You’re out for an evening stroll and your dog spots a neighbor’s cat lounging on the driveway. Most dogs will, at the very least, notice the cat, and a few might let out a warning bark or two, but some dogs’ reactions are on a completely different level. Barking, straining at the end of the leash, fixated on the cat and unwilling to keep walking no matter what you do. This type of over-the-top response is typical of a reactive dog.
“Reactivity” encompasses a spectrum of behaviors that can be challenging for pet parents to handle. The intensity of the canine responses and the feeling of powerlessness on the human end of the leash might be overwhelming, but there is hope for training reactive dogs.
What is a Reactive Dog?
Responding to stimuli is normal — many dogs will alert and react to things that surprise them or make them feel unsure, like other dogs, strangers, loud vehicles or people on bikes. However, the intensity of that response is what sets reactive dogs apart from a dog responding in a typical way. It isn’t just a “reaction” — it’s an overreaction. Reactive dogs tend to display behaviors that seem out of proportion in response to the stimuli, whether in volume, intensity, or duration.
Causes of Dog Reactivity
It’s often difficult to pinpoint the exact reason a dog is reactive since there can be a number of potential triggers for it. Plus, pet parents with older rescue dogs might not know their pet’s complete history.
Reactivity in dogs can be caused by:
- Exaggerated breed traits
- Lack of socialization
- A negative experience
- Lack of training
Let’s look at the causes of dog reactivity in a little more detail:
Exaggerated breed traits. Some dog breeds, like those in the herding and working groups, are selected for specific behaviors that can tip over into reactivity.
Lack of socialization. Early socialization helps puppies grow into confident dogs. Dogs who miss this important developmental step might be more likely to become fearful and reactive.
A negative experience. Trauma, whether accidental or due to abuse, might lead to reactivity.
Environment. Dogs in high-stress scenarios, like those living in a shelter, might be more likely to exhibit reactivity.
Lack of training. Dogs who have not been taught impulse control can exhibit frustration reactivity.
Common Triggers for Reactivity in Dogs
The triggers for reactive dogs are the same sort that might get a response out of a non-reactive dog, but the difference is the level of response. And keep in mind, not all reactivity is due to a negative emotional response. Some reactive dogs who can appear fierce might be exhibiting extreme frustration due to their inability to approach someone or something. A dog experiencing frustration-based reactivity might jump in the air and bark wildly.
Common triggers for reactivity in dogs include:
- Other animals
- Unfamiliar sights
- People approaching the house
Let’s take a closer look at these six common triggers:
Some reactive dogs will alert to any people they encounter, while others tend to fixate on people that look different from those they’re familiar with, like men with facial hair, people in hats or carrying umbrellas, or children.
Herding breeds in particular can alert to rapidly moving objects passing by, such as cars or other things on wheels, like bicycles or skateboards.
Dogs being reactive to other dogs is incredibly common and can often be even more challenging to cope with when the strange dog barks back.
Leash reactivity in dogs can also be an issue. While your pup may be sociable when interacting with other dogs and people off-leash, they might be more likely to have an overblown response when on leash and held back from approaching their target.
A “sudden environmental contrast” — like a new lawn decoration encountered on a daily walk or a tipped garbage can on the sidewalk — might elicit reactivity in dogs.
People approaching the house
Delivery people often elicit a reactive response due to breaching a dog’s perceived territory.
Reactive Dogs: 10 Signs to Watch Out For
A strong reactive response in dogs can include:
Even though these types of behaviors can appear aggressive, dog reactivity isn’t always directly equated with aggression. Reactive responses are often fear-based, and some reactivity can be due to frustration, like a leashed dog who wants to greet someone who is at a distance. However, untreated or longstanding reactivity can tip over into aggression, which is why it’s important to deal with these types of behaviors before they escalate.
Some More Subtle Signs of Reactivity in Dogs
Before resorting to growling/barking/lunging behaviors, most dogs exhibit subtle stress signals that can be difficult to pick up on. Identifying them early can help pet parents manage their dog’s environment, like moving to a different space or blocking access to a potential trigger, to prevent a full reactive response. The signs can include the following behaviors:
A yawn doesn’t necessarily mean your dog needs a nap, so consider the surrounding circumstances when your dog does it. This signal can be an early stress response, and is an attempt to prevent escalation. The yawn is often prolonged and repeated.
Frequent lip licking
“Lizard tongue,” or when a dog licks their mouth frequently, is another early stress signal that indicates discomfort. It happens quickly and is easy to miss, particularly in smaller dogs.
Starting/stopping panting suddenly
Dogs pant for temperature control, but in tense scenarios, it can be a way dogs indicate discomfort. An abrupt change in panting, either starting or stopping without any difference in activity or temperature, usually indicates that a dog is starting to feel tension.
Fixating on the trigger without looking away
Once dogs start staring at a trigger, it usually means that a blowup is soon to follow. It can be difficult to get a fixated dog to look away, even when offering a treat.
Reactive Dog Training: Tips for Calming Canine Reactivity
Since reactivity in dogs can progress to aggression, it’s best to begin training as soon as you notice the behaviors. Dogs who successfully repeat a pattern of behavior, like explosive barking at the mail carrier, learn that the behavior “works” and will likely keep it in their repertoire. The best training for reactive dogs (and all dogs) is dog-friendly, science-backed positive reinforcement training that uses food and allows the dog to progress at their own pace.
Manage the environment
One easy way to prevent reactivity is to manage the dog’s environment so that the trigger can’t impact them. For example, if you know your dog has a tough time when the food delivery arrives, instead of allowing them to remain close to the action, try putting your pup in a quiet room with a treat-stuffed busy toy until the delivery is complete. Or if your dog hates the sound of the trash truck when you’re on a walk, time your strolls so that pick-up is done for the day.
The secret to success when training a reactive dog is understanding all of your dog’s triggers and working hard to keep their “sub threshold” while training — meaning, your dog isn’t pushed to the point of explosion. A dog in a full-blown reactive moment is nearly impossible to reach, so keeping them calm and able to focus is crucial.
The easiest way to do it is by understanding your dog’s buffer zone. That includes how far away you need to be from the trigger to prevent a response, as well as factors like:
- The trigger’s speed (is the car going fast or slow?)
- Sound (is the truck just passing by or is it emptying a garbage can?)
- Number of triggers (is it one child or a whole group of them?)
- Activity level (is the person walking by or jogging?)
Work with an expert
One of the most effective ways to train a reactive dog is by using counter-conditioning and desensitization, which helps your dog feel less stressed by changing their emotional response to a trigger through pairing it with something they love. That said, because there are nuances to this type of training, it can be helpful to work with a positive reinforcement trainer.
Keep in mind that a sudden change in your dog’s behavior can be an indicator of an underlying medical issue, so schedule an appointment with your veterinarian if you suspect there’s more to your dog’s reactive responses.
Sharing your life with a reactive dog can be frustrating and embarrassing, but there is hope! Understanding their triggers, managing their environment, and using positive reinforcement training can help shift your dog from the neighborhood grump to a pup who’s a pleasure to be around.