Defining The Reactive Dog

Could you have a reactive dog? We tell you what that means and how to recognize it.

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When a dog's "bubble of tolerance" is broken, he often reacts by trying to drive away whatever is making him uncomfortable. Byrdyak/iStock/Thinkstock

For the last 16 years, I have shared my life with reactive dogs. Charlee was adopted into my family based solely on two criteria: That she was OK with my small kids, and that she could live peacefully with my heart dog, Dina, who was in the end stages of her life. I had no idea of the depth of Charlee’s behavior issues when we first adopted her.

Like many rescue dogs, Charlee wormed her way deeply into the soul of my family and was in no danger of being rehomed, so we learned how to train and manage her. The good news is that there are many positive techniques today that were not yet invented back when I adopted Charlee in 1999.

Sometimes I think we should refer to our dogs with reactivity issues as over-reactors. They are often fine for most of the time, but certain things, or triggers as we call them, set them off.

After living with Charlee, I thought I pretty much knew it all and had the reactive dog thing covered. I had learned it all inside out, or so I thought. A saying in the dog world goes something like this: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”

There are dogs who will come along and humble us and bring us back to the reality that we all can always learn something new. My current dog, Beck, is such a dog.

Beck is 5 years old and has a lot to teach me. He was my first failed foster dog in close to 20 years of rescue. Beck is intense. He is intense in all he does. Unlike Charlee, whose only triggers were other dogs, Beck’s list of triggers include joggers, bikers, skateboards, loud trucks, dogs and people. Oh, and don’t forget anything else that moves, like squirrels and cats.

Understand What Your Dog Is Going Through
To help our over-reactive dogs, we must systematically counter-condition our dog’s triggers. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? For some dogs it is; for others it is a lifelong journey.

Reactive dogs have become somewhat of my specialty in behavior modification. The reactive dog sees something and, seemingly without thinking, reacts. It’s as simple as that.

The reactive dog’s response is somewhat primitive and their reaction, or over-reaction, is based on the body’s need for survival. It’s a situation that spurs fight or flight. The reactive dog gets a rush of what I like to refer to as “chemical soup.”

The chemical soup, which consists of such goodies as adrenaline and cortisol, readies our dogs for action. As you go through life with your reactive dog, think of this mantra that I pass on to all of my students: “Boring is the new awesome.

Your mission with your reactive dog is to do whatever you have to do to keep you dog calm and on an even keel.

Why, Oh Why, Does My Dog Do That?
Reactive dogs can be explained with nature and nurture. Some dogs have a genetic aspect in their reactivity. There are some breeds, chiefly the herding dogs and protection dogs, who have been bred to react. Maybe the baby sheep strayed too far, or maybe there is a wolf in the woods. Dogs were selectively bred to do jobs, and these days, far too many dogs are out of real work. Give your dog a job!

The nurture part can be a bit trickier to explain. Dogs born of parents of unstable temperaments can be predisposed to reactivity and behavior issues. It has been surmised that the stress that a mother is under will be passed on to the puppies. You read that right — dogs can be born predisposed to behavior issues.

A more likely scenario is that many of our dogs received incorrect socialization during their critical socialization window that closes at 4 months of age. For dogs, it’s all about associations, and if we didn’t help them make good ones with everything that they will encounter as adults, you pretty much have a recipe for behavior issues. These dogs often go through life worrying.

I often have people contact me and tell me the dog was “fine” until he wasn’t. Usually this occurs when the dog reaches maturity by 3 years old. This is very common. Nature and nurture have caught up to these dogs. Behavior modification can help!

The Prognosis
If you have a dog with both nature and nurture against him, most likely you will be on a lifetime of management. You will learn your dog’s triggers and learn how to help him ignore them and, more importantly, how to avoid them. In such cases, distance will become your best friend.

Our dogs have what is sometimes referred to as a bubble of tolerance. We want to help them ever expand this bubble. Some of my dog clients will react to dogs that are just a speck in the distance, while others will tolerate dogs everywhere but in their face. Most dogs are not as extreme. If your dog reacts to another dog at a distance of five football fields away, rehabilitation may start at nearly six football fields away.

Become An Expert On Your Dog
Here is your homework. All dogs have tells. Like the professional poker player who is the master at reading his opponents, you can be an expert at reading your dog. Some dogs have obvious tells while some are more subtle. Try to gauge when your dog is getting worked up before he does so. The more you can avoid allowing your dog to get in chemical-soup mode, the calmer your dog will be overall.

What are some tells?

1. Watch your dog’s tail. Watch your dog’s tail at rest, when he is agitated and everywhere in between.

2. Notice your dog’s breathing. Many dogs will start to breathe faster when agitated, while some dogs even seem to hold their breath.

3. For many dogs the first sign is their fur going up. This is a sign of arousal.

4. Watch your dog’s mouth. The corners of your dog’s mouth may get stiff.

5. What are your dog’s eyes doing? Note: If your dog’s pupils are dilated, you are past the point of no return and you need to add distance from the trigger immediately.

6. What are your dog’s ears doing?

7. What is your dog’s posture? Is your dog low to the ground or forward and stiff?

One of my client’s dogs was almost impossible to read except that the dog’s forehead got wrinkled.

Reactive dogs react on an emotional level, and they will not be able to follow simple instructions; nor will they be interested in taking treats when they are over their threshold of comfort.

When we miss our dog’s signs, he may then proceed to the next level, which is barking and lunging. For most dogs this is a distance-seeking behavior. Be your dog’s ally and stop putting him in situations where he is trying to make things go away.

Do Not Use Aversive Techniques
You do not want to take your dog’s warning system away by using aversive techniques that include shock collars, pinch collars, harsh corrections or intimidation. You do not want a dog who bites with no warning. Your dog is trying to tell you something (and maybe the neighborhood, too), and you owe it to him to listen.

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Behavior and Training · Dogs