Confessions of a Dog Trainer: I Have a Reactive Dog

142It was a humbling experience, as a dog trainer, when I moved into New York City and had a dog that barked and lunged at other dogs when walking down the street. My dog, Charlotte, is generally a little anxious, and life in the city was quite an adjustment for her. I know I’m really good at my profession, but suddenly I was able to empathize with my city clients and all that it takes to support a dog that is upset or anxious outside. I also did not wear any clothes with my logo on it for the first month I lived in the city, horrified that people would see this dog trainer with a “bad dog.” Who would hire that person?! It was a tough month of acclimation for all of us.

Unfortunately for many dog owners, reactivity is a common behavior issue. In some cases, the dog is reactive to inanimate objects that move, such as trucks or scooters. Sometimes they react towards people, such as joggers, people holding objects like bags, or people walking with canes. Dogs can also be reactive to kids, loud noises, or a sudden burst of activity. For this article, I am going to focus on dog-dog reactivity, specifically leash-reactivity, for the purpose of explaining how I helped Charlotte. The first step is to understand the behavior of reactivity and what motivates the dog to put on a huge display that is embarrassing and stressful to the person on the other end of the leash.

What is reactivity?

I like Dr. Patricia McConnell‘s definition of reactivity:

“REACTIVITY? What are we talking about here? When I use the term I am talking about what we usually think of as “over reactivity,” or “reactivity” that we see as inappropriate. After all, a loose body greeting is a “reaction” to another dog, right? In this case, I am talking about barking, lunging, snarling, snapping, stiffening etc… in other words, doing things we humans don’t like that makes us nervous that the behavior might be followed by aggression or trouble of some kind. It’s not a great term, but it’s better than “aggression,” since so much of behavior that we consider problematic is not aggressive at all.”

Why are dogs reactive? 

Dogs can be reactive towards other dogs for many reasons. Some fear or dislike other dogs because they had a bad experience or were under socialized when younger (lacked positive experiences with other dogs). These dogs are barking and lunging to keep other dogs at bay. Some dogs LOVE other dogs so they bark and lunge out of frustration of being restrained by the leash. These dogs are desperate to meet every dog and tend to do well with dogs in off leash situations. Dogs like Charlotte want to control the space around them and the actions of other dogs. The leash prevents her from doing so and therefore she is reactive. 143

In all cases, it can be embarrassing and stressful for the human partner as well as the dog. A dog trainer, such as myself, who uses reward-based techniques and has training in behavioral science can help you transform your dog’s behavior. I am a fan of finding such trainers who have CPDT status (Certified Professional Dog Trainers). You can also find excellent trainers using the trainer search on Victoria Stilwell's website, where trainers have been VSPDT certified. I have both CPDT and VSPDT status and am happy to work with you or to recommend an equally qualified peer.

In part 2 of this blog, I will give you some management tools I used to help Charlotte from reacting to things that bothered her. Management is important because it helps to create an environment in which the dog has little or no opportunity to practice the behavior you want to change. I heard a trainer recently say that allowing a dog to practice a behavior that you are trying to change is just like pouring water into a bucket with holes. That metaphor definitely made an impact on me.

Clarity & Harmony…better way of living with your dog.


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Positively Expert: Bobbie Bhambree

Bobbie Bhambree is a dog trainer, a dog behavior consultant, and an agility competitor with over fifteen years’ experience in dog training and behavior. Bobbie is the Founder & Director of DogCentric Training & Behavior, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants...


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  • Jo Mama Yo

    Where is part 2?

  • When I was a kid we had a dog that couldn't pass a nun without going spare! Those were the days when they were in long, black habits all the way to the ground .... and Patch just couldn't deal. Thankfully the area wasn't awash with nuns ....

  • jaded one

    I am having a hard time with the word "reactivity" when a dog my own dog and I encountered on our way home (unleashed, got out of the house and made a fast beeline straight for my dog). I still have bruising and scratches from that dog. The "barking, lunging, snarling, snapping" (snapping=biting) that was experienced has left me feeling very rattled still, and I have never been "afraid" of dogs. This is the third "event of reactivity against dogs" I've seen from this neighbor's dog, and second "reactivity" towards my dog. This is aggression. It was clearly unprovoked and uninvited. In the three events I've witnessed, no one was in this dog's "space/property", he sought out my dog twice and the other dog (all were leashed but that one). Now I am dealing with what to say to the neighbor because I can't tell them to put it down. There is at least one report filed with the city about this dog.

  • My one pom is "reactive" from excitement of wanting to see the other dog on leash and not being able to. She went to training, we've found doing obedience or other mental activities before a walk at night is helpful to release some energy beforehand. If she's already exercised she doesn't care as much to play with a dog so she doesn't react. Also doing some agility has been great for her. No issues at the dog park unless dogs are being too rough / fighting, she's thinks she's the police and will try to break the dogs up by herding them. So we keep her away...she's only 6 lbs, they don't take her seriously and wouldn't want her to get hurt.

  • Jenny H

    I have had seriously 'reactive' dogs in the past -- until I discovered that at least three-quarters of the problem is our own body language that upsets our dogs and makes them 'reactive'.' You need to work on calm yourself -- and for that I really, really recommend Paul Owens' "Complete Breathing" exercise.
    Then you have to re-learn to recognise your dog's stress level BEFORE it erupts. If you were unwise enough to 'punish signs of stress (like growling. eye-ing off another dog) you will need to be very alert to what signs remain. Then speak calmly to your dog and turn around and get away from whatever it is that the dog is reacting to. To begin with -- with my last 'reactive dog" I used to put my hand over her eyes as we turned. Eventually she learned to simply ask me if we could please go )by leaning her face against my knee 🙂

  • Debbie Magill

    My dog is that dog described that is reactive because he HATES the leash. Fences too! He wants to greet EVERY dog and he does GREAT in off leash places where there are other dogs.

    He gets so obnoxiously loud and wild when there are barriers and he can't get free, he looks and sometimes sounds like he's aggressive and wants to fight. It's possible a fight could occur cause the dog on the other side is pretty worked to too because of his behavior. But I know the problem is the barrier (fence or leash or window if in the house.)

    It is EXTREMELY difficult to make a noise to snap his attention away. He's very loud and noises almost don't seem to penetrate to his brain.

    He does so well in fenced places with other dogs otherwise. And he's a sweetie but this behavior makes passing pedestrians think he's dangerous. So I can't even walk him. Which I hate. I want to walk my dogs and don't because of this. I bought a thundershirt but haven't worked up the nerve to try it out in the real world. I suppose I should, but I worry now he will sense my hesitation, doubt and anxiety.

    Anyway, my Danny Boy is that dog that hates the leash. All barriers. Off a leash fenced in in a dog park, he's wonderful. (Though I don't go to dog parks anymore-mostly for health reasons for the dogs AND to avoid those people who bring their small, other dog-hating dogs who want to nip when another dog gets to close. If they nip my friendly little Sienna, my other dog, she defends herself. Can't blame her but I'd rather not chance a sparing round with my dog defending herself. But that's another story.)

    I can't wait to see the second part of this blog and see what Victoria suggests.

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