Why is my dog Reactive and how can I fix it?

Does your dog look like a fish flopping on the end of the leash? Barking, growling, lunging, jumping. All around making a huge scene. Every time your dog sees another dog, or cat, or squirrel, or person-they lose their mind!

These are some of the behaviors I see when working with a reactive dog. Dogs, in general, are reactive for 2 reasons: fear or over-stimulation/excitement, and sometimes you see a combination of these as the driver behind their behavior. When thinking of behavior, if you can start by trying to figure out what the function of the behavior being exhibited could be, then you are on the right track.

In the case of reactivity that is fear based, the dog is trying to get the scary thing to go away. You will see a dog with much more aggressive-looking barking and lunging as they are trying to be threatening so that, hopefully, that creepy person will leave me alone and quit walking this way. Or that dog won’t come any closer and hurt me.

Dogs who are reacting because they are over-stimulated or excited have much more of the flopping fish at the end of the leash look, the barks are usually much less threatening. These dogs are pretty much so excited that they can hardly contain themselves. I’ve seen dogs do a version of dog screaming that I anthropomorphize as them saying “OH MY GOOOOSSSHHH!!!” My mentor calls them woo-hooers, and when they see someone or something so exciting they are like “WOO-HOO!”

While the dogs may be feeling very different emotions in the case of fear or excitement, we can work with them in much the same way. Clicker training! Clicker training is a way to mark a dog’s behavior at a specific moment in time, think of it like taking a picture and capturing that exact moment. A charged clicker (charged meaning that the dog associates the clicker with food), can also be a powerful tool in changing a dog’s emotions towards a specific stimulus.

Clicker training a dog who is reacting out of fear will ultimately change their feelings about the scary thing and so the aggressive-looking behavior will also diminish. After the clicker is charged, you will begin clicking and treating your dog the split second it sees the scary thing that is triggering the behavior. You will have to make sure your dog is far enough away from the scary thing that he can still react to the clicker and take treats. And you will also have to have delicious enough treats that your dog really wants. What you are doing is actually building a new association about the scary thing. Your dog will start seeing a dog who is far away and look at you for hot dogs. Scary thing = hot dogs!

Dogs who are excited about the thing they are seeing can also be clicker trained. You will do the same thing, starting far enough away that the dog can still react to the clicker, and click/treat as soon as your dog sees the super fun thing. In this case, the dog is still associating the thing with delicious hot dogs, but you are teaching the dog calm behavior. Remember you are clicking BEFORE they react to the thing, when they have just seen it and still calm. We are teaching the dog impulse control. One main difference with training, is that a dog who is excited is going to have the ultimate reward of getting to that exciting thing, in a calm manner. So a dog who loves other dogs and is reacting because they want to see the other dog, will have the final reinforcement of meeting a dog.

Disclaimer: Dogs who are fearful would not have the same training goals as a dog who is excited so it’s important that you know the reason behind your dog’s behavior.

Let’s take a moment to touch on punishment here when training a reactive dog. Some trainers use punishment with things like shock collars or choke chains in order to change the dog’s behavior. Many times, this technique will work in the short term, so the trainer and the owner think, “AHA! It’s fixed.” But what you actually have is a ticking time bomb on your hands, a dog who is holding it together. Every time the dog sees another dog is gets shocked or jerked to stop the barking/lunging, but this is not addressing the ultimate problem, how the dog is feeling. Some dogs will give up and succumb to their fate of being punished and live a life in fear. Others will snap. This is when people describe their dog to have “acted out of nowhere.” They may attack. This is an unfortunate but very real side effect of using punishment.

Hopefully if you have a reactive dog, you have a better understanding of why and what you can do to fix it. If you are struggling, find a qualified trainer to help you. And please don’t use punishment! If you don’t know where to begin, finding someone through the CCPDT.org website is a good place to start.

Bryana Walters