Reactivity is one of the single most common behavior issues faced by dogs and their people. In fact, many of us need only glance a few inches down the couch to see our very own much loved leash gremlins. Rather than just define what reactivity is, we wanted to focus on its consequences and solutions with this post. First off, there are two very big points we’d like to make about so-called “reactive dogs:”
1. They are good dogs with rich personalities who don’t deserve to be defined by a label.
2. Reactivity is a treatable problem.
Cupcake is serving as the reactivity spokesdog, not because it defines who she is, but because it doesn’t. Cupcake is a crazy smart, loving, wiggly, adorable, loyal, focused, energetic girl who loves fetch, learning, napping, cuddling, and adventures. Reactivity is just something this wonderful (exceptional, really) dog has struggled with. In Cupcake’s case, her reactivity is tied both to her history and to digestive issues identified after she’d moved out of the shelter and into the foster home that would later become her forever home.
Other dogs struggle with reactivity to different things for different reasons. But just like Cupcake, it does not define them and we need to be careful that we don’t let it. They are good dogs with their own individual personalities, preferences, favorite toys and activities, and most coveted delicious eatables. There are undoubtably activities at which they can and do excel. Rather than holding that this single issue means a dog has to spend life in a safety bubble, we need to identify and take advantage of what these dogs love and do well, while helping to de-escalate their reactivity to, at minimum, a manageable level.
While Cupcake can’t write this post herself, we know she’d have a very strong opinion on the notion that leash gremlins need love too. She is, after all, one of the most lovable leash gremlins we’ve ever had the privilege of knowing…
Helping Reactive Dogs
At a wonderful seminar by Suzanne Clothier, she made a point about reactive dogs that stood out very clearly, “Respect what the reactive dog is seeing. S/he is not wrong.” This point holds true on several fronts. First, some reactivity is normal dog reaction misclassified as problem behavior. Clothier illustrates this crucial point in her article, “He Just Wants to Say Hi!” The dog who is responding appropriately to another dog’s rudeness is not a dog who is in the wrong.
Second, even if the dog’s response is out of proportion for the stimulus, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a valid experience for that dog. Cupcake is a perfect example of this. Her reactions occur only if she sees the other dog as a threat. It is her lack of social skills that mean she sometimes misreads other dogs or responds too quickly without sufficient avoidance behaviors (though, through training, she has developed a much better skill set). However, dismissing what the dog is seeing does nothing to help the dog. We must respect what they perceive if we are to identify triggers and give them the skills they need to better handle themselves.
Finally, the notion of respect extends to the community at-large and the way we treat, handle, and manage the domesticated dog. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not appropriate or safe dog behavior to sprint up to a fellow dog or to give a greeting sniff right in the face. Dogs have a developed etiquette all their own and both humans, and dogs who’ve had this breach of etiquette reinforced by humans, violate it at potential serious consequence to all involved.
The same goes for humans who pet without asking or lean over the heads of dogs they don’t know. It may sound alarmist or harsh, but these scenarios are common set-ups for dog fights, human bite incidents, and lasting set-backs for the dogs who were walking along with their person, minding their own business when they were accosted on the sidewalk or at the park. Dogs in Need of Space has a great set of handouts explaining what appropriate etiquette looks like and why it’s so important.
Working on reactivity is a very meaningful way to deepen your relationship with your dog and it just so happens there are a TON of great training approaches to help your dog learn to replace disproportionately reactive behavior with socially appropriate behavior. The best and safest training techniques help you take the drama out of the situation for your dog. You learn to read their signals and give them the skillset they need to feel safe and make good choices when confronted with the stimulus. And if you and your dog have differing levels of enthusiasm for chasing small mammals and fast-moving objects, the training you do can help you avoid being dragged into the street or having your arm yanked.
To effectively work on reactivity with your dog, you need a solid understanding of three things:
-Threshold. This magical little word is used a lot but not always accurately understood. The best explanation we’ve seen comes from this post by Suzanne Clothier on understanding the stimulus gradient and keeping your dog in the “think and learn zone.” For those who like a visual illustration, Doggie Drawings created a good one.
-Dog Body Language. You can’t effectively use threshold if you don’t understand how your dog is feeling. Understanding and accurately reading dog body language is a critical missing component from a lot of training. Turid Rugaas’ book On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals is a good place to start, as is Brenda Aloff’s Canine Body Language – A Photographic Guide. As for many things dog, Lili Chin of Doggie Drawings offers some adorable illustrated cheat sheets and Tails from the Lab created this excellent series on learning to speak dog.
