Does your dog respond in ways that seem irrational or inappropriate to you at times? Reactivity or aggression is a very common reason for dog owners to reach out for help from dog trainers like me. Most often, there is a very good reason for the dog’s response, but the owner is unaware that the dog is having a hard time emotionally in that situation, much less how to help the dog through it. Typically, reactivity is an emotional response triggered by something that the dog is fearful of or frustrated by.
A fearful response could be your dog barking at strangers or unfamiliar dogs when they get too close. In the case of fear, a dog’s reactivity is for the purpose of creating distance from the “scary thing.” Since the dog is on leash, it is not able to flee itself, which is the option it might choose if it could. However, the leash prevents it from being able to flee, so the dog barks and lunges in order to make the “scary thing” go away. If your dog normally likes other dogs or people but still reacts when it sees dogs or people while walking on leash, its reaction is due to being frustrated that it is not able to go see the other dog or person because of the leash preventing it from doing so.
To help your dog with its reactivity, the first step is to identify what your dog’s triggers are. Some common triggers for dog reactivity include children, unfamiliar people closing in on the dog’s space, sudden changes in the environment, unfamiliar situations, sudden noises, and sudden movements, to name a few. The list of triggers for dog reactivity is endless and unique to each dog.
How Can I Help My Dog?
Dogs learn by association and consequences. You can help your dog in situations that cause it stress, which is the reason for its reactivity, by creating a positive association with the trigger while keeping the dog under its threshold. The dog’s threshold is the distance at which the dog can be aware of the presence of the trigger and not react. One of the easiest ways to create a positive association for the dog with its triggers is by using food. If food suddenly appears every time the trigger appears, the trigger will start to become a predictor that something good is about to happen for the dog. This changes the dog’s underlying emotional response to the trigger
from negative to positive. As long as you are consistent in applying this technique, eventually, the dog will be happy about the presence of the trigger in the environment because it means something good is about to happen!
Giving your dog enough space from the trigger is imperative for this to work. The closer the trigger is to the dog, the more likely the dog is to react. How close is too close? You would know by understanding your dog’s body language. Is the dog’s body soft and relaxed? Is the dog’s breathing normal? This is the body language you want to keep your dog in, relaxed posture, normal heart rate and normal breathing. As soon as your dog’s body starts to get tense, or its heart rate and breathing start to elevate, you want to stop there, do not get any closer to the trigger. Watch your dog’s eyes and ears and be mindful of its tail position. Knowing what relaxation looks like for your dog will help you know how to keep it under its reactive threshold. If your dog goes over its threshold, it will start to react out of emotion, and when it’s in an emotional state, it is not able to learn. While over its threshold, your dog is likely not even able to take food.
HOW TO READ DOG BODY LANGUAGE
A fabulous resource for learning how to read your dog’s body language is the book by Lili Chin titled “Doggie Language“. Susan Garrett also gives a great description in her podcast “Shaped by Dog”, episode #4 titled “T.E.M.P.”
Steps to Help your Reactive Dog
Keep Your Dog Under Threshold
If your dog reacts to things while out on a walk, take small pieces of high-value food with you so that you can give them to your dog every time the dog notices a trigger in the environment, while keeping it far enough away that it doesn’t go over its threshold. What if you don’t have enough space to keep your dog under its threshold? If possible, create distance from the trigger as quickly as you can. You could start running with your dog farther away from “the scary thing”, which will change the dog’s physiology and state of mind – running is fun, and the quickest way to create space from the trigger. Or, before the trigger gets too close, you could turn your dog so that its back is toward the trigger and throw a scattering of food on the ground to occupy your dog until the trigger gets far enough away.
Let Your Dog Sniff
Dogs “see” the world through their noses which are their primary sensory organ. A recent study showed that a dog’s pulse rate went down when dogs sniff. If your dog is sniffing, it’s using its brain which keeps it in a thinking frame of mind rather than an emotional state.
Use High-Value Food
Using very high-value food to pair with your dog’s triggers is essential – kibble likely will not be good enough. Real meat or cheese, something smelly, is typically what you want in these situations. Sniffing helps dogs feel calm and happy, so use this technique to your advantage for your reactive dog. Snuffle mats are useful in creating long-duration sniffing when you are inside, helping to reduce anxiety in stressful situations.
Incorporate Predictable Patterns
Dogs tend to do well with predictability and rituals. If your dog reacts to the doorbell ringing or a knock at the door, you can start by pairing food with the sound of the doorbell or knocking. The easiest thing to do is to grab a handful of food, which could be part of your dog’s daily kibble, and just throw it toward the dog as soon as it starts to react. Practice this when there is nothing actually happening at the door so that when there is someone at the door for real, your dog will have learned this pattern – food rains from the sky when the doorbell rings! Eventually, the dog’s reaction to the doorbell should lessen in intensity, as the dog will be looking for food to “rain from the sky” soon after the doorbell rings. Once this happens, your dog is able to go from an emotional state to a thinking state when the doorbell rings, at which time you can teach your dog to do a behavior in response to the doorbell, such as go to its bed or come find you for a treat.
REACTIVITY AT HOME
Give your dog a Safe Place to be away from scary things
Dogs need to feel safe. If your dog is reactive to strangers in the house, provide a safe place for your dog to be away from strangers so that the dog does not have to deal with the stress of the situation. Give your dog a few long-lasting chew projects, such as stuffed Kongs or bully sticks to occupy its time while in its safe place, and turn soft music on or the TV tuned to a channel with people talking softly, or a box fan positioned toward a wall so that the noise of the strangers will be reduced. Be proactive and set your dog up for success whenever possible. It will increase your dog’s confidence and quality of life, which will likely improve your relationship with your dog.