Standard disclosure: there may be medical reasons that your dog is reactive, especially if the behavior starts suddenly or the intensity increases. There are many dog trainers who work specifically with leash-reactive dogs. Always ask for help if you need it.
- Always consult your veterinarian to rule out any medical reasons for changes in behavior.
- Always consult a dog trainer or behaviorist if the behavior is beyond something you can handle on your own. We recommend APDT, Association of Professional Dog Trainers.
What is a Reactive Dog?
- If your dog is reactive, that means that he or she overreacts to certain situations, people, objects, or other stimuli.
- If your dog is aggressive, that means he or she is hostile or destructive towards another person or another animal.
Aggressive dogs often have other underlying conditions and it is always best to consult with a professional if you believe your dog is actually aggressive or if you have a very bad case of reactivity on your hands.
Dogs can become reactive for many reasons, from overstimulation to previous bad experiences. A reactive dog is any dog that reacts strongly to certain triggers - often common or daily triggers. Watch the video below to see it in action.
Why is my dog reacting like this?
Dogs always have a reason for being reactive, but it can be frustrating for their humans to try to find the root cause of a behavior.
Some dogs are happy-reactive which can lead to jumping up on people, happy barking, and fence-running. Some dogs are scared or anxious reactors, responding with fear or even aggression to triggers they've had a bad experience with or don't understand.
A reactive dog may bark, jump, lunge, pull on the leash, fight the fence, or show other inappropriately energetic behaviors in response to their reaction trigger.
Remember, this is a reaction to outside stimulus, reshaping your dog's relationship with that stimulus will help him or her react differently over time.
How can I help my reactive dog?
As a loving dog owner, we know you want to help your dog be a good boy or girl and to be able to meet people and go for walks without struggle. With patience and a little training, you can reshape your dog's reactive behavior and/or learn coping mechanisms.
How to Calm Your Reactive Dog When They React
- Keep your cool
- Block them from the trigger (block their line of sight or turn around and walk in the other direction)
- Use calm commands and reassuring words, reward them for looking away from the trigger or for calm behavior
- Redirect to a positive activity with rewards
The first step is to know how to respond when your dog is reacting. It likely happens often, so you'll get plenty of practice. To calm a reactive dog, start by keeping your cool. Project a calm exterior. Then block your dog from the trigger as soon as possible. Use calm commands asking them to sit and be quiet. If you have commands that mean bed or relax at home, use these. You can block your dog from outside triggers like scary other dogs or big truck noises by putting your body between your dog and the trigger to block their sight and occupy their focus with familiar, loving attention.
Reactive dogs are often scared or nervous about something, so being calm and reassuring is the most helpful thing you can do.
Use Routine to Create Stability and Safety
Reactive dogs often feel unstable or unsafe about something. The trigger might be unfamiliar or related to a previous bad experience. The best way to help your dog become a calm, cool animal all the time is to offer them a predictable routine that reinforces stability and safety. Walking your leash reactive dog at the same time every day can also reduce unexpected encounters with scary things like trash trucks and school buses.
Learn Your Dog's Reactivity Triggers
What causes your dog to go off into a spiral of reactive behavior? Triggers can be good or bad. For example, a dog barking at the window may think he "chased off" a squirrel intruder OR he may be asking the squirrel to play.
Your dog might react to people, to certain traits of other dogs, or certain situations. Watch them carefully and pay attention to what they notice right before your dog reacts.
Learn their triggers and make plans to help minimize those triggers and be ready to practice the tools above when you encounter a trigger.
Minimize Exposure to Reaction Triggers
When trying to help your dog reduce reactivity, the first step is to reduce their exposure to triggers. If your dog barks at the window or fence, keep them away from the trigger area.
You may put a leash on a reactive dog when they're outside or set up a dog run so they can't get to the outer fence. You may use baby gates or even an indoor tether to keep your dog from barking at the window.
If the reaction is to sounds - like a truck going down the street - use white noise indoors or possibly a DAP diffuser while training your dog to be calm and to calm down on command.
If it's other dogs on your walk, try a new route that doesn't pass the trigger houses. Pawsitive Futures recently wrote a great article about alternatives to neighborhood walks for reactive dogs.
Keeping your dog away from their triggers is all the negative reactions you need to have. Dogs don't respond as well to punishment as they do to reinforcing positive behaviors - and punishment can sometimes make reactivity worse when related to your dog's anxiety. Instead, try reconditioning how your dog responds to their reactive triggers.
Recondition Your Dog's Reaction to Triggers
The key to reactive dog training is to help your dog respond differently to their triggers. You want to help your reactive dog associate triggers with a chance to be good and get treats. Instead of barking at the mailman, you want your dog to sit pretty and wait to be rewarded for not barking. To do this, you want to learn your dog's body language.
Recognize Your Dog's Moods and Reactions
Learn to spot when your dog is about to react. Their body language will tell you when they are alert, nervous, or getting excited. A forward-leaning or tense pose is anxiety, and tail wagging can be an attempt to say "hey, I'm not dangerous" to whatever is scaring them.
In addition, give them activities, stimulus, or walks to tire them out and improve their overall mood (which may decrease reactivity). For example, a dog who reacts strongly when people come to your home may be able to resist triggers if he has a good walk before company arrives.
If your dog pulls heavily on the leash, the Freedom No-Pull Harness is a great solution and can make it easier to train your dog.
If your dog is fearful or reactive of strangers, you might use an "I Need Space" vest, collar, or leash.
Distract Before they React
When you see your dog becoming tense in response to a trigger, redirect immediately. Before your dog has a chance to express a bad behavior, reinforce good behavior. Use calming "sit" and "be good" commands and give them a treat for focusing on you instead of on the trigger. Each time a trigger presents itself, try to catch that exact moment between notice and reaction. This will help you recondition your dog's reaction to those triggers - so they expect treats for good behavior instead of needing to bark or jump.
Help Your Reactive Dog Learn to Stay Calm
Reactive dog training methods can help you and your dog enjoy time together by teaching them to stay calm. When you can help your dog see their triggers differently and anticipate rewards for good behavior, they will choose good behavior more often over time.
In addition, regular exercise and mental stimulation can help on many levels.
With the right equipment like pet gates and no-pull harnesses, you and your over-excitable doggo can find a happy peace where only balls and frisbees need to be chased and only real danger needs to be barked at.