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Do you have a reactive dog, or suspect you may have one? You’re not alone! Reactivity is common in dogs, and is not something to be embarrassed about. In this guide, we’ll go over what reactivity is (and isn’t), what causes reactivity, and what to do if your dog is showing signs of reactivity.
What is reactivity in dogs?
The American Kennel Club defines reactive dogs as “[dogs] that overreact to certain things or situations.” This means that a dog’s reaction to a certain stimulus is excessive or out of proportion with the situation. Do you think your dog is “aggressive,” or notice that they bark, lunge or have other extreme reactions? Then you might have a reactive dog.
Reactivity is very common: our own research shows that 75% of dog owners say they have a dog that shows some signs of reactivity.
How do I know if I have a reactive dog?
Once you start observing your dog with this question in mind, you’ll probably know fairly quickly. Does your dog have something that “sets him off”? If so, you probably have a reactive dog.
Look for signs of reactivity:
Are certain breeds or types of dogs more likely to be reactive?
The answer is tricky. Some breeds have been bred for specific purposes, such as hunting or herding, and this can influence their behavior. For example, rat terriers, bred for killing rats, are likely to become very focused or even seem obsessive if they see a rodent. However, in most cases, this does not count as reactivity. It would only count as reactivity if your dog had a reaction to the stimulus (in this case, the rodent) that was way over the top, and bordered on dangerous for himself or others.
In addition, over the years, different dog breeds have been maligned for alleged tendencies toward reactivity or “aggression” (think of all the negative press about Pit Bulls over the last couple of decades). However, there is no scientific evidence that suggests this is true.
In an article about leash reactivity (dogs who are reactive while they are on a leash), Sue Brown, MNM, CDBC, CPDT-KA, states “you cannot predict which dogs will be reactive simply by looking at their breed.” She adds that she is not aware of any studies that look at this question. While more research is needed, it is much more likely that a dog’s environment and socialization, not breed, are the key factors in reactivity.
What is not dog reactivity?
It can be tricky to know what is and is not reactivity. Remember the definition of reactivity: dogs that overreact to certain things or situations. To be considered reactive, your dog needs to have certain triggers, i.e. she is reactive to a stimulus.
Here are a few behaviors that are not reactivity, but are commonly confused with it:
What causes dog reactivity?
According to the AKC, “genetics, lack of proper socialization, or a combination of the two can cause reactivity.” The “nature vs nurture” debate is at play here, as it is tough to determine what is caused by genetics and what is caused by environment or lack of socialization. For example, if a dog is born to a mother who is reactive to certain stimuli, he will likely become reactive to the same stimuli. However, it’s difficult to say whether this is straightforward genetics, or whether the dog learned this behavior as a puppy by watching his mother. In a puppy’s early life, especially the first twelve weeks, socialization is critical. If a dog is not properly socialized during this time and is observing a parent with reactive behavior, she might become reactive.
Applied animal behaviorist and author Patricia McConnell writes that dog reactivity can be caused by caused by psychological trauma, and compares reactivity to soldiers with PTSD: “Just as a veteran soldier with PTSD can react to a loud noise by throwing herself to the ground, dogs with their alarm systems fixed on HIGH are usually quick to startle to an abrupt noise, or panic when unfamiliar dogs appear.”
Though genetics may play a part, reactivity is a conditioned response that is rooted in fear.
What should I do if my dog is showing signs of reactivity?
First, don’t panic! As we stated above, many people live with reactive dogs, and it’s ok! You can live a full life with a reactive dog, and your reactive dog can have a full life, too!
Understand your dog’s reactivity: Really observe your dog: when is she calm and relaxed? When is she reactive? She may have a trigger that’s obvious (mail carriers, people with beards, etc) or it may be harder to spot. (Maybe she wildly barks sometimes and you don’t know why—in this case, try your best to listen, watch and get to the root of it! Did someone close a car door outside? Did someone honk a car horn?)
In addition, pay attention to your dog’s body language, as we talked about above. Check out our guide to reading your dog’s body language, and watch for signs of stress in your dog, such as lip licking, facial tension, whale eye (when a dog turns their head but keeps their eyes on you, showing a lot of the whites of their eyes), shaking, or freezing. These signs show that your dog is stressed or worried. If you notice your dog showing these signs, note the situation and environment and see if you can get to the bottom of what’s causing them. (You may have to do this several times to be able to notice a pattern.)
As far as understanding the root cause of your dog’s reactivity: this can be difficult and may be unknowable with some dogs. You may know that your dog barks at tall people with beards, but you may never find out if there was an “inciting incident.” Try to make peace with that fact and just commit to treating the behavior. (Details on how to do that below.)
Take action on a daily basis:
How to make a difference in the long term:
What is desensitization? Desensitization, also according to the VCA, means “the gradual exposure to situations or stimuli that would bring on the undesirable behavior, but at a level so low that there is no negative response.” Desensitization and counterconditioning go hand in hand.
To begin counterconditioning a dog, first, you’ll need lots of high value treats. Take your dog (and your treats) to an area with the dog’s trigger (or where the trigger is likely to appear). Once the trigger appears and the dog clocks it (e.g. you can see the dog observing the trigger, but not yet reacting to it), begin generously rewarding the dog with the high value treats. An example: perhaps you’re out on a walk with a dog who is reactive to skateboards. You hear a skateboard in the distance, and see your dog’s ears prick up, observing the sound. Now is a great time to reward the dog with the high value treats. The goal here is to change the dog’s association from “skateboarders = bad and scary” to “skateboarders = treats are coming.”
Obviously, the process will look different depending on the dog’s triggers, but that is the basic idea. It is very important to start small and go slowly. At the very beginning, make sure you mark and reward behavior that is even a step in the right direction. Even if the behavior seems incidental or like an accident, mark and reward it. You are gradually building toward “this trigger means good things are coming.”
You can do this process yourself, but you might also consider getting a trainer involved, as they can help you get started with this process. Make sure you find a fear-free trainer who only uses positive reinforcement training, of course. As we’ll talk about below, you do not want to use punishment or fear with a reactive dog (or any dog).
As with any training process, counterconditioning is likely to take a while, and you will have to do it multiple times across many different sessions. Be patient and celebrate victories, even if they seem small!
What not to do
You should never punish a dog for reactivity. Many people are tempted to do this in an attempt to “correct” the behavior, but dog trainers agree it only makes things worse in the long run, as it instills more fear in the dog, and does not deal with the root of the dog’s reactivity.
Punishment also includes things like bark collars, which are devices that produce a negative effect (spraying citronella, vibrating or even shocking the dog) when the dog barks. While these may seem to work in the short term, they are still a form of punishment, are considered by many to be inhumane, and crucially, do not work in the long term. One study on shock collars found that dogs subjected to the shock collar showed more stress-related behaviors than the dogs in the control group.
Though it can be difficult to resist the urge to punish in the moment, keep in mind that positive reinforcement is a much more effective strategy, and that punishment will only degrade your relationship with your dog.
Further reading and learning
There are lots of great resources for how to live with and train a reactive dog! Here are a few that we like:
Good luck, and remember: you’re not alone, and you can always bring your dog to a Sniffspot for some playtime!
Trainer Review of this Article
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.
This is the trainer that reviewed this article:
M.Ed. Humane Education
Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner
Certified Tellington TTouch and TTEAM Practitioner