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How to Know if Your Dog is Reactive | Pupford

February 7th, 2024

Filed under Training

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Do you have a dog who barks excessively on walks? Maybe they lunge or pull toward other dogs or people they encounter? This could mean your dog is reactive.

In this in-depth guide, we'll explore the intricate world of dog reactivity to help you determine if your pup is struggling with reactive behavior.

We will cover what reactivity is, the science behind the fight-fear response, tangible examples of reactive behavior, and a detailed exploration of body language. Additionally, we'll provide you with positive reinforcement training techniques to address and manage reactivity effectively.

Table of Contents:

  1. What is Reactivity?
  2. Reactivity as a Fear Response
  3. How to Recognize Reactivity
  4. Positive Reinforcement Training Techniques To Improve Reactivity
  5. Living With and Managing a Reactive Dog

What is Reactivity?

Before we dive into the bulk of this topic, let's address what reactivity really is and clear up some common misconceptions.

Dogs who perform reactive behaviors are commonly referred to as “aggressive dogs”. That is not the case!

Reactivity is a behavioral response to triggers and stimuli in the environments that the dog deems to be a threat and stems from feelings of fear, anxiety, and frustration. It's crucial to recognize that reactive behavior is a coping mechanism for your dog to navigate a world that might feel overwhelming.

While some reactive dogs can ALSO be aggressive, not ALL reactive dogs are aggressive.

The terms “reactive” and “aggressive” cannot be used interchangeably.

Many reactive dogs still make great family dogs! They can be well-socialized and friendly towards people, children, and other dogs. However, they may become reactive towards unfamiliar dogs while out on walks, towards cars that drive by, or even unfamiliar people in certain situations.

Being the guardian of a reactive dog can feel isolating, many people are afraid of what others will think of their dog or that they will be labeled as aggressive. But, reactivity is more common than you think, and finding community support is so important as you go through your reactivity training journey.

Join our free 30 Day Perfect Pup Facebook Community to learn from and share with other like-minded pup parents and chat with professional dog trainers.

Reactivity as a Fear Response

Understanding fear responses is foundational to comprehending reactive behavior. When a dog perceives a threat or feels anxious, the sympathetic nervous system activates, preparing the dog for a response. These responses fall under four categories of fear responses: fight, flight, freeze, and fidget.

Reactive dogs tend to lean towards the "fight" response, displaying behaviors such as barking, growling. and/or lunging as a defense mechanism. This physiological response is deeply ingrained in a dog's evolutionary history and plays a pivotal role in their survival instincts.

How to Recognize Reactivity

So now that you know what reactivity is, how do you recognize it in your dog’s behavior? Here are examples of reactive behavior and body language to look for.

Examples of Reactive Behavior:

Excessive Barking

Reactive dogs often express their discomfort through incessant barking at a specific trigger, which serves as a vocalization of their stress or anxiety and a way to get the perceived threat to move further away from them.

a photo of a dog a brown dog barking

Lunging on Leash

On walks, a reactive dog may lunge towards perceived threats, attempting to establish distance and create a buffer zone for comfort.

Growling and Snapping

Clear indicators of discomfort or fear are growling and snapping. These are warning signs that may precede more overtly aggressive behavior if the dog feels cornered or threatened.

photo of a Pomeranian showing their teeth and growling

Body Language of a Reactive Dog:

Stiff Body

A tense and rigid body is a telltale sign of heightened stress levels in reactive dogs. Paying attention to your dog's overall body posture is crucial for understanding their emotional state.

Raised Hackles

The raising of the hair along a dog's back, known as hackles, can signify arousal or heightened aggression. It's a physical manifestation of the dog's emotional response to a perceived threat.

Rigid Tail

Dogs will hold tension in their tail when they are feeling threatened, discomfort, or uncertainty. It can also be a sign that your dog preparing for a fear response, in this case likely a fight response.

a photo of a dog with a rigid tail

Training Techniques to Improve Reactivity

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is a powerful and humane training technique for modifying behavior. When addressing reactivity, focus on rewarding calm and non-reactive behavior with treats, verbal praise, or interactive play.

These techniques create positive associations with desired behavior and help change their emotional response to triggers or stimuli in the environment.

Avoid the use of aversive training methods based on punishment and dominance. These will only increase their fear and make their reactivity worse.

Desensitization

Desensitization involves exposing your dog to stimuli gradually in a controlled environment. Start at a distance where your dog remains calm and gradually decrease the distance over time. This process helps your dog build tolerance and reduces the intensity of their reactions.

Counterconditioning

Counterconditioning involves changing your dog's emotional response to triggers by associating them with positive experiences. For instance, reward calm behavior when another dog is in sight, creating a positive association with the presence of other dogs.

Learn more about specific exercises and training techniques to add to your reactive dog’s training plan!

Professional Training

In cases of severe reactivity, seeking the assistance of a professional dog trainer is highly recommended. A trainer with expertise in positive reinforcement techniques can assess your dog's specific needs and tailor a training plan to address their unique challenges. Professional guidance provides additional support and ensures that training efforts are effective and focused.

A man sitting outside while going on a walk with a golden retriever.

Living With and Managing A Reactive Dog

While complete eradication of reactivity may not be achievable for every dog, effective management and reduction are realistic goals.

When working with your reactive dog it is important to remain calm. Your dog can sense your energy and will use it as an indication of how they should be feeling too. Do your best to manage the situation by ensuring your dog is not in imminent danger and gently remove them from the situation.

It's essential to recognize and respect your dog's limits and provide a safe and controlled environment. Consistency in training and a deep understanding of your dog's individual needs contribute to successful management.

Something that I tell all reactive dog guardians is, "Your dog is not giving you a hard time, they are having a hard time."

I hope this also helps you have a better understanding of your reactive dog. ♥️ 

Reactivity in Dogs Recap

Once you have identified reactive behaviors in your dog, addressing reactivity requires dedication, patience, and a commitment to positive reinforcement training. By recognizing the signs of reactivity, understanding the fight-fear response, and implementing effective training techniques, you can significantly improve your dog's behavior. Remember, each dog is unique, and progress may vary, but with unwavering dedication, you can create a positive and enjoyable relationship with your reactive dog.

🐶 Check out the Reactive Dog Course in Pupford Academy+ to help you overcome your dog's reactivity. Get started here! 🐶 

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