Ask The Dog Trainer

Top 10 Tips to Improve Your Reactive Dogs Behavior (Part 1)

tips for reactive dogs

Welcome back to our reactive dog family! There are a lot of us, so you are not alone. Remember, your dog is great, let’s make your walks better!

Some of you said those top ten tips are fantastic but I’d really like to know more about each one. Dana and I want to share with you the details you asked for.

As a reminder, you may have a reactive dog if they show several or all of the signs when seeing a person, dog or object that 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

Top 10 Tips to Improve Your Reactive Dogs Behavior

Hopefully, you have taken step one by consulting your veterinarian to be sure there are no underlying pains or physical concerns.

Let’s Talk About Exercise!

Like humans, dogs who do not get enough exercise may become overweight, which leads to health problems and expensive vet bills. Without exercise dogs will likely get bored and that can lead to a wide variety of behavior problems! 

Here are just a few: pacing, constant barking and whining, anxiety, digging in the yard, chewing on furniture and cabinets, jumping, bad manners and extra energy to maintain that reactive behavior. Exercise releases serotonin a happy chemical produced by nerve cells.

Happy dogs are less likely to react negatively. 

Those are only a few of the negatives for not giving your dog enough exercise. I know you are saying to yourself, “I let my dog out into my fenced in backyard to play.” If your dogs are anything like mine, they will just go out and do their business, smell around for a couple of minutes maybe chase a squirrel or a chipmunk and always come back to the door within a few minutes looking for me. Face it, our dogs just want to be with us! So, we have to physically and mentally engage our dogs in order for them to be happy and to get tired out.

All dogs do not need the same amount of exercise; it depends on the breed, size, demeanor and age of your dog. The moral of the story is a well-exercised dog is a tired dog, a tired dog is a happy dog and therefore a happy owner!

tips for reactive dogsLearn about your dog’s body language and tells.

A tell is a sign that your dog is just about to go over their threshold and display reactive behavior. Threshold is the point at which your dog begins to display the reactive behavior sometimes barking, growling, lunging, pulling toward another dog, person or object. Observe his body language when he is comfortable and uncomfortable.

A comfortable and relaxed dog (under threshold) can display the following behaviors:

  • ears straight up but not forwarded (exception dogs with altered ears)
  • tail neutral or down relaxed not curled under
  • Mouth open tongue, loose and can be observed
  • paws lie flat
  • body loose and straight-up but not on toes
  • able to respond to owner
  • soft mouth 

A dog who is at the threshold showing beginning and building stress may display:

  • stiff-legged or slowing
  • eyes become focused on the dog, person or object
  • ears forward
  • hackles raised
  • body tall and raised on toes and slightly forward
  • tail raised and stiff maybe small movements
  • mouth closed
  • pupils dilated

A dog who has gone over the threshold and is stressed may display:

  • fixed stare at the dog person or object 
  • may not be responsive to owner or food
  • growling 
  • showing teeth
  • stiff body/frozen and leaning forward 
  • hackles raised
  • tail raised
  • growling and Barking
  • lunging and charging
  • may snap and raise lip showing more teeth
  • fixed stare no longer responsive

Learn to breath and be calm, teach your dog to be calm.

Practice calm settle:

Sit in a comfortable chair with your dog on a leash in a place he feels comfortable. Wait until he lies down and drop a treat between his front paws calmly and quietly, be the “treat fairy.” Reward your dog randomly when they are lying down calmly. This may look like head down and relaxed with hind legs to the side. You can do this while you sit watching television or other activity as well.  

Increase mental stimulation:

Provide puzzle feeders or toys and increase mental stimulation in addition to exercise. Hide treats or kibble around the house and play a game of “find it”. Or do some simple dog training exercises such as sit, down, paw etc. Do them one at a time then put them together in a combination. Practice a very simplified version of Doggie Zen exercises by Sarah Filipiak. Don’t worry if you don’t have a clicker you can use a verbal marker that is one syllable. We find saying “yes” to be quick enough to mark the exact behavior you want instead of a clicker if you don’t have one. 

Peaceful music for a calm environment:

Playing soft rock or reggae music has been shown to lower heart rate and a decrease in stress-induced behavior such as barking in a study conducted by the University of Glasgow and the Scottish SPCA. Positive impacts were also observed in those pups listening to classical music as well. Dogs tended to show more positive impacts with music in rhythm with their hearts and enjoyed a variety of songs. 

Simple doggie massage at home: try this website that details 4 simple canine massage techniques that you can do at home or you can see a pet professional if preferred. 

Talk to your Veterinarian: about calming aids or pheromone therapies that may help your pup.

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 that 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 the future. 

The best way to control this is to take your dog for a walk where you know you will not run into any other dogs.  I’m sure you are thinking, impossible! Difficult maybe, not impossible. It will require planning on your part. Go out and scope your surrounding neighborhoods and find a quiet dead-end street (you might have to put your dog in the car and drive over to the area), to walk him. Or you can take him out in your backyard and play with him there. If your yard is not fenced, put him on a 30-foot leash so that he has enough room to run around. 

Close the blinds or curtains or crate your dog, you do not want him to practice the reactive behavior while you are not home to control it.

You need to understand the importance of keeping your dog calm. Every time a dog is able to practice a reactive behavior it increases the cortisol levels in his system; cortisol is a hormone released when your dog is stressed. The first time a dog has an “explosive” episode his cortisol levels increase and can stay increased for up to three days! If a dog is exposed to another trigger he will react a lot easier and faster if the exposure happens while his cortisol levels are high, which will cause them to stay high longer. It then becomes a vicious cycle, and very soon you have a reactive dog who goes CRAZY every time you see another dog, person, car, etc.

Unfortunately a reactive dog cannot be cured, HOWEVER, we can learn to control it and to teach our dogs an alternative to the reactive behavior and we can learn better handling and management techniques to make our walks more enjoyable.

Stay tuned for more details to come on the final Tips 6-10 next month. 

Guest post by: Nance Moran, MS, and Dana Langley, Co-Owners Life Is Dog, Inc

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