7 Tips To Calm A Reactive Dog

Medical review by K9 Healthcare Council of America (K9HCA). Intended for educational purposes only. Always seek medical advice from your veterinarian.

Reactive Dog

If you’ve been around dogs for any length of time you know they each have their own unique personality; some are docile and quiet, while others are easily excitable and hyperactive.

Many factors blend together to create your dog’s distinct ‘personality traits’. Early behavior conditioning as well as breed genetics play a significant role in establishing one of these canine traits–Reactivity.

What Is A Reactive Dog? 

By definition, a “reactive” dog is one that OVERREACTS to various external stimuli. The most common display of canine reactivity is excessive barking, growling, lunging and leash-pulling behavior.

Dogs may be overreactive to other dogs, people, animals, or movement and noises, or a combination of any of these. A frequent example of unwanted reactivity is when they hear a knock on the door or sound of a doorbell that triggers the overactive response.

Essentially, the dog’s behavior is a “reaction” to something that is upsetting to them.

Reactive dog behavior
Reactive dog behavior can begin with simple responses to the noise or vibration from household appliances but progress into more severe over-reactive behaviors in social situations.

Unfortunately, ‘reactive dog behavior’ is often confused with “aggression” but they are NOT the same–although their initial behaviors appear similar, the intentions behind them differ.

Why Is My Dog Reactive?

The primary reasons dogs exhibit reactive behavior towards objects, people or other dogs are:

Learning History 

Dogs repeat behaviors that lead to positive consequences, be that the avoidance of something unpleasant or the acquisition of something awesome. Dogs DO NOT do things out of spite–they DO NOT work against their own self-interest.

Some dogs show fear or dislike toward other dogs simply because they had a bad first experience or were under-socialized when younger and therefore had a lack of positive reinforcing experiences with other dogs. These dogs learned that lunging & barking at other dogs was effective at keeping them away.

Barrier Frustration  

There is a good chance that you’ve witnessed barrier frustration in your own dog. This behavior is when a dog sees something that they want to check out but can’t access because they are behind a fence or window (or confined in their crate) that obstructs them.

When a dog is experiencing behavior frustration, they might be:

  • Barking, lunging, snapping, twirling and flopping.
  • Bouncing and pulling on the leash (barrier frustrations can also apply on walks)

Obviously, these behaviors can easily be mistaken as aggressive behavior. So, it can be difficult for owners with reactive dogs to have them interact with other dogs as their owners will usually assume that their reactive dog is dog aggressive.

In fact, the reality is almost the opposite; the reactive dog desperately wants to interact but is so frustrated by their inability to do so that they exhibit behavior frustration.

Some dogs LOVE other dogs but are restricted by their leash and can’t do what they desperately want, to run over to greet and play. It’s a catch-22 situation: the dog reacts to a perceived barrier to a desired interaction but then is not allowed to interact because of this unwelcome response.

Barrier frustration can also be triggered by a reactive dog spending too much time in a crate without exercise. While all dogs will get antsy when deprived of a release of energy in this situation, a reactive dog may exhibit excessive frustration behaviors typical from spending hours every day confined in this condition.

Reactive Dogs Are Uncomfortable 

A lot of canine reactivity behavior originates from physical pain and/or emotional discomfort.

Even though it may look like our dog is being “protective” or “dominance-aggressive” (either are not very likely), the most plausible and common reason for a dog’s reactive behavior is that he is not happy to be where he is, he’s in pain–OR–he is emotionally anxious and stressed out.

Both can result in a dog that is often just scared & afraid.

Fear Based Reactivity

Another form of behavior that is mistaken for aggression is ‘fear-based reactivity’, which is when a dog is fearful for their own safety and will react to the supposed threat by baring teeth, growling, and barking incessantly.

Perhaps they feel threatened by someone they do not know or another dog–Chihuahuas are a prime example of this behavior.

Adding to the confusion is that fear-based reactivity is often referred to as “fear-aggression.” In this case, “aggression” refers to the dog’s aggressive-like behaviors, not their desire to attack.

The reactive dog does not want to attack nor be attacked, which is why they exhibit these protective, aggressive behaviors.

They have no desire to fight, but rather are expressing their fear in the form of a warning—similar to how a rattlesnake will “rattle” when a person gets too close.

Reactive Dog Training

Having a reactive dog can be difficult to handle. It makes it hard to go out on walks, be in public places or spend time playing at the dog park. You probably do not have guests over in fear of how your dog will behave around them.

While some canine reactive behaviors may stem from a dog’s genetic make-up or a lack of positive social experience, instead of trying to live with a reactive dog, try these 7 tips for calming your reactive pooch.

