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Managing reactive behavior

Reactivity is hard on dogs — without support your dog could become aggressive

You want to take a relaxing walk with your dog, but at just the sight of another dog or a person, they start barking hysterically, forcing you to drag them away. This is a reactive dog — one who overreacts to normal situations that other dogs would take in stride. Reactive dogs are not necessarily aggressive dogs, but reactivity can turn into aggression, so your attention to training becomes extremely important. 

Reactive dogs become overly aroused by common stimuli. They may lunge, bark and growl, becoming so preoccupied with whatever is triggering the emotion that they can be difficult to control and move out of the situation. A reactive dog is usually a fearful dog. Causes can be genetic, but they are more likely due to a lack of socialization, prior bad experiences or a lack of training. 

Aggressive dogs show similar signs but are determined to cause harm and destruction. Any reactive dog can be pushed into aggression, which is why a reactive dog needs to be taken seriously.

Avoiding reactive dogs 

Ideally, you don’t want a reactive dog in the first place. Adult dogs can be evaluated or taken on a walk for a “test run,” but predicting a puppy’s adult behavior can be more challenging. 

Dr. Katherine Houpt, the James Law Professor Emeritus of Behavior Medicine in the Department of Clinical Sciences, recommends asking to meet the parents of a litter if possible, since puppies do often take after their parents’ personalities and reactivity can have a genetic link. If that’s not possible, at least visit the litter before weaning. Mother dogs are protective of puppies, but they should not be aggressive. Puppies should be friendly, confident and outgoing, approaching you for attention instead of cowering or hiding. 

Identifying triggers 

The first thing to do is to identify the specific triggers that set your dog off. Houpt says that trigger is anything that acts as a stimulus to make your dog react dramatically. This might be a strange person, other dogs or both. Classic scenarios involve things like someone wearing a funky hat, men with beards, other dogs and children.

Some dogs are reactive to these stimuli in all situations, while others might only be reactive in certain contexts. Some dogs are fine with other dogs off-leash, but become reactive when they are on a leash (this is referred to as leash reactivity). Other dogs might be more likely to show reactive behavior in congested or crowded spaces, or when out walking at night. 

After you’ve identified triggers, try to avoid them while you work on a training plan. You don’t want the behavior to become an ingrained habit. “Walk your dog when others aren’t out, and avoid the dog park,” says Houpt. 

Protect your dog 

Immersing your dog in situations that where they are not comfortable will increase their fear and may make their behavior worse. When you’re out with your dog, be vigilant. If you see a person or dog who is likely to upset your dog, avoid them if possible. Give your dog a chance to have some walks and calm outings, so you can praise them for being a good dog and they can start to relax. 

Remember that your dog does not have to be friends with all people or every dog. Houpt says the assumption that all dogs should love all other people and all other dogs is mostly an American phenomenon.

“In Italy, dogs go everywhere, but they keep them away from other dogs, and people aren’t constantly coming up to pet them,” she says. In this regard, they treat their dogs more like people by respecting a dog’s personal space. 

You need to be your dog’s advocate. For example, protect them from a stranger looming over them to keep them from feeling like they need to defend themselves. If the person continues to approach your dog or tries to pet them, calmly but firmly tell that person that your dog is working, shy or in training. This usually will help most people understand the need to respect your space. 

Counter-conditioning 

Of course, avoidance isn’t a permanent solution. Behavior modification and counter-conditioning to help make your dog’s triggers less scary are the long-term answer — giving them coping strategies to deal with stressful situations. 

Start by always having treats with you. “Reward the dog as soon as the trigger appears,” Houpt says. Feed them treats while the scary thing passes by or as you move by it. At first, you will want to give the reward at a safe distance from the trigger, if possible, so that your dog feels comfortable. This might mean keeping an entire soccer field between you and some kids playing, for example. 

With consistent and frequent training, your dog will start to associate the trigger with something positive. With luck, eventually, they will see another dog and look to you for a treat. Toys and praise can be used for positive reinforcement too. 

Over time, you will be able to move closer to the scary stimulus. Enlist the help of a friend to make sure that you are in control of the situation. For example, if your dog reacts to other dogs, ask a friend with a calm dog to walk across the street from where you and your dog are working, while you use treats to refocus and reward your dog's attention. If your dog remains quiet and focused on you, ask your friend to move a little closer. If your dog starts to get stressed, ask your friend to go farther away. This can be done with children or people in hats, for example, too. 

It is important to make a plan to continuously work with your dog and make triggers less scary by helping associate them with a rewarding treat (or toy or praise). If you have difficulty, talk with a veterinary behaviorist or a fear-free dog trainer to customize strategies for your dog.

This article has been reprinted with permission from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s DogWatch Newsletter, published by Belvoir Media Group. You can subscribe online to receive DogWatch Newsletter.