. Dogs will start in a controlled environment, with systematic exposures that are below the point at which the dog goes over his threshold. It might be necessary to start without a dog and hear just the leash jingling and mark and reward right away before the dog can react. You will learn to mark and reward the exposure with high value treats or rewards that lead to changing the dogs emotional response. This builds up to eventually adding real life exercises outside in real world distractions.
  10. Stay committed and learn to be patient. Commitment is required from all members of the family as this is a lifelong program and takes love and patience, but the impact of making these changes will greatly help you and build a stronger and happier relationship with your dog. You must be prepared to understand and enforce the relationship with mark and reward. With these tools you can enjoy and improve your handling and make your dog progressively better and much more comfortable. Your dog will anticipate seeing a dog in earnest of a reward! “Hey mom, I saw a dog and was well-behaved! Where’s my cookie?” Your dog is a good dog, let’s make your walks better.

Until next time, I’m heading out for a walk on the trail with the pup, a peaceful one, an enjoyable and calm one. I’ve got my super pup, my knowledge, my calm leadership and treats/rewards with me so I’m ready for anything!

Additional resources for information on this behavior including: Patricia McConnell’s book, Feisty Fido and Scaredy Dog by Ali Brown.

by: Nance Moran, MS, President and Co-Owner Life Is Dog, Inc

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Nance Moran


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