The Reactive Dog

Do you have a dog that becomes restless in certain situations? Does she bark, whine, urinate, defecate, or vocalize inappropriately? Does she excessively lick herself, spin in circles or chase her tail? Does she jump up at you or other people, lunge towards other dogs or run up and down the perimeter of your fence? If you answer yes to any of these behaviors, you might have a dog that reacts to situations with unusual intensity, at least from a human’s point of view. We might consider the intensity of a reaction abnormal, but the reaction makes perfect sense to your dog.

All animals react differently to different situations. We give our dogs the life skills they need to behave appropriately in different environments, but sometimes they show an intensity in the way they react that is difficult for people to handle. It can be challenging to live with a dog that lunges towards other dogs or barks at people passing by. Even if we know why these behaviors happen, it is still frustrating and potentially dangerous when they do.

What exactly do we mean when we say a dog is reactive? Veterinarian Karen Overall explains that “Reactive dogs respond to normal stimuli with a higher-than-normal level of intensity. The behaviors [used] to ascertain reactivity (or arousal) are: alertness, restlessness, vocalization, systemic effects, displacement behaviors, and changes in solicitous behaviors.”

Why do we start to see these types of behaviors particularly in adolescent dogs? Hormones and maturing bodies certainly play a large part, but dogs can also react negatively to things they perceive as threatening, even if the stimulus does not seem threatening to us. Dogs that are fearful tend to need more ‘thinking time’ when it comes to evaluating a situation. This is the time when we say they are “under threshold,” in that their stress has not built up to the point where they go “over threshold”. Dogs are visual thinkers and most prefer to approach a social situation voluntarily rather than being pressured to interact. If the pressure gets to be too much or the dog is not interested in social interaction, the dog will react.

Reactivity has become a popular term to describe intense behaviors, but other terms  such as “my dog is a frustrated greeter”, “lead reactive,” or suffering from “barrier frustration” are also used.

Dogs that greet inappropriately might lunge, bark, or jump at other dogs or people because they have not been taught a polite greeting. They might become frustrated because a lead is holding them back, taking away their autonomy and stopping their ability to act naturally, or they might react to keep a perceived threat at a safe distance.

The dog that barks and runs up and down the boundary of his fence might be doing so because he is bored or fearful of people on the other side. He might be warning them to stay away or telling you that someone is about to invade your territory. Dogs that are “contained” behind electric fences can see as well as hear stimuli beyond the boundary. This encourages them to bark and chase moving objects such as cars or bicycles. They might be chasing these stimuli to get them away from their property or chasing them because it is a fun and reinforcing game.

These types of behaviors should not define your dog’s personality. Labels place individual dogs into stereotyped groups and often cloud a person’s perceptions and understanding of their own dogs. But regardless of what labels are used, intense behaviors can be dangerous for both dogs and people and should be addressed immediately by a certified dog trainer and behavior professional.

Reactive dogs are not bad dogs. They simply display problematic behaviors and emotional issues that need to be addressed using positive management and training techniques. Sometimes reactive behavior can turn into aggressive behavior especially if the dog is insecure or does not feel comfortable in a social situation. Aggression can also be elicited by a socially mature dog that does not welcome a lunging, barking, crazy adolescent coming toward them even if it is just to say hello.

Not all reactivity is fear based. Some dogs will learn that a certain behavior works on their own or by watching other dogs. It is normal for dogs in multidog households to pick up positive and negative behaviors from their housemates. It is also common for dogs to “self-learn.”

Take the dog who barks at a delivery person as he delivers a parcel to your front door. The dog spies the “intruder” and barks as the delivery man approaches the house. Once the parcel has been delivered, the man moves away to the next house. As he moves away, the dog is still barking and continues to bark until the man is out of sight. The same thing happens each day at a similar time. The dog is consistently reinforced for barking because the man moves away from the home every time the dog barks. It does not matter to the dog if the man walks away for some reason other than a barking dog; walking away means that the dog has done his job. The dog might have initially felt some stress when the delivery person approached the house, but the daily reinforcement he gets from being successful is enough for him to wait by the window for the delivery person to come again. Positive reinforcement strengthens learning, even when it is something you do not want your dog to learn.

Reactive dogs should be seen by a vet to make sure that they are not in pain or have an underlying medical reason that is exacerbating the behavior. If there is no medical cause, your vet might recommend medication or other natural therapies to lessen your dog’s stress. Once you determine that there is no underlying health condition, you can move on to management.

Some reactive dogs live very happy lives with management alone because they are never put in a position where they encounter the stimulus that triggers the behavior. This can be easy for people to implement as long as there is consistency. You can use baby gates, doors, noise and visual barriers to separate your dog from the stimulus. You can give your dog problem-solving toys to distract her and give her something else to do or use harnesses or muzzles to keep her and others safe when she is outside.

In reactivity cases, other than physical tools such as muzzles and leashes, the easiest tool to use is space. Keeping a dog a certain distance from the problem stimuli can lessen or even eliminate the problem behavior. The key is to find your dog’s critical distance, or the distance at which she perceives, processes, and responds to stimuli. When this is recognized, a behavior modification plan can start to lessen reactivity and keep your dog safe and under threshold. 

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Positively Expert: Victoria Stilwell

Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.

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