What Is a Reactive Dog?

Reactive Dog

Reactive dogs are overly aroused by common stimuli or certain situations. Reactivity is often mistaken for aggressive behavior.

Many reactive dogs are not aggressive but will bark, lunge, and growl when they're triggered. Ultimately, they can be described as fearful.

Understanding your reactive dog can be complicated. In this article we'll discuss your reactive dog, their reactions, and common stimuli to avoid.

Lastly, we'll discuss common training techniques that can help reactive dogs.

Reactive Dogs

Two Reactive Brown Labrador Dogs

Owning a reactive dog can be stressful for many dog owners. Daily life can be complicated, dog parks are a nightmare, and playdates are impossible.

But where did it start? Reactive origins are usually found in previous trauma.

There are many stories of dogs being bitten and becoming fearful of other dogs. This trauma can last for years or forever.

Reactivity can also be caused by genetics, lack of socialization, or lack of training.

Identifying Triggers

Caring for your dog's reactive behavior is difficult. It's important to identify and avoid triggers and stressful situations.

Certain stimuli can trigger an immediate reactive response. And depending on the trigger, there are a few different ways to handle your dog's reactive behavior.

For example, fireworks are difficult to avoid. They're loud and can last for days during holidays like the 4th of July and New Year's Eve. In these situations, try a calming vest or white noise machine to cancel out the excessive noises.

Some triggers can be avoided all together (e.g. dog parks, play dates, and walking at night). Without training, most reactive dogs should avoid social situations like these.

6 Triggers

  1. Strange dogs or people
  2. Congested or crowded spaces
  3. Walking at night
  4. Unwanted petting
  5. Loud noises (Fireworks, cars, and house guests)
  6. Leash reactivity

    Socializing a Reactive Dog

    Young Woman Hugging Golden Retriever

    Forcing your dog into social situations is never ideal. There are many options to help correct reactive behavior that don't include social immersion.

    For example, a trip to the dog park can be done by walking along the outside of the fenced park. Your dog will be far away from other dogs, but still within eyesight. They can feel safe but also adjust to being around other dogs.

    Redditor mdtrxwolf shared a heartfelt story on this exact situation...

    "I broke down at the dog park today.

    Had an emotional moment at the dog park today. My sweet girl was bitten pretty badly at an off leash dog park last year and she has been extremely reactive to other dogs ever since. I’ve been taking her to another dog park (only on the outside, we never go in) to do training and desensitize her to other dogs. We’re making progress, she doesn’t bark at dogs through the fence as often anymore and I’m very proud of her!

    A lady approached me and said “I see you outside the dog park almost every day, is your dog reactive?” and I explained to her the situation. My dog was calmly sniffing her dog which already made me emotional and then she said “I can see you’re making progress, I’m so happy you’re taking this time to do this with her, I know it must be so stressful. But she’s a good dog and you’re a great mom.”

    I then proceeded to cry in front of this kind stranger lol. I didn’t realize just how much stress I was under dealing with my reactive pup. Her validation gave me a moment to breathe and instantly made me sob. She offered to meet me at the park often to slowly introduce our pups and see if they can play together. I know my girl wants to play with others so badly but she’s so terrified.

    Thank you to those who are compassionate towards our reactive dogs. Oftentimes I feel like the world dismisses us and it feels so isolating. To all you out there dealing with a reactive dog, my heart is with you. Thank you for not giving up on them. You’re doing an amazing job and trust me it’s all worth it even if you don’t see it right now. Sending you and your pups my love ❤️"

    Source: Reddit r/ReactiveDogs.

    Training Tip

    Woman with her Rottweiler on a leash

    One of the best ways to deal with a reactive dog is to figure out their body language, fears, and anxiety. Understand what makes them fearful and show them you acknowledge their perceived threat.

    Simply looking and acknowledging the threat can help to ease your dog's behavior. Additionally, they'll watch your reaction to the "threat."

    They'll see you've remained calm, signaling to them that it is OK and the "threat" is not concerning.

    Bottom Line

    Dogs are smart, loving, and complex creatures. We want to do everything for our sweet dogs but sometimes it's difficult.

    Owning a reactive dog is stressful. And fear based dog reactivity can feel like it's impossible to handle. With the right patience and proper guidance, most dogs' reactive behaviors can be fixed.

    Don't lose hope if you've found yourself in a stressful situation with a reactive dog. Professional dog trainers can be found for behavior modification for even the most difficult dogs.

    Back to blog

    By Tory Johnson

    Tory Johnson is a veteran dog trainer, dog behaviorist, and canine nutritionist with 10+ years experience.

    Tory has helped countless families have beautiful relationships with their canine companions.

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