-Motivation. What is your dog reacting to and why? If you have not specifically and thoughtfully identified this, you are not ready to begin in earnest. Is your dog scared or threatened by another dog, person, or object? Is it a very specific subset or behavior from other dogs, people, or objects? Or is your dog friendly but frustrated at his inability to rush up and investigate? Is it a prey driven reaction? Does it only occur in a certain context? What role is the handler playing in the reaction and how is that impacting the dog? What is going to be rewarding for your dog in this training scenario and what skills can you offer him so that he can navigate the situation safely and successfully? The right trainer or behavior professional can help you answer these questions and put them in perspective regarding your dog.
Now for our favorite techniques, all Cupcake endorsed, for working on dog reactivity. Fun fact? There is no reason that you need to choose just one!
–BAT: Behavior Adjustment Training. This is particularly effective for anxious or fearful dogs and is one of the things that has helped Cupcake the most. Dogs learn socially appropriate behavior to replace the reaction. We love that it relies on the dog making choices and genuinely learning replacement behaviors and social skills, rather than being heavily managed by the handler. A dog’s confidence can sky-rocket when he works at his own pace and discovers he has the power to keep himself safe by offering socially appropriate behaviors. The bond between you and your dog is strengthened because he knows you will listen to, understand, and respect his needs.
-Parallel Work. This is simply engaging in activities that the dog enjoys at a safe distance from the stimulus and, just like with BAT, working to decrease that threshold while allowing the dog to choose appropriate behaviors and build social skills. It can be literally anything from training games, scent work, TTouch or other relaxation activities, a formal group class, or even just a group walk or hike. In fact, we incorporate group hikes and walks with our reactive dogs regularly because they can be such a positive learning experience in a fun, low-pressure context.
–LAT: Look at That! This is one that works well for all subsets of reactivity from the fearful dog to the squirrel or bike chaser. It’s not just the activity, but the philosophy behind it that we really appreciate. Like the above two activities, the dog is fully aware of the stimulus (be it another dog, etc.) and gets to make a positive choice, while also building a more positive association with the stimulus. And guess what? Doggie Drawings has an illustration!
-Building Focus and Self-Control. This is not specific just to reactivity, but it’s a cornerstone in working through it with your dog. One very simple and highly valuable tool in building focus is the auto check-in; an unprompted check-in or offering of attentiveness from your dog. Leslie McDevitt’s Pattern Games also offer another very simple and fun approach to rewarding dogs for paying attention. A great tool for building both skills is Dr. Karen Overall’s relaxation protocol. Really, there are an infinite number of games and activities to work on but one of the simplest approaches is stopping and insisting that your dog bring focus and awareness to you before proceeding to the next, valued activity. It can be as simple as quietly waiting for eye contact or a requested cue like a sit or a down before dinner is served or a leash is clipped to a harness for a walk.
-For Dog Reactive Dogs: Positive Social Experiences with Other Dogs. For the sake of safety and the potential to take huge steps backwards in training when something goes wrong, it is important to stress that these experiences are only at the level for which the dog is ready. Otherwise, they are NOT positive social experiences and have the potential to actually be quite traumatic and damaging.
For some dogs, this is as simple as the parallel work exercise above. It may be just a walk with another appropriate dog. The next step up (and one that often gets skipped) is that same walk or fun, parallel activity with some brief, appropriate greets to say hello, making sure to keep it relaxed and end on a positive note each time. The greet shouldn’t be allowed to go on too long, causing the dog to become uncomfortable and go over threshold. For dogs who are ready, off-leash play dates with appropriate play buddies are great, especially for those dogs whose reactivity is coming from a place of frustration. You have to be aware of what social skills your dog has developed, be able to read his/her body language, and know that the play buddy is a dog who will tolerate or help make up for those social deficits and is a good match in temperament and play style to your dog.
It should be noted that there are some dogs who may not pass that first level of interaction for quite some time. In some cases, maybe never, or maybe with just one or two trusted canine friends. Please remember that is okay. Not every dog is meant to be a social butterfly with other dogs and the world is full of plenty of rich life experiences that don’t involve raucous doggie play dates. Not every person wants to go to big parties all the time, and we don’t need to expect the equivalent of all dogs. To learn more about dog/dog sociability, go here
3. STRESS REDUCTION.
-When considering contributing factors to any behavior, the first thing to rule out is health issues. Is there a medical issue contributing to the reactivity? Is the dog on a high quality diet, free of any potential allergens? A consultation with your veterinarian can help ensure you are unnecessarily fighting an uphill battle by missing out on an underlying medical problem.
