We all hope to have a dog who is friendly, easy-going and comfortable in different environments. Unfortunately, some dogs can have quite an extreme response to everyday situations such as seeing other dogs and people. This is what we call a ‘reactive’ dog and it’s very common, so you’re not alone!
As one of Woodgreen’s qualified behaviourists, here are some common queries I hear about reactive dogs:
Why do dogs become reactive?
Dogs are usually reactive if they don’t have very good social skills and feel worried by other dogs and people, or if they’ve had a bad experience in the past and are frightened.
Another common reason is if they love dogs and people a bit too much, get overly excited and feel frustrated that they can’t go bounding over to say ‘hello’ and play. We call the things they react to ‘triggers’, which can differ from dog to dog.
For dogs who are worried or fearful, their response is ‘fight or flight’. If they’re on a lead, they can’t run away, so they defend themselves the only way they know how: barking, growling and telling the other dog or person to stay well away!
For frustrated dogs, their response is often to pull, spin or turn around and grab their owner to get rid of some of their energy. In both cases, it’s a highly emotional state so you may find that your dog can’t listen to you or take treats while they’re trying to cope with the situation.
Can I train my dog to be less reactive?
You can, and it’s never too late to start. At Woodgreen, we recommend three things:
Practice basic training
All dogs benefit from having a good recall and knowing simple cues like ‘sit’. This creates a relationship of trust between you and your dog, and will make the bigger issues easier to tackle. You can also work on calm behaviours throughout your day – teach them to wait for their food, settle down on cue and solve problems through enrichment (like Kongs and puzzle feeders).
Keep your dog away from triggers
Although we can’t fully control the outside world and don’t know who will come around the corner, there are steps we can take to remove our dogs from stressful situations – especially during the training period. Try walking them at quieter times of day, like early in the morning, or take them out into the countryside or enclosed dog fields away from the hustle and bustle. You can also consider replacing some walks with games or training in the garden.
Teach them alternative behaviours
For times when your dog is confronted by a stressful situation, teach them to sit down (“sit!”), sniff out some treats on the floor (“find it!”) or turn away and walk in a different direction (“this way!”). All of these should be rewarded with something your dog finds motivating, like their favourite treats or a toy.
First, you should teach these cues while you’re at home, then out on a walk in a calm environment – and gradually increase how close you can get to your dog’s trigger. Though make sure you go at your dog’s pace. The more your dog practices these habits, the more they will associate their triggers with positive outcomes rather than stressful ones.
Have realistic expectations about what your dog will be capable of. Fearful dogs, who have been reactive for a long time, may never happily mix with groups of dogs – but you should be able to feel confident about walking your dog calmly, without regular incidents.
Need help? Just get in touch
If you need help with your reactive dog, Woodgreen’s team of behaviourists are on hand to provide free support – simply get in touch. You can also come along to our free online ‘Helping reactive dogs’ event on Wednesday 25th May at 7.30pm. Find out more and sign up at www.woodgreen.org.uk/events