Got a Reactive Dog? Here’s What You Can Do About It.

This article originally appeared on Outside

When CC Carson moved to Missoula, Montana after finishing her master’s degree in 2017, she finally had the time and money to adopt a dog, so she started searching. Carson was drawn to Moose--a 30-pound black and brown mixed breed with short, corgi-like legs--when she noticed he didn't bark at her from his kennel. When she took him outside, he charmed her by wiggling around on his back in the grass. The staff mentioned that he hadn't gotten along with another potential adopter's dog, but Carson didn't think this signaled a larger problem.

A month after adopting Moose, Carson took him on a popular local trail that winds through a canyon. When other dogs approached Moose on the narrow path, he grew tense and started barking in a shrill, screaming pitch. Carson ended the hike in tears. She tried taking him on a few more hikes, but Moose's behavior didn't improve. In an outdoorsy town surrounded by dog-friendly trails, she couldn't take her new companion outside without him having a meltdown.

Carson confronted a challenging reality--she had a reactive dog. And she's not alone in having her dreams of an adventure buddy stymied by explosive behavior. Reactivity, especially on walks, can be shocking, embarrassing, and even scary for owners, and it is a common reason for seeking professional help. Fortunately, most dogs can learn calmer habits and live peacefully with their humans.

While there isn't a universal, scientific definition, dog-behavior experts describe reactivity as a pattern of strong, emotional responses to something in the environment, often other dogs, or people, bikes, cars, or loud noises. In short, the pup overreacts to everyday stuff, usually with tense body posture accompanied by barking, lunging, and growling.

What Is A Reactive Dog?

Dogbehavior professionals started using the term "reactive" some 15 years ago, partly because the word "aggressive" seemed too narrow a description for many behaviors they were observing, says Grisha Stewart, a dog trainer and founder of Ahimsa Dog Training in Seattle, Washington. Plus, owners understandably don't want to label their pet as aggressive, especially if they don't have a history of biting.

While reactivity looks like aggression, experts believe that only a tiny portion of reactive dogs are motivated by a desire to pick a fight, says Kristina Spaulding, an applied animal behaviorist and training consultant in New York.

Why Dog Reactivity Happens

Many reactive dogs are actually acting out of fear, adds Michele Wan, an applied animal behaviorist in Connecticut. Their outbursts are an attempt to ward off the dog, human, or object freaking them out--they are essentially yelling, "go away!"

Reactivity can also be caused by frustration, explains Spaulding. Some dogs play well with others when running free, but suddenly become barking beasts when attached to a leash. These dogs often just want to say hello, but become so frustrated by the leash that they throw a tantrum. The frustrated canines are struggling to regulate their emotions and might have other impulse control problems such as an inability to relax at home. It's also possible that a reactive dog is feeling mixed emotions--they might be scared and excited at the same time, for example.

As for why some pups have this problem and others don't, dog-behavior experts say it's usually a mix of genetics and life experiences. Some breeds just have more skittish or excitable temperaments. Poor breeding practices that don't screen for health and temperament issues might also be problematic. Even maternal stress can have a strong imprint on a puppy before it's born.

Socialization Is Key

In early life, it's crucial for puppies to have positive experiences in a variety of settings. This type of exposure can set a dog up to be more confident, friendly, and resilient the rest of their life. In fact, many shelter dogs are not nervous as a result of abuse, but due to a lack of early socialization. Safe, supervised play as dogs go through adolescence can help them learn canine social skills, Spaulding adds. "We know from other mammals that play with peers--same age individuals of the same species--is critically important during adolescence."

The Rise In Reactive Dogs

Some trainers report an increase in reactivity cases following the surge of pet adoptions during the pandemic. "I believe reactivity issues, along with basically all other dog behavior issues, have been more prevalent recently," wrote Aaron Texiera, an applied animal behaviorist in California, in an email. Not only did dog ownership increase, but housebound pandemic puppies may have missed out on crucial exposure to the outside world. Stewart and Spaulding said that they've observed cases increasing over the last 20 years, but added that there's no way to know for sure; for example, it might simply be that more people are willing to hire professional help for their dog than before.

Dog Reactivity Depends on the Environment

Our heightened expectations for dogs may also be contributing to behavior challenges. Today, we expect dogs to lay quietly at our feet at the coffee shop, office, and brewery. Dog ownership has increased, as well, creating a busier and barkier environment. Being constantly attached to a six-foot leash, too, can create extra tension--a fearful dog doesn't have the option of creating distance, for example, and when panicking may resort to "fight" instead of "flight" response.

