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How to Train a Barrier Reactive Dog

Haley photo

Haley

February 01, 2024

Dog Reactivity

How to Train a Barrier Reactive Dog thumbnail

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!

Barrier reactivity is a form of frustration-based dog reactivity

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.

Barrier reactivity versus leash reactivity: What’s the difference?

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.

This article talks more about fixing leash reactivity or leash aggression specifically.

A German Shepherd dog shows leash reactivity in a grassy field

Signs of barrier reactivity

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:

  • Barking or growling: Dogs may bark or growl when they see other animals, people, or stimuli on the other side of the barrier.
  • Pacing or jumping: Restlessness, pacing, or attempting to jump over the barrier are signs that a dog is reacting to something outside the barrier.
  • Lunging or snapping: Dogs may lunge or snap at whatever is on the other side of the barrier, expressing their frustration.
  • Whining or whimpering: Some dogs may show signs of anxiety, distress, and negative associations by whining, whimpering, or vocalizing when confined in a fenced yard, on a leash, or somewhere else where they can't reach what they want to.
  • Body language: Pay attention to your dog's body language. Raised hackles, a tense body, and a fixed stare can be indicators of a heightened emotional state and stress level.
  • Dilated pupils: Wide, dilated pupils may suggest high arousal, indicating that your dog is reacting strongly to a trigger while stuck behind a barrier.
Sniffspot Dog running on field

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Causes of barrier reactivity

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:

Lack of socialization

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.

Lack of training

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.

Genetic factors

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.

Territorial instincts

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.

Medical issues

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.

Lack of mental and physical stimulation

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.

A Shepherd dog shows barrier reactivity over a fence

How to address your dog’s barrier reactivity

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!

Management of triggering situations

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:

  • Use tools like basket muzzles or “ignore me” patches as a visual cue to get more space from strangers while out on walks if your dog struggles with reactions on leash.
  • Cover your windows with film or close the blinds to prevent your dog from barking at triggers outside your living room or office windows throughout the day. You can also use household objects as visual barriers.
  • Consider playing soothing music for your dog if they tend to hear triggers before they actually see them passing by outside.
  • Practice your dog’s basic cues, leash skills, ability to receive reinforcement (like high-value treats) in multiple ways (like from your hand, scattered on the ground, and tossed in the air), and eye contact with you. Building these habits outside of stressful situations will make it possible for you to use them to get through difficult moments out and about. A solid ‘’leave it” cue can be especially powerful.

Exercise

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.

Enrichment and fulfillment

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.

Training for long-term barrier reactivity improvement

Observation games

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

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).

Get your dog the safe enrichment they need by renting a Sniffspot

Sniffspot Dog swimming in pool

Further reading and learning

There are countless great resources for how to live with and train a reactive dog! Here are a few that we like.

More Sniffspot blogs on dog reactivity

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:

Other dog reactivity resources

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!

Trainer Review of this Article

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:

Emily Fitzpatrick
VSA-CDT
Owner and Head Trainer | Misunderstood Mutt

Sniffspot Dog running on field

Get safe exercise for your dog by renting a private dog park near you

Haley photo

Haley

February 01, 2024

Dog Reactivity

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