Reactive dogs come in many different shapes, sizes and breeds. There is no one size fits all for reactivity. And the way the reactivity is expressed can take different forms too from excited pulling when they see another dog that they want to meet, to barking and lunging aggressively when they see a cat or your dog desperately trying to drag you down the street away from the scary thing. The reasons for the reactivity might be different, what they are reactive to might be different but one thing that remains the same is just how stressful it can be for you and your dog.
I have had the privilege to work with a number of reactive dogs and their families over the years and there are two core pillars to reactive behaviour modification that I use each and every time for dealing with reactivity in any form.
These two pillars form the basis of the behaviour modification plan and are what the training strategies are based on.
What is reactivity?
Ok, so what is reactivity? Reactivity is the overt or over-reactive behaviour the dog displays in reaction to a particular stimulus like another dog, person, small animal, bird or object. The reactive behaviour could be barking, lunging, pulling, growling and is triggered by something specific.
A common misconception about a reactive dog is that the dog is aggressive. The dog may be displaying what looks like aggressive behaviour but the root cause of the behaviour could be fear or excitement. Either way, the behaviour can look similar and the way we address the behaviour is often the same.
When designing a behaviour modification and training plan I will also include activities to help address the root cause of the behaviour around the home that compliments these two core pillars and associated strategies. It is crucial to any behaviour modification plan that the root cause of the issue is addressed.
1. Reduce the stress and/or excitement
Before you can teach your dog anything, they first must be receptive to what you are trying to teach them, and it is simply impossible if they are stressed or excited.
I’m sure you have all had the experience at one time or another where your dog is so distracted by another dog, person or activity that they are simply incapable of hearing you, let alone understanding what it is you are saying. Or even just think of a time when you were in a really stressful situation or excitedly waiting for something and just remember how difficult it was for you to focus and pay attention to what was going on around you.
I often explain reactivity to clients as a zero to ten scale. Zero being your dog is so calm and relaxed they are asleep to ten being out of their mind excited/stressed. At the top end of the scale, they are not able to process any new information and are often just operating on pure instinct and what has worked for them in the past. They are just reacting without any coherent thought processes.
At the bottom end of the scale (not the sleeping part!) is where your dog is able to think and process new information, give you focus and learn new skills. This is the zone we want to be in whenever we are trying to teach our dog a new skill or behaviour, especially when it comes to addressing reactivity in your dog.
2. Teach an alternative behaviour
The barking, lunging, pulling, growling behaviour is purely reactionary and often what the dog thinks will keep it safe based on past experience. Not only is this behaviour scary and potentially dangerous, but if allowed to continue it further reinforces to the dog that this is what they need to do in these situations.
We want to teach our dog that they can be safe without these aggressive behaviours. We want to teach our dog that they can still control the outcome with calm behaviour instead. We want to teach our dog to think not to react.
By teaching an alternative behaviour you can encourage your dog to be calm, to think instead of reacting and prevent the reinforcement of unwanted behaviour. It is impossible for your dog to be sitting giving you attention and barking and lunging at another dog at the exact same time.