What are reactive dogs?
Reactive is a label we give dogs who over-react to everyday stimuli. Reactivity can present itself in many ways and be caused by many triggers. A display might happen only when the dog is confined or restrained, or when the dog can move freely. Dogs may whine, bark, squeal, scream or howl. Dogs might pull on leash towards the trigger or try to run away from the trigger. They might air snap, bite at the leash or bite the handler when triggered. A reactive display is not a choice made by the dog, it is a flood of emotions dictating what the dog is doing.
Why is my dog reactive?
It is important to note some dogs are predisposed to being reactive due to genetics, sometimes it will happen no matter what you do, but you can mitigate the reactivity.
The common chord with all reactivity is a lack of neutral experiences through preventative socialization.
Frustration - The most common cause of reactivity is excitement turned into frustration. This is caused by a friendly dog who hasn’t learned to regulate their emotions about not being able to interact with who they want to while restrained. This is mainly going to happen when the dog is on a leash or behind a fence.
Territorial - A dog who barks aggressively at “intruders” through a window or from behind a fence is trying to deter them from coming any closer, and this behavior is reinforced as long as the dog is allowed to have access to the stimuli since most people and dogs outside your window are going to leave immediately, whether it’s the mail carrier or a dog walker.
Fear - A dog who barks and retreats and has a history of being shy or unsociable is trying to create distance from the trigger because they are afraid of it. Many of these dogs may also bluff charge if they know they are restrained. These dogs will often also bark at novel objects, either in the home or on walks.
Unmet needs - An off-shoot of frustration, a high-maintenance dog who is not getting enough of the type of exercise they need may let that energy out in other ways. The dog likely also has a deficit of enrichment and foraging opportunities or other species-specific behaviors. This is most common in adolescent dogs.
What can be done?
Helping a dog through reactivity is rarely a case of meeting the reactivity head on. Often that will cause more grief, frustration and failure. A holistic training plan needs to be enacted to successfully change the dog’s emotions so that they do not need to display reactivity. The first stage is management and enrichment. The reactivity displays need to happen as little as possible through management, such as stopping neighborhood walks, blocking windows or leashing the dog in the yard.
Enrichment focuses on allowing your dog to get exercise in a way that they enjoy and giving the dog opportunities to perform species-specific behaviors like foraging for food, chewing and sniffing. It is also important to note if the dog is getting proper nutrition and restful sleep at this time. Only then can training progress at a reasonable speed. The dog will show what their threshold is, which is the distance you can be at where your dog doesn’t react to stimuli but notices it. That is the sweet spot where effective training works.
It is not a life sentence, there are a lot of reputable, low-stress training methods to take on reactivity and minimize its effects on your dog's quality of life. To successfully train and take your reactive dog out and about, the first skill you need to learn is to advocate for your dog. Tell people you need space, and take your dog to places where they are likely to practice the behaviors you want to see.