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What Is a Reactive Dog and How to Manage It?

If your dog barks and lunges at other dogs or people on walks, then you’re probably familiar with the behavior of a 'reactive dog.' For pet owners with reactive dogs, a simple walk can become frustrating and difficult. Learn about reactivity in dogs, common triggers for reactive behavior, and how to help your reactive pup.

What does 'reactive dog' mean?

A reactive dog reacts strongly to normal everyday situations. Reactive dogs aren’t necessarily aggressive. A reactive dog usually doesn't intend to cause harm, but they can escalate to aggression without behavioral intervention.

Reactive dogs are usually experiencing fear, anxiety, or frustration that manifests in outward displays. While genes can play a role in reactivity, dogs that were not socialized well as puppies or had negative experiences with specific stimuli can become reactive.

Reactivity doesn’t make a dog 'bad' — it simply means that your pup needs guidance to manage their emotions.

Common triggers for reactive dogs

Identifying your dog’s triggers is one of the first steps you should take towards helping your dog. Triggers for reactive behavior can vary; however, some triggers are quite common among reactive dogs, including:

  • Dogs walking past or barking at your dog
  • Dogs or people approaching when your pet is on a leash (leash reactivity)
  • People walking past
  • People with specific characteristics, such as wearing a hat or using crutches
  • People riding skateboards, bicycles, scooters, or similar means of transport
  • Fences or other barriers (barrier reactivity)
  • Deliveries being dropped off or the doorbell ringing

Signs of a reactive dog

At the sight or sound of a normal stimulus, a reactive dog may:

  • Bark
  • Lunge
  • Growl
  • Raise their hackles

Some dogs may go still, hunch, and stare until the stimulus approaches before displaying reactive behaviors.

It’s best to consult with a veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical conditions, especially if this behavior is new for your dog.

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Helping a reactive dog

Reactivity won't go away on its own, but there are steps you can take to help your reactive dog lead a more relaxed life.

Management strategies

You will want to make sure you have your dog on a secure leash when going on walks. It is best to avoid retractable leashes. Other options to help you keep control of your dog include a harness or a head halter. You should not use choke or shock collars on your dog. As an extra safety precaution, you could consider basket muzzle training, which is training your dog to wear a type of muzzle that allows your dog to drink, take treats, and pant, but prevents them from biting.

Once you have identified your dog’s triggers, you should take steps to avoid those triggers when possible. For example, if your dog is constantly at the window barking and lunging at people passing by, draw the blinds or close the curtains. If your dog is reactive to other dogs, try to take them for walks at times with fewer people out. If you see someone approaching with their dog, try to go a different way when possible. Trigger avoidance will make for a less stressful dog walk.

Keep in mind that your dog can only establish their boundaries through body language and vocalizations. The displays of a reactive dog are normal examples of canine behavior, and your dog is communicating discomfort. It’s up to you to advocate for your dog. If your dog doesn’t like people leaning over them, you need to help set this boundary with people who visit. If your dog doesn’t like being approached by other dogs, you need to communicate this to people who try to walk their dog right up to you.

For a more long-term solution, you can work with a trainer or veterinary behaviorist on desensitization and counterconditioning. Counterconditioning involves rewarding your dog in the presence of triggers to create a positive association. Counterconditioning is often used in tandem with desensitization, which is when you slowly increase the stimulus your dog is exposed to. Start giving treats at a safe distance from the trigger and try continuing to feed treats as the trigger passes by. Over time, you might be able to move closer to the trigger. You could also look into group training classes specifically for reactive dogs, which will allow you to practice these dog training methods. In some cases, anti-anxiety medications may be helpful in addition to behavioral modification programs.

Creating a safe environment

Because a lot of reactive dogs are fearful dogs, you can do a lot for canine anxiety by creating a calm and predictable home environment for them. You can use crates or baby gates to create a safe space for your dog. It's advisable to have a safe space where your dog can retreat from triggers. In this safe space, you can place favored beds, treats, and toys. Consider using calming pheromone sprays or diffusers as well.

Reactivity can also be the result of frustration. For example, your dog waiting at the window for something to bark at may need more mental stimulation in their life. Consider puzzle toys, playing games like fetch or hide-and-seek, and making sure your pup gets plenty of exercise to burn off mental and physical energy.

Living with a reactive dog

The following tips will help you manage your reactive dog in everyday life:

  • Make a plan. Reactivity will not go away on its own. Your veterinarian, positive reinforcement-based dog trainers, and veterinary behaviorists can help you develop a management strategy. In some cases, anti-anxiety medication may be recommended.
  • Use positive reinforcement training. Punishment-based and dominance-based training often increase fear in dogs, pushing reactive behaviors into aggressive behaviors. Treats, praise, and affection can go a long way.
  • Get familiar with dog body language. Your dog will often show physical signs that they’re uncomfortable before displaying reactive behaviors. Signs could include lip licking, yawning, pinning the ears back, raising the hackles, going stiff, and/or showing the whites of the eyes.
  • Remain patient. Your dog needs your time and patience to help them overcome their fear.
  • Look at your pet insurance plans. Some plans may cover behavioral interventions if recommended by a veterinarian.

Your reactive dog will need your help to overcome their fears and frustrations, but with time and patience, you can manage reactivity. Working to overcome reactivity will strengthen the bond you have with your dog. Remember to seek professional help for your dog if needed.

You're not alone — there are a lot of people living with reactive dogs. Consider sharing this article to raise awareness about reactive dogs.


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