Here Are 7 Tips to Calm a Reactive Dog:

1. Understand Your Dog’s Body Language 

Dogs communicate mostly through body language. Learning how to speak “dog” is important because you will be able to recognize early on when your dog (or another dog) is uncomfortable, scared, or feels threatened.

Happy dogs are loose and wiggly! Nervous dogs have a tense overall body posture.

Reactive dog training tips
Depending on the ‘trigger’, a reactive dog’s body language can indicate fear and apprehension or manifest as overreactive barking. For example, when a stranger knocks on the door, a reactive dog might start barking excessively and growling. Unfortunately, reactive dog behavior is often confused with aggression, but they are not the same.

The body language of a confident, self-assured calm dog will typically have open mouths, relaxed or forward-facing ears, and soft eyes.

A nervous or insecure dog, on the other hand, will display ‘calming signals’ to other dogs and exhibit displacement behavior which they use to calm themselves down & show non-aggressive intent to diffuse threatening situations. Calming signals are used by dogs to signal to other dogs that they mean no harm.

what is a reactive dog
Play close attention to your dog’s body language. The body language of a confident, self-assured calm dog will typically have open mouths, relaxed or forward-facing ears, and soft curious eyes.

Reactive dogs have tense or forward overall body posture. These dogs are interested in something and are undecided or unsure how to react. This body posture usually only lasts briefly before the dog decides to act out in playfulness, or fear & aggression.

reactive dog
Dogs exhibiting aggressive body language will be very tense and stiff, possibly frozen. These dogs will probably be baring their teeth and their hackles will be raised.

If you ever encounter a dog and he or she starts to exhibit aggressive body language, stop your approach, move slowly, and appear non-threatening. In addition, avoid eye contact, look away, and remain calm and confident. DO NOT run away!

2. Create A Low Stress Home Environment

In order to break the habit of reactivity at home, you might need to make some household changes.

A common form of reactivity at home is window reactivity. The problem with window reactivity is that it is self rewarding–the dog thinks their barking made the person or dog go away–and as the behavior is repeated it becomes a self-reinforcing behavior.

The best way to stop this is with using a tie down when you are home. It will teach your dog to stay in a certain spot and not go to the window. You can also use baby gates to keep them away from high-traffic windows and sliding doors.

Another form of reactivity at home is backyard reactivity. Backyard reactivity is similar to window reactivity. It is very rewarding and will bleed acquired negative behaviors into other areas of the dog’s life.

reactive dog training tips
Reactive dog training for a dog that’s a “fence fighter” or a fence runner, one thing you can do is walk them around the backyard on leash making sure you establish good recall so you can establish boundaries and prevent them from getting riled up..

If your dog is a fence fighter or a fence runner, one thing you can do when you are home is walk them around the backyard on leash. Make sure you establish good recall so if they become riled up, you can get their attention and calm them down.

If you aren’t there to teach your dog right from wrong, then you must confine them away from the hot spot area in your yard. This may mean getting rid of your doggie door, confining them to inside the home, or creating a dog run for the backyard where they don’t have access to the fence.

3. Establish A Predictable Daily Routine

Dogs absolutely crave routine! They know when we humans wake up in the morning and know that putting shoes on means they should get excited for their daily morning walk. Routines make the world predictable for a dog. It helps them make sense of everything going on around them, good or bad.

The more anxiety your dog has, the more routine they crave. A simple yet effective routine helps them feel more calm, focused and safe in otherwise unfamiliar and stressful situations.

Eventually, once your dog gets a handle of your designated routine, you can put their “approved” behaviors into action out in the real world, like meeting new dog pals at the park, or in public spaces.

By providing your dog with consistent, daily, positive interactions governed by simple verbal cues and rewarded commands gives them confidence to interact freely–without panic or reactivity.

4. Provide Counter Conditioning / Desensitization Training

Counter Conditioning, (also known as desensitization) involves working with your dog’s “triggers” and offering appropriate consequences (rewards) in order to positively change behavior.

Counter-Conditioning training is the process of changing the emotion or behavior a dog exhibits in response to a specific antecedent, or “trigger” (E.g., other dog, human, animal, objects, vacuums, cars, bikes, etc.) with a preemptive positive reward.

training a reactive dog
Calming a reactive dog isn’t always easy, but taking the right steps can make a huge difference by reinforcing positive behavior through Counter Conditioning. In using rewards like treats it’s important that the reward comes immediately and BEFORE the dog starts offering unwanted behavior.

For Counterconditioning (re-learning) to occur, two critical steps must take place:

Step 1: The antecedent or “trigger” must be noticed (seen, heard, smelled).

Step 2: Reinforcement MUST occur immediately (food, treat or toy).

