If you're a dog owner, you may have experienced your furry friend reacting aggressively or anxiously towards certain situations, such as other dogs, strangers, or loud noises (garbage truck anyone?!). Reactive behaviour can be a serious issue, and it's important to take action as soon as you notice signs of reactivity in your dog. In this article, we'll go through the basics of reactive dog behaviour, why dogs may display it, and most importantly, what you can do to help manage and reduce reactive behaviour in your pupper.
What is reactive dog behaviour?
Reactive dog behaviour can be a bit of a mystery to many owners. It's important to understand that reactive behaviour is not a specific breed trait and it’s definitely not a sign of a bad dog. Instead, it’s a natural response that dogs can display when they feel threatened, anxious or stressed.
Reactive behaviour can be broadly defined as an overreaction to a trigger or stimuli in the environment. This can range from barking and growling, to lunging and chasing, and in some cases, even biting. It's important to note that a dog's reaction to a trigger is not always aggressive in nature. In a lot of cases (as with our experience with Frankie) it may be fear-based or simply a form of excitement.
Some common triggers for reactive behaviour include other dogs, strangers, certain noises, unexpected movements, and unfamiliar environments. If you notice that your dog tends to overreact to any of these stimuli, they may be displaying reactive behaviour.
We had to keep reminding ourselves that reactive behaviour is not a result of poor training or bad behaviour. In fact, many dogs who display reactive behaviour have received extensive training, and may be well-behaved in other situations. Reactive behaviour is a natural response, and it's important to approach it with empathy and understanding.
Signs of Reactive Behaviour
Recognising the signs of reactive behaviour is essential for managing it. Here are some common signs that your dog may be reactive:
🐶 Barking, growling, or lunging
When a dog is reactive, they may bark, growl, or lunge at the object of their stress or fear. This can be a person, animal, or even an inanimate object (when Frankie’s reactivity was at its worst she used to chase clouds and planes that flew over the back yard!)
🐶 Panting, trembling, or pacing
Reactive dogs may also exhibit physical signs of stress or anxiety, such as panting, trembling, or pacing. These behaviours may indicate that the dog is feeling overwhelmed or frightened.
🐶 Stiff body posture
Dogs who are reactive may hold their bodies stiffly, with their ears back and tail down. This posture may indicate that the dog is feeling defensive or threatened.
🐶 Avoidance behaviour
Some dogs may exhibit avoidance behaviour when faced with a trigger that causes reactive behaviour. This may include trying to hide, cower, or move away from the trigger.
🐶 Excessive pulling on the leash when walking
When a dog is reactive on walks, they may pull excessively on the leash, trying to get away from or more likely to the trigger. This can be dangerous for both the dog and the owner.
Why do dogs display reactive behaviour?
There are many reasons why dogs may display reactive behaviour. As mentioned earlier, reactive behaviour is often a natural response to trigger in the environment that a dog perceives as threatening or stressful. However, there are a few other factors that may contribute to reactive behaviour in dogs:
Some breeds are more predisposed to reactive behaviour due to their genetics. For example, herding breeds such as Border Collies and Australian Shepherds were bred to be alert and responsive to their environment, which can make them more sensitive to stimuli.
❤️🩹 Lack of socialisation
Dogs who were not properly socialised as puppies may be more likely to display reactive behaviour. Without exposure to a wide range of people, animals, sounds and environments during their critical socialisation period (between 3 and 14 weeks of age), dogs may become fearful or anxious in new situations.
❤️🩹 Trauma or abuse
Dogs who have experienced trauma or abuse in their past may be more likely to display reactive behaviour. This can be especially true if the trauma was related to a particular trigger (such as a specific breed of dog or a loud noise).
Just keep reminding yourself that reactive behaviour is not a sign of a "bad" dog or a reflection of the owner's training skills. It is simply a natural response that dogs may display in certain situations. The good news is that there are many ways to manage reactive behaviour and help your dog feel more comfortable in their environment.
How to help your reactive dog
If you have identified that your dog is reactive, don't worry, there are things you can do to help them feel more comfortable and reduce their reactive behaviour. Here are some tips:
👉 Seek professional help
Consult with a certified dog behaviourist or trainer who has experience in dealing with reactive dogs. They can provide you with a tailored training plan for your dog, which may involve counter-conditioning and desensitisation techniques.
👉 Avoid triggers
Try to avoid situations or environments that trigger your dog's reactive behaviour. If your dog reacts aggressively towards other dogs, try walking them at times when there are fewer dogs around.
👉 Keep your dog under threshold
If you know what triggers your dog's reactive behaviour, work on keeping them under their threshold by gradually exposing them to the trigger at a distance where they are still comfortable and not reacting.
👉 Use positive reinforcement
Reward your dog for calm behaviour and for making progress in their training. Positive reinforcement helps your dog learn what behaviours you want them to display.
👉 Be patient
Reactive behaviour is not something that can be fixed overnight. It takes time, patience, and consistency to see results. Don't give up, and keep working with your dog to help them feel more comfortable and less reactive.
Remember, every dog is unique, and what works for one dog may not work for another. Be open to trying different techniques and finding what works best for your dog. With time and patience, you can help your reactive dog feel more comfortable and less reactive, leading to a happier and more fulfilling life for both you and your furry friend.