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Reactive Dogs 101

We’ve all been there – out in the world with our precious pups. Walking along, minding our own business, breathing the fresh air, and then out of nowhere, your dog goes wild: lunging, barking, whining, growling, pulling at the leash. And why? They’re reacting to something. Maybe it’s a stranger, another dog, a skateboarder, a cat, a weird looking tree. It might seem illogical to us, but for your dog it can be scary, stressful, and even dangerous. 

If you follow me on Instagram – you know that I do themed weeks where I deep dive into different dog behaviors and how to begin to shift them. A few weeks ago I focused on reactivity in dogs, and here I’m compiling all of the best information for those of you who are parents to reactive dogs.

Reactive Dog 101

Reactivity is a response to a trigger. Like mentioned above, it could be any number of things and no two dogs’ triggers are exactly the same. So once you identify what your dog’s trigger is, your first step is to find SPACE.

Figure out how much room your dog needs to disengage from the trigger. It could be five feet, twenty feet, across the street, or even more. Once you know how much room is needed, you can start to build a more positive response. Your goal with creating this space is to be able to call your dog’s attention to you without them being too fixated on the trigger. Are they not able to return to you? You need more distance. 

Once there is enough separation between you and your dog and their trigger, the behavior modification can start. We play the “look at that” game – where with the appropriate amount of space, you give your dog the room to see or hear their trigger. When they’re focused on it (body upright, ears at attention), use your marker word (I use “yes”) and reward your pup. They’ll begin to associate their trigger with a reward. Make sure this is a high value treat (see this blog to learn how to make super high value DIY licky pouches for easy training). Continue to mark and reinforce seeing the trigger until it is out of sight. 

The goal here is for your dog to associate that rude skateboarder with delicious cheese or hotdogs. Or that dog behind a fence down the street with a peanut butter licky pouch. By doing this you’re conditioning your dog’s mind to be in a better, less reactive state overall when encountering one of their triggers. 

Continue to do this, and play with the distance and space needed to maintain this positive reinforcement. You will find that eventually your dog will see a trigger, then look to you. This behavior makes you more rewarding than the meltdown. They get a treat and they get to have a calmer walk. 

In our next blog we’ll talk a bit about other, unexpected factors that can affect your dog’s mental health and reactivity.  

Rachel Laurie Harris (CPDT-KA)

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