Dogs that are repeatedly prevented from reaching a desired stimulus, such as other dogs or people, can develop barrier or frustration-based reactivity. This frustration may manifest as barking, lunging, growling, and otherwise making a scene in your yard or while out on a walk.
In this guide, we dive into barrier reactivity (sometimes called barrier aggression) in dogs, exploring its signs and underlying causes.
Most importantly? We equip you with practical insights to help your canine friend overcome their barrier frustration-related struggles!
Frustration-based dog reactivity usually stems from a dog wanting to interact with something (a person, another dog, a specific object) that they can’t.
This is common in social dogs who regularly visit dog parks or attend daycare. They love other pets and get frustrated when they aren’t allowed to greet them! That frustration (especially when being shut behind a barrier like in a fenced yard or held back on a leash) can quickly build into a reactive display. This is why the behavioral problem is sometimes called barrier aggression — an emotional response of frustration can result in behaviors like growling and barking.
For the purpose of training your reactive dog, barrier reactivity and leash reactivity can be treated pretty interchangeably. Many dogs who struggle with barking, lunging, and growling while on leash also have the same issues when behind a fence!
If we’re being technical, we can define leash reactivity as a type of barrier frustration, since a leash is a type of barrier.
Barrier reactivity refers to a range of behaviors a dog might exhibit when they are confined behind a barrier, such as a fence, gate, or leash. So signs of barrier reactivity can vary!
Some common symptoms include:
Barrier and frustration-based reactivity in dogs can be influenced by various factors. Understanding the underlying causes can be helpful to effectively address and manage your dog’s behavior!
Here are some common causes:
Dogs that haven't been adequately socialized to different environments, people, and animals may become reactive as a default when faced with unfamiliar stimuli. This frustration can be heightened when behind a barrier.
Dogs that haven't been trained to cope with frustration or taught alternative behaviors may resort to reactive responses when faced with barriers. Note: If your dog is barrier reactive, it does not mean you haven’t done a good job with their training! It can be hard to teach our dogs to appropriately handle frustration, and this is just one of many variables.
Certain breeds may have a genetic predisposition to reactive behaviors. Understanding breed characteristics — what your dog was originally meant to do — can help tailor training approaches to specific needs.
Dogs are naturally territorial animals, and some may feel triggered when they perceive a threat to their territory, such as people or animals passing by their home. This protective behavior may lead to reactivity when they feel confined or restrained especially on their own property.
Pain or discomfort due to underlying medical issues can contribute to reactivity. It's essential to rule out any health concerns through a veterinary examination.
Dogs that lack mental and physical stimulation may channel their excess energy into reactive behaviors. Regular exercise and mental enrichment are crucial for a balanced, well-behaved dog.
Addressing barrier and frustration-based reactivity often involves a combination of positive reinforcement training, desensitization, counterconditioning, and addressing any underlying issues.
Professional guidance from a certified force free dog trainer or behaviorist can be invaluable in developing a tailored behavior modification plan for your specific dog and situation!
We promise we’ll get into the training itself soon, but first: Management is an important part of helping your barrier reactive dog. The more frequently your pet practices their unwanted behaviors in a heightened emotional state, the deeper they ingrain those habits. It’s important to prevent as many reactions as possible so your training can be successful!
Don’t worry — you don’t have to be perfect. Your dog will still react to triggers. You can’t control the whole world. And no one expects you to! Just a little bit of effort can go a long way to managing your dog’s behavior in the meantime, though:
Frustration-based dog reactivity and general overarousal can often be improved by simply addressing our pets’ underlying needs. As mentioned above, it’s possible that your dog is displaying reactive behaviors as signs of feeling ill, in pain, or unfulfilled! You can increase their exercise frequency and type, including activities that let them move their body and use their brain in natural ways.
It’s always a good idea to evaluate your reactive dog’s basic needs before focusing on specific training situations. Even if your dog’s reactivity is driven by more than a treatable health or fulfillment problem, making sure their needs are met will still help you maximize your training success.
How can you help your pet feel more fulfilled in our modern human world? Provide appropriate canine enrichment!
At its simplest, enrichment provides animals with opportunities to satisfy their innate instincts. Common enrichment activities usually give our dogs the chance to safely dig, sniff, and emulate their predatory sequence (searching, stalking, chasing, fighting, celebrating, and consuming) without causing harm to or disrupting the communities we live in. You might fill a rubber toy with peanut butter for them to lick out, focus on playing fun games together, set up structured playdates with dogs you trust, and more.
You can learn more about fulfilling your dog’s natural instincts in our comprehensive guide to canine enrichment. A bonus is that many of these activities can turn into alternate behaviors your dog performs around their triggers in the long run, or you can use them as part of a healthier behavior chain.
Observation games like engage-disengage and Look At That use counter - conditioning principles to help your dog feel a little calmer and think more clearly around their triggers. These games can be found in Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed books!
Engage-disengage and Look At That methods capitalize on operant conditioning (a learning theory involving animals intentionally performing behavior to earn reinforcement) to create better responses (more agreeable behaviors like looking at you) rather than barking and lunging.
Desensitization involves getting our dogs used to their triggers slowly, in small doses that don’t put them over threshold. While it can be difficult to implement in the “real world” (public environments are often unpredictable and we can’t always decide how far away our dogs are from their triggers) it’s a valuable technique in controlled situations. Distance, intensity and duration matter a lot in this behavior modification technique to help your dog ultimately make a habit of calmer behavior (and lower stress levels).
There are countless great resources for how to live with and train a reactive dog! Here are a few that we like.
We have an entire blog category devoted to dog reactivity and related problem or unwanted behaviors. One of our primary goals is to be a welcoming community for reactive dogs — that’s why we have specific rules (like gaps between arrivals and transparency about other animals within view) to keep all Sniffspot visits safe.
Here are a few specific articles:
Good luck, and remember: you’re not alone. When in doubt, get in touch with a professional force free trainer you trust. And know you can always bring your dog to a Sniffspot for some playtime without worrying about reactivity triggers!
There is so much misinformation out there, and we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality content to our community. We have our articles reviewed by qualified force free trainers.
This is the trainer that reviewed this article:
Owner and Head Trainer | Misunderstood Mutt
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