For instance, if your dog has a strong reaction to a certain fence on your walk (and what may be looming behind it), you can gradually counter condition that reaction.

The basic steps to desensitization conditioning with fence triggers are as follows:

  • Start by walking towards the offending fence and when you’re a house or two away — before your dog reacts negatively — give them a treat. Then proceed in a different direction away from the fence so they don’t have the reaction.
  • The next day on your walk, proceed by a small increment closer in distance to the fence–say, 20 feet–and reward. Again, don’t go any closer to the fence.
  • Gradually over these training sessions each day, you will get closer and closer to the trigger source of the fence, but your dog will learn that doing so gets them rewards.

It’s very important that you don’t rush this process. You want them to avoid reacting at all. It is important that the reward comes immediately and BEFORE the dog starts offering unwanted behavior.

The first indication or sign a dog show that they are uncomfortable is your opportunity to change behavior. The focus is changed from the ‘trigger’ to the positive reinforcement (e.g. treat, verbal praise).

At some point your dog may no longer feel the need to look at or react to the trigger you’ve conditioned them away from. With any unwanted reaction, you are slowly teaching the dog that good things come from positive behavior, which is in this case, the absence of the negative behavior.

5. Offer Mental Stimulation Games

If your dog is struggling with unwanted reactive behavior, it can be difficult to provide necessary physical exercise as you cannot let your him off-leash, take him to dog parks, or even visit a doggy daycare.

Reactive dogs can really benefit from mental challenges like solving game puzzles using intelligent thinking and ‘dog-smarts’ rather than negative brute force.

Problem solving strategies like hidden-treat-games where food or a variety of objects are totally or partially hidden under towels, under plastic cups, under cardboard boxes, in paper towel rolls and your dog has to solve these puzzles by finding the hidden object.

training a reactive dog
Dogs that have experience in solving puzzles multiple times tend to memorize new behaviors quicker & these problem-solving skills carry over into other postive training methods for obedience and trick training.

This may seem trivial to you or I but by repeating these games teaches them to pay attention to their problem solving strategy and make an effort to remember.

Dogs that have experience in solving puzzles multiple times tend to memorize new behaviors quicker and that makes training other behaviors easier for both the dog and the owner.

6. Calm Your Dog’s Anxiety with This Natural Supplement

At the core of a dog’s ‘reactive’ behavior is a learned response that comes from a habit of improper conditioning.

Over time, within the course of this repeated fear-based-reactive-response conditioning there are changes in your dog’s brain chemistry that put them in a constant state of ‘fight-or-flight’ survival response.

So instead of a normal, appropriate social response, this perpetual ‘on-edge’ fearful anxiety state makes it difficult for a reactive dog to relax & makes future behavior training even more difficult.

Adding CBD from hemp to your dog’s daily feeding routine can help balance normal brain chemistry, reduce over-active stress response and help a reactive dog to focus so they are more receptive to learning and incorporating new socially acceptable behaviors.

reactive dog training
Supplementing your pooch’s daily diet with whole plant hemp CBD (Cannabidiol) oil drops helps anxious dogs relax and focus, ready to learn fun new skills and appropriate social behaviors.

In addition, CBD is a great natural adjunct therapy to help dogs whose over-reactive stress response is due to unresolved joint pain & touch sensitivity.

7. Professional Behavior Rehabilitation Classes

Canine Reactivity often stems from a lack of confidence by both the owner and the dog. If our dog perceives a situation as out of their control, completely new and unknown it can make them feel uncomfortable and anxious.

At times it might seem easier to avoid the offending stimulus or environment than to try to train the dog to better behavior response. When you reach a point where you feel you’ve tried home training measures that were minimally successful, it may be time to seek professional assistance from a qualified behavior specialist.

If you haven’t had the positive change in your dog’s behavior with simple behavior intevention then a good way to tackle your dog’s reactivity is learning from certified trainers on how to modify this behavior through a progression of lessons that help with your dog’s specific behavior challenges.

reactive dog training tips
Owning a reactive dog can be challenging. But doing your best to keep everyone safe and help your dog work through their reactivity will be justly rewarded when you have a happy dog you can share on the journey towards more fun filled social situations.

Training A Reactive Dog Has It’s Own Rewards

It can be tough dealing with a reactive dog; however, you can help mitigate this trait with time and patience. Remember, reactivity in dogs is not aggression, no matter how much it seems like it. Some dogs simply bond with people or other animals in the household and the “outsiders” make them uncomfortable or fearful.

Preparing your dog–rather than punishing them–for their over-reactive behavior gives your canine companion the skills to make new friends, and fully experience the sights and smells of the world around them–knowing they are safe, accepted and loved.

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