Does this sound familiar:
You are out for a walk with your dog and another dog walker appears around the corner. You see your dog stiffen – your heart falls to the pit of your stomach because you know what’s happening next. Lunging, barking – OMG it’s so embarrassing!!!!! Ideally you’d like the ground to swallow you up but failing that maybe hiding in the nearest bush would help??
So, to deal with the embarrassment you start apologising to the other dog owner, whilst telling off your dog for being so darned silly and, well, embarrassing! But no matter what you do the reactions just KEEP HAPPENING!! Maybe with every dog you see or maybe just with some (and you can’t get your head around why your dog reacts to some dogs and not others).
Either way, nightmare! This isn’t what you had in mind when you got your dog AT ALL!
So what can you do about it?
Can A Reactive Dog Be Trained?
In most cases, thankfully, the answer is “yes!”
Reactivity really just means that your dog is responding disproportionately to a situation. So, if another dog jumps on your dog’s face, and your dog growls, is that reactivity? Not really, as it’s a proportionate response to the situation. If your dog sees another dog or a person and they bark and lunge, or jump around manically with excitement, or even just freeze, is that reactivity? Yes, as it’s a disproportionate response to just seeing another dog or a human.
There are a lot of different reasons why your dog might be reactive. The first one to make sure that you look into is health. If your dog is in pain or discomfort it can be a big contributor to reactivity. You know when you are feeling really under the weather, I bet you aren’t necessarily in the best of moods – and the same is true for our dogs.
Once that has been ruled out then we can look at appropriate training.
Will all dogs be able to deal with all situations? Well, no. Our dogs, like us, have their own personalities – some are going to be more sociable than others and some will have experienced trauma in their lives which we will always need to be mindful of and protect and advocate for them accordingly.
But the outlook, with the right management and training, is fantastic!
How Do I Train My Dog To Stop Being Reactive?
If you look on YouTube and the internet you will get a million and one different answers to this – some of which have a basis in science and fact, and other are based on assumption and outdated ideas. It’s a minefield out there and a lot of the information and advice is down right dangerous!
So let’s start with the elephant in the room! Is your dog being aggressive and / or trying to dominate you and anyone else? The answer is almost certainly not, and definitely not! Reactivity is usually due to fear, anxiety and / or frustration. Cases of true aggression where the dog’s motivation is to hurt another dog or human are vanishingly rare. What about the idea that our dogs want to be the “Alpha” and dominate us? This is a myth which began as a result of a study of grey wolves in captivity carried out in the 1930s and 40s. However the research was extremely misleading and has been debunked since.
The tragedy, however, remains that there are “trainers” out there – in fact a lot of the highest profile trainers such as Cesar Milan and Graeme Hall who still subscribe to this outdated, cruel theory.
Let’s think about it. If you have a dog who is reactive due to fear, and you add pain, discomfort or intimidation into the mix, is that going to help? Logic tells us that dealing with the underlying fear has to be the way forward.
What you CAN do is keep your dog under threshold as much as possible. This means managing the situations that your dog is in as well as you can to prevent a reaction. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, the more your dog reacts to a situation, the more ingrained that reaction becomes and the more it happens. Secondly, when your dog is reacting their brain becomes totally overloaded and is unable to learn a new, more appropriate response.
So starting training skills which your dog can use to cope with difficult situations at home is a great starting point. Increasing optimism, training the understanding that that things “over there” are none of their business, helping your dog to cope with frustration, and above all, learning to listen to what our dogs are desperately trying to tell us with their body language. If our dogs feel listened to they feel safer. The safer they feel, then less they will feel a need to react. So creating a place of safety with us is paramount.
Reward-based training has been proved time and time again to work at least as well as the aversive training used by alpha dog type trainers, and it does not have the dangers in terms of welfare for the dog or the risks of increased aggression. It’s a no brainer.
Of course each dog is different, as is each owner, so the best option is to go to a reward based trainer for guidance. You would be very welcome to book a call with me for a free 30 min chat about your struggles.
Is It Too Late To Train My Reactive Dog?
No! My own two dogs are rescued street dogs from Romania. They both came to me as reactive dogs when they were around 5 years old.
Training an older dog is more challenging as the pathways in the brain are more fixed rather than the lovely malleable spaghetti like stuff we can easily mould in puppies. But it’s definitely achievable!!
What Type Of Training Is Best For Reactive Dogs?
It’s so important, so it’s worth saying again! Purely positive, and reward based! Training which helps your dog feel safe! Training which gets to the root of the reactivity! And absolutely no aversive methods! No prong collars, no slip leads, no choke chains, no shock collars, no sprays (even water!), no shouting, no loud noises – none of these are needed EVER! The alternatives are fantastic and really work. But be prepared to take time and effort with your dog. There are no magic instant solutions, but working WITH your dog on their reactivity will be one of the most rewarding things you could ever do.
Some of you may have used negative training methods in the past or even are currently. If that’s you, just change your methods now – book a call! And leave the guilt behind, you were doing what you thought was best with the information you had. But now you know better you have a responsibility to change.
How To Distract A Reactive Dog
As I discussed earlier, the key is to train your dog when they are calm and relaxed, rather than when they are reacting.
Your top strategy is to avoid situations where your dog may react wherever possible.
But life happens! Sometimes you can’t avoid a situation or you make a mistake and your dog reacts. First, stay calm! Drop your shoulders, take a few deep breaths and whatever you do don’t tell your dog off – this is not the time to worry about what someone else thinks. If you can, get out of there as quickly and safely as possible. Go home and give your dog time and space to decompress. This could take several days. Calm will be key in these times – a long lasting natural chew is a great idea.
If you are in a situation where you have to go past the other dog think speed and space. Go as quickly as you can and keep as far away as you can preferably with something between your dog and the other dog / human.
Can A Reactive Dog Be Cured?
I wouldn’t say cured and strictly speaking they’re not sick! But we can certainly do lots of things to help you and your dog have a happier and more fulfilling life together.
Let’s have a chat!
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