In other words, reactivity is subjective. A dog happily roaming a ranch in the country might become an anxious mess on a tight leash in the city. While a suburban canine might get along fine in their day-to-day life, settling at a busy restaurant might be asking too much. It's hard to be a dog in a human-dominated world.

Regardless of its particular emotional undercurrent, reactivity is stressful for dogs and their owners, and it rarely resolves without any intervention. Fear-based reactions tend to be self-reinforcing: if the dog barks at another dog across the street and that dog walks away, the barking dog feels like their behavior worked because it created distance. Reactivity can also be a hazard for handlers: lunging dogs can injure fingers, wrists and shoulders at the other end of the leash--strong dogs can even bring owners crashing to the ground.

For dogs regularly having outbursts, experts say the first step is to reduce rehearsal of those behaviors. At least initially, it can help to move walks to less crowded times and areas. Find places to exercise where the dog can be far enough from stressful things that they aren't melting down. A narrow hiking path with off leash dogs and blind corners is a no-go because it's too unpredictable, says Wan.

In addition, teaching dogs skills like an emergency u-turn cue can prevent them from getting overwhelmed in tighter spaces. "Avoid interaction with whatever is upsetting the dog, whether it's another dog or a person, whatever it is, except when you're actively working on a behavior modification session," says Wan. Settling into a routine of exercising at off-peak times or quieter places can be enough for some dogs and their owners to live peacefully.

Reactive Dog Training Tips

To reduce reactivity, dogs need careful training. Here's a basic outline of what that looks like.

Consult a Professional Dog Trainer

While the basic training steps are straightforward, there are many small but consequential details involved in a training plan. Working with an expert, such as a certified behavior consultant or animal behaviorist, can accelerate a dog's improvement.

A typical session consists of a set up where the dog can observe whatever they overreact to at a distance, far enough where the dog won't freak out. This allows them to gradually grow more relaxed. Trainers often use treats and toys to reinforce calm behavior and form positive associations with the stressor. In Stewart's Behavior Adjustment Training Method, the reactive dog explores an area on a long leash, with whatever triggers the dog (for example, another dog) in sight, so the reactive dog can observe it and then continue sniffing and moving freely. "It's like a mindfulness exercise, really, and mindfulness is medicine for all reactivity in dogs or people," says Stewart.

Use Rewards, Not Punishment

What doesn't work for reactivity is punishment, experts say. Camille Ward, an applied animal behaviorist in Michigan, said many clients come to her after unsuccessfully using a prong or shock collar to try to change their dog's behavior--often at the advice of a trainer (anyone can call themselves a dog trainer in the unregulated industry). While these tools can quiet a dog down, they don't improve how they feel about a situation. Several studies have connected the use of punishment with increased aggression in dogs. "The dog thinks: every time I see something I thought was scary and dangerous, it's confirmed, because my owner attacks me," says Ward. "We're potentially fueling the underlying flames of aggression."

Train In Quiet, Wide-Open Spaces

Ward helped her own rescue Doberman, Jimmy, recover from fear-based aggression. She started working with him in an open field, 50 yards away from other dogs and people, armed with his favorite squeaky ball and bits of steak. Over the course of a summer, she was able to walk him in the neighborhood without reactions. She's never seen a case where a committed owner following a training program was not able to help their dog improve.

Keep Expectations Realistic

However, improvement is not the same thing as a do-anything dog. While Jimmy now accepts visitors in the house with careful introductions, he will never be a therapy dog, Ward says. She emphasizes that training is about helping a dog be the best version of themself.

Moose at ease in the backcountry after reactive dog training
Moose at ease in the backcountry (Photo: Courtesy CC Carson)

The Bottom Line: Most Reactive Dogs Can Improve

To help Moose, Carson became a self-described mapping nerd to find places where Moose could enjoy nature without distress. Sometimes that included logging areas--not the prettiest places, but at least Moose could roam in peace. She cited these remote hikes as crucial opportunities for Moose to decompress, giving him the capacity to handle more stressful environments. Separately, she gradually trained Moose to respond more calmly to the sight of dogs, using positive reinforcement techniques such as pattern games--sometimes when a dog passed nearby, she would count "one, two, three," tossing Moose a treat on every "three," a predictable rhythm that helped him relax. Medication--fluoxetine, or Prozac--also reduced his tendency to panic. Over time, Moose was able to pass dogs on city bike paths without reacting. He even made dog friends.

Carson says she is grateful for her time with Moose, who developed cancer and was put down last year. Their time together taught her patience, both for Moose and herself, and a keen ability to read dog emotions--skills she might not have otherwise learned. While the process is challenging, "your dog is not giving you a hard time," she says. "They are having a hard time." Starting from that place of empathy, she helped Moose be the best version of his anxious doggy self.

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