What is a “Reactive Dog”?
A reactive dog is a dog that has a negative or over the top response to a stimuli,(“trigger”) such as another dog, a person, noise or object. The negative or over-the-top response could be barking, lunging, cowering, hiding, growling, etc. Basically it is a dog having an over dramatic response to a relatively normal encounter. These responses are 99.9% a result of fear. The dog may
- have had a bad experience with a similar trigger.
- be undersocialized and has never experienced the trigger so is fearful of new things.
- just lack confidence in new situations.
- may just need slower introductions or more time to gain confidence in new surroundings.
There are millions of reasons and we will probably never know the “why” but we can help the dog learn to deal with the trigger.
Find the Trigger
Keep a notebook. Writing these things down so you can study them and search for a pattern. I recommend keeping a notebook and record the reactivity including:
- What is the trigger?
- What is the response to the trigger?
- Rate the Response
- 0 = no visible acknowledgement,
- 10 = Totally lost their mind and became extremely aggressive OR
totally shut down and would not move for extended period of time
- How far away was the trigger? Approximate distance in feet
- How long did it take to recover?
- And what did you have to do?
By isolating the triggers and information about each trigger, we can determine which triggers to start working on to build confidence and have some successes and then move on to the harder triggers.
Training Commands to Teach
- “Look” – The “Look” command has the dog look the handler in the eyes and hold for 2-3 seconds. This command does not require them to sit or do anything other than to TURN their BODY to the handler and LOCK their eyes with the eyes of the handler, dog’s shoulders are squared up with the handler’s shoulders. For more information on teaching the “Look” command and a video, visit https://www.funfurpets.com/the-look-command/
- “Place” – The “Place” command is one command that tells the dog to “go to your place, lie down and stay there until I release you”. Fearful dogs need a quiet, calm, safe place to retreat where they know things will be okay. I like to use a non-slip backed bath mat for Place. This allows me to take my dog’s Place with me everywhere. Their Place mat becomes their security blanket. They know they can go to Place and just chill. Sometimes their Place mat may be in their crate and the door is closed or maybe open but they are on Place so they are fine and can relax. Sometimes their Place mat may be in a room, the vet clinic or somewhere else but it is okay because they have their Place. Your JOB is to make sure that Place is ALWAYS safe. No one and no dog will invade their Place. You need to be sure you are responsible because if they are going to Trust You, You need to make sure You are Making Wise/Safe Choices. To learn how to train Place, visit our blog post https://www.funfurpets.com/place-or-mat-command/
Every House has Rules
I find people with reactive dogs tend to let the house rules go lax and mistakenly coddle our reactive dogs so we don’t scare them more. This can lead to even more issues. First and foremost dogs have to live in harmony with us. Therefore, the house HAS RULES.
Nothing in Life is Free or as I like to say “Can you say Please?”
I grew up having to say “Please” and “Thank You” for everything or I got nothing. Well that is also a rule our dogs should follow. It goes by many names “Nothing in Life is Free” “Sit to say Please” or Earning Everything. No matter what you call it, this is how it works:
- Dogs need to ask for or earn everything in a polite manner. We do not allow kids to just run wild around the house.
- How does a dog say “Please”? They sit! They should sit before they get a treat, meal, go outside, are petted and definitely before they get on ANY Furniture!
- Start off asking them to “Sit” and they HOLD the sit until you Release them with an “OK”, “Finish” or whatever your release word is.
Example: My dog wants to go outside. We go to the backdoor and I stop, if they do not sit, I say “Sit”. As I open the door if their butt comes off the ground, I QUICKLY shut the door. Wait for them to sit again and repeat. Continue this until they remain sitting with the door open. Then release them with their release command such as “OK” and they can go outside.
- This same sequence is repeated before each meal. They sit, I put their food down and then release them with “OK” and they can eat.
- This is ESPECIALLY important with getting on furniture. Dogs are not allowed on furniture until they have learned their place in the family. They must be behaving/respecting every member of the family. Asking permission and understanding you are in charge BEFORE they can be invited on the bed or on the couch.
Where is your dog during Family Meal time?
No their PLACE! Another one of the BEST uses of Place is during meals. During meal time the dog(s) must stay on their Place. Once you have trained your dog to stay in Place when you walk away, you can begin working on Place during Family Meal time.
- Start with putting your dog in Place when you put your plate on the table. Tell dog “Place” and when they are in Place drop a few treats on the mat and go sit down at your dinner table.
- After each bite, do not say anything. Simply stand up, walk over and drop a treat on the mat and return to your seat at the dinner table. Do this after EVERY bite for a few meals.
- At the end of your meal, sometimes before you clear your plate and sometimes after so you don’t set an identifiable routine, give your release command such as “OK”.
- After you have successfully made it through 3 meals treating the dog after every bite, move to treats after every other bite. Continue adding more bites between treats as long as you have 3 or more successful meals.
- Eventually, you will put your dog in Place at the start of a meal, sit down, enjoy your meal and release the dog at the end of the meal.
- These are the meal time rules. Place should NOT be under the table. Place should be far enough away from the table but still in sight of the table so that the dog is not tempted to get up and join. They can see the family but are not in the middle of the family.
More information on Nothing in Life is Free can be found at the following websites:
- Dog: Nothing in Life Is Free – SF SPCA
- Nothing In Life Is Free (NILIF) – Teaching Your Dog To Say Please Last Updated March 19, 2019 // by Thomas Wipperman https://k9deb.com/nilif/
Mental Stimulation – Make your Dog Work
Sometimes I think reactivity is amplified by boredom or lack of mental stimulation. When a dog barks it produces adrenaline and just as in humans, adrenaline can be addictive. “When released it floods the dog’s body with energy. This energy must then be dissipated –generally through jumping, barking, running, lunging, and shaking or trembling.” (“An Introduction to Calm Dog Training Methods” http://www.calmdogtraining.com/calm-dog-methods.html).
One way to curb boredom on a regular basis is making the dog think and/or work for their meals. Instead of feeding a dog out of a bowl which is typically fast and boring, how about making their meal time more of a challenge and more fun. This doesn’t work for all dogs and sometimes we need to start easy such has the scatter method (throw their food all over the floor). Once they have mastered this then you can start introducing more challenging feeding methods. For some ideas on different methods, refer to our blog post, Stimulating Dog Feeding Methods https://www.funfurpets.com/stimulating-dog-feeding-methods/.
In addition to working on these basic commands and techniques, Reactive Dogs often require specialized training. Not all techniques work for every dog. We have several techniques we try and are learning more and more each day with each new dog that goes through our program. Here are some resources, references and articles that can help and provide suggestions. Please be sure to reach out to a qualified, knowledgeable dog trainer with specific experience in working with reactive dogs. This is NOT obedience training. Helping a dog and handler team overcome reactivity is a process and requires time, patience, creativity, commitment and breathing! There are tips, tricks and tools but in the end it is time, patience, creativity, commitment, breathing and someone to help guide you through the process.
- How to Handle Reactive Dogs by Patricia McConnell https://www.patriciamcconnell.com/theotherendoftheleash/how-to-handle-reactive-dogs
- How to Properly Introduce a Muzzle to your Dog https://www.funfurpets.com/properly-introduce-muzzle-dog/
- Desensitization and Counter Conditioning Videos for Reactive Dogs https://www.funfurpets.com/desensitization-and-counter-conditioning-for-reactive-dogs/
- Reactive Dog Resources https://www.funfurpets.com/reactive-dog-resources/