A Guide to Helping Your Reactive Dog
Dog reactivity is difficult to live with, both for your dog and for you as their owner. There is a wealth of information out there on the internet on how to work on it, some of it is great but unfortunately, some of it is not.
Firstly, if you need advice about a behaviour issue as tempting as it is to ask the internet and other owners it is really important that you have an accredited dog trainer or Behaviourist assess your dog’s individual responses to their triggers. Check your dog trainer’s accreditations and make sure that they are certified by a recognised dog training body and use only force-free, positive reinforcement-based training.
Punishment is never needed to train a dog, but in the case of reactivity, it undoubtedly compounds the issue and makes it worse. Punishment serves to supress your dog’s communication method. So to us it might look like it has ‘worked’ because they are no longer lunging and barking, but all that has happened is your dog has been taught to internalise their feelings. Punishment effectively puts a plaster over a hole that still exists underneath and is a quick fixed designed to make us happy, not your dog.
Punishment includes using anything that your dog will not like which could be:
- Shouting at them
- Tapping or hitting them
- Using dominance-based training such as rolling them onto their back
- Lead checking or popping
- Electric, choke or prong collars
If your trainer mentions any of the above please walk away and trust your gut.
There could be any number of reasons that your dog is reactive so a one-sized fits all approach is not always helpful. Common causes of reactivity include:
- Underlying pain or medical conditions (the majority of reactive dogs have undiagnosed issues)
You can understand why adding punishment to any of the above emotions would cause them to feel even worse. Imagine if every time you were faced with something you are fearful of you also got a punch in the arm for panicking.. you would dread seeing that thing even more than you already do next time. Positive based training changes your dog’s emotional response to their reactivity trigger by pairing the unpleasant thing with a pleasant thing such as food or toys.
Over time they begin to have a positive emotional response to the trigger in anticipation of a reward.
To begin working on reactivity you need to ensure that your dog has a big enough distance from their trigger that there is no reaction. They also need to be able to eat treats and sniff around. If they aren’t responding or taking food distance needs to be increased.
Once you have found a suitable spot for training where your dog can see their triggers without a reaction it is time to start working on changing their associations and behaviour around the trigger. If we take other dogs as an example. As soon as your dog looks at the other dog in the distance you would give them a big YES or use a clicker (if your dog is clicker trained) and reward them with high value food such as cheese or chicken. We need to be using the BEST food in order to change their emotional response, dog treats generally aren’t valuable enough.
Over time the more this is practiced your dog will actually start looking forward to seeing other dogs in anticipation of a treat. A bonus benefit is that your dog will actually start looking away from dogs immediately and look to you for their reward instead of fixating on them. You then very gradually decrease your distances if they are responding well.
Managing your dog’s access to their triggers is also really important. This means not letting a trigger get close enough to cause a reaction. Every time they react, your dog has had another ‘rehearsal’ of the behaviour which further solidifies it.
Hi-vis lead covers, bandanas or coats with ‘my dog needs space’ are really useful to ensure that other people don’t spoil your hard work by getting too close to your dog. Driving your dog to open spaces where you are unlikely to see their triggers is really helpful initially to give them a break from reactivity to reset.
Reactivity training is slow if done properly, be wary of anyone who guarantees a quick fix as they will likely be using behaviour suppressing training methods. Rewiring a brain takes time but with patience it can be done!
Rachael Claire is an IMDT accredited Behaviourist and Certified separation anxiety pro trainer working remotely across the UK.