-Next to consider are your dog’s daily routine and potential environmental stressors. Can you identify any specific part of the dog’s day that seems particularly difficult or stressful? Do you notice that the dog seems hyper sensitive to environmental stressors such as noise, visual stimuli, or even potential environmental allergens? Would a white noise machine or use of soothing music and/or audiobooks be helpful?
-If we have fixed all of the basic puzzle pieces, what can we offer the dog to make life less stressful? There are a variety of holistic calming aides including Rescue Remedy, Peaceful Paws, DAP, The Thundershirt, and techniques like TTouch and canine massage. In some cases, medication may be a viable supportive solution.
Always remember that it’s okay to choose the path of less resistance. If you know that one neighborhood route takes you past 10 barking dogs and another only past 2, it is just fine to choose the latter. If you know that one local park is crawling with off-leash dogs but another, maybe an extra few minutes away, is usually pretty nice and low-key, drive the extra few minutes. No biggie. If your dog doesn’t enjoy big events, they can stay at home for those and enjoy a delicious stuffed kong in your absence. To be quite honest, a lot of the dogs we see at those big events aren’t really enjoying themselves. Whatever the situation, set yourself and your dog up for success.
Also, remember to use the right tools. A secure harness and a leash that’s comfortable to hold can go a long way. Never leave home without your high-value treats and work in variety to keep your dog excited to work for them.
What if something still goes awry? It happens to all of us. Walk it off, love your dog, let it go. Teach your dog some emergency skills, and check out this humorous take on the, “Oh crap!” moment we’ll all experience at least once.
You’re probably thinking, “Whoa, guys. That is a lot of information.” And you’re right, it is. But you don’t have to read it all today, or even tomorrow. Take your time and keep your own dog in mind as a filter. Every dog is an individual and this is a topic much better addressed when looking at an individual dog and an individual owner and developing a plan specifically for them. Look at your own adorable little gremlin and the focus will probably narrow quite a bit. Need help? Find a local trainer you feel good about.
As you go forward, one of the best things you can do is focus on what you love about your dog and discover things you can do together that you both enjoy. Do not make the reactivity the center of your relationship and remember to always see the dog in front of you. Your dog is not just a leash gremlin. They are a wonderful best friend with thoughts and feelings and goofy expressions and silly habits and the ability to make you smile and teach you valuable lessons about life. And you know what? That reactivity isn’t your dog’s fault, nor is it something they’re doing on purpose.
Need some solidarity? Look for a local reactive dog meet-up group or training class in your area and join the community at Dinos: Dogs in Need of Space. Did you notice Doggie Drawings has a lot of dog behavior illustrations? Go meet Lili Chin’s dog Boogie. He has a lot to say.
6. ADOPT A GREMLIN.
Before we go any further here, we want to give you an urgent hot tip. Thought that dog looked cute until she started acting crazy in her shelter kennel? She is still cute. And 99.9999% of the time, that crazy behavior is specific to the kennel environment. Ask a volunteer or staff member to take that dog for a walk with you outside the shelter grounds and watch their behavior magically shift. Give that dog some treats, ask them to perform some skills that he/she knows, and let them warm up to you a bit and you’ll see the behavior shift even more. Shelters, even the very good ones, usually do not help dogs put their best paw forward. We don’t mean the people there, we mean the physical living environment. So before you can decide to adopt a gremlin, you have to realize that many of the dogs who look like potential gremlins in the shelter actually are not.
Now, imagine that you’ve met an amazing dog who actually does happen to be something of a gremlin. Does this mean the dog isn’t adoptable? No! Assuming you and the dog are a great match for each other, ask the shelter or rescue if the dog comes with a training scholarship or voucher to help you get started on the right paw together. Often, they do. In fact, the shelter or rescue may even have great training recommendations or a training program of their own.
And if the dog doesn’t come with built in support, take a step back and ask yourself a few questions. If you weren’t worried about the reactivity, would this be your dog? Are you game to go on a mutually beneficial journey with this dog and learn some very cool stuff along the way? Does this dog deserve a chance and a human who’s got their back? Unless the answer to those questions is no, take home your new best friend. The resources are out there and the dog is worth it.
That is what Cupcake waited a long time for someone to finally say about her and that someone? She’s now Cupcake’s momma, Official Lady, and soulhuman who, over time, also snagged Cupcake a daddy and canine brother named Walrus. For several years now, Cupcake has been cheering for her fellow gremlins from the comfort of her own home and opinionated lady that she is, we know she’d send out all the love and solidarity in the world to the dogs and their people following in her paw prints.