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Managing your dog's environment is top priority when supporting your reactive dog.
For all dog parents of sometimes-reactive dogs, managing what's happening around you to limit exposure to your dog's triggers makes a huge difference.
Before we dive into next steps on working through and changing reactive behavior, I want to make sure to give you as much concrete information as possible to set you and your dog up for success with management.
We always want to give our dog under-threshold space to actually learn. Avoiding triggers can often seem nearly impossible in real, everyday life to dog parents, so let’s talk about a few different types of triggers and what we can do to manage potential trigger situations.
5 common triggers for a reactive dog and specific management tips
1) Other dogs, other dogs on leash
Some dogs are reactive to other dogs specifically in the context of being on leash, while other dogs, even as an off-leash dog, will react no matter what. If your dog is reactive to other dogs on walks, your first step is to rethink your walking habits to avoid and at least minimize dog encounters.
Is your neighborhood full of other dogs on walks? If you're not ready just yet to learn how to train your dog to ignore other dogs on walks: ditch the neighborhood walk, or move your walk to weird hours. Welcome to the “midnight dog walkers club!”
Take wide-open-spaces dog walks
Another option is to take your dog walks elsewhere - pick a more secluded trail or a wide-open park. I like parks with big grassy areas for reactive dogs, where you know you can get as much space as needed. Sidewalks and tight trails with nowhere to go are not ideal.
For your wide, grassy area walks, you can also bring along a super-long leash and if you have the space to yourselves, play some ball or fetch with whatever toy your dog loves. A great way to combine exercise, fun, and getting your dog comfortable out in the world gradually!
Get exercise & enrichment beyond walks
I know this is not ideal but keep in mind that as much as we’ve been conditioned to believe that a brisk neighborhood walk once or twice a day is the key to being a good dog parent, there are actually TONS of other ways you can give your dog exercise and mental stimulation.
Every day and every dog is different, so it's useful to have multiple options for your dog's exercise and fulfillment whenever it's just not a good day for a walk.
Side note on running into other dog owners and their dogs who appear to be "leash-aggressive" dogs or show "dog aggression": More than likely, the other dog is not a generally aggressive or leash-aggressive dog but an anxious dog or fearful dog - a lot like yours.
Remain calm so you don't transmit more stress to your dog and simply, quickly put distance between your dog and the other dog using your new skills like the crisp, upbeat, U-turn. You'll have removed your dog from the situation, avoided burning in a scary "leash aggression" memory, and shown your dog that you always have his or her back and your pup is safe with you!
2) Bicycles, scooters, skateboards...
The same principles as above apply. Of course you cannot predict every instance where a moving projectile will occur, BUT you can avoid places like bike trails and busy neighborhoods in favor of dirt trails and hiking paths or lesser known walking paths.
If and when a bike, for example, does appear in a less-populated spot, you're more likely to spot it early before your dog's stress signals kick in. You'll have the time and space to swing into the other skills you're learning here in the Reactivity Channel with your dog: using high-value treats, counter-conditioning, and happy alternative behaviors. For example, having your dog play with a favorite toy or asking for an obedience command like "sit" or "down." This is a great win for our reactive dogs even if the dog was in his or her stress zone to begin with.
If your dog reacts to children (not uncommon since children tend to move differently and unpredictably along with usually being more on your dog's level)...
Take your walks during school hours and away from playgrounds, schools, etc. Weekend walks may be challenging, so stick to remote trails, especially more difficult ones, or skip the weekend walks in favor of at-home enrichment.
If your dog is reactive to children in your own home under specific circumstances...
You can use barriers and/or gates to create separate safe spaces for both your dog and your baby/children. Safety is paramount, so if this is an issue for you, please reach out to a force-free professional trainer (I'm a licensed Family Paws Parent Educator in addition to being a certified dog trainer) and we can recommend specific guides here on Dogly or work with you individually.
4) External barrier distractions (people or dogs passing fence, door, window...)
For outdoor fencing reactivity, you will need to be sure your dog is always supervised (with someone in the same space) and/or you can add an extra layer of either fencing or privacy screening. Some dogs can be soothed by simply having the visual taken away (so thick fabric may suffice), other dogs will still react to the sounds of their triggers, so what works will depend on your dog. Supervision with eyes on your dog is always a good idea in any circumstance.
If your dog is reacting through a window or see-through door of some kind to people or dogs walking by or other passing triggers, you’ll need to block that visual either using shades, curtains, or a privacy film. Usually taking the visual away does the trick, but you may also need to mask sounds with music, tv, etc.
5) Doorbell/guests/delivery people
If your dog barks or is reactive in other ways to new people entering your home or even just the doorbell noise, the first thing you want to do is stop using the doorbell.
Put out a sign instructing visitors to text instead, tape over it, or just tell visitors ahead of time not to ring the bell.
Next, figure out what you need to do to make your dog not react to people entering.
- You could have your dog in a back room with a noise machine running.
- You could have your dog out for a walk with a family member while the guests arrive and then return to the house once the guests have settled in.
- You could have your dog crated or in the backyard with an enrichment item.
Every dog is different!
If your dog reacts to passersby who are not coming in (like mail carriers, delivery people), you may want to put up curtains, shades, or use a window film that blocks their view. This is especially important if your dog is at home for a good portion of the day and is likely spending all day reacting!
Find the balance of management and training that works for you & your dog.
For some people, management is enough.
Simply coming to terms with the fact that your dog needs to hang out with a bully stick in the bedroom when guests arrive may be fine, or putting up some window coverings may do the trick for you. It’s okay to decide that you’re content with management. Every dog is different and every dog owner has a different lifestyle.
If you’re looking for more, then it’s time to train!
Training means actively working on changing your dog's emotional response to the trigger. It may also mean training alternative behaviors that can be used in place of reactivity (such as "focus" or "touch"). Training is not a quick fix, but it is a long-term solution that can greatly improve your dog's overall well-being and quality of life.
Remember to always use positive, force-free methods when training your reactive dog. Seek the help of a professional dog trainer who specializes in reactivity if needed. With patience, consistency, and lots of love, you and your dog can overcome reactive behavior together!
What's your individual balance of management and reactivity training?
It’s also okay to decide to what degree you’re comfortable with annoying behaviors. At our previous home, we had neighboring dogs on both sides of our fences, so it was important to me to work fastidiously on preventing fence fighting. This meant a longer period of supervised yard time and building a solid recall away from the fences. Eventually I got comfortable with the dogs giving a bark or two before being calm and then coming into the house on their own.
Where we live now, we don’t have dog neighbors. For this reason along with a lack of time and energy, I’ve spent very little time working on recall from the fence lines here, and only occasionally Muchacho will bark at a passerby. It’s a little annoying but happens infrequently enough for me to not care so much and focus on other more valuable training to both of us instead.
Managing your dog's exposure to triggers is an invaluable training tool - whether that's all it takes to keep your dog comfortable and happy or you use it to set the stage to make learning new reactions and behaviors around triggers possible. It may be a long road, but with dedication and the right resources, you can help your reactive dog become a confident member of society. So find what works for you and your dog, and never give up on your training journey! Keep working together as a team and celebrate each success along the way.
Next up in the Reactivity Channel on Dogly
Knowing how to use management skills gives you a good foundation to set your pup up to feel more comfortable in the moment and open to learning how to feel and react in a "hey, no big deal" way around triggers. Stay tuned for what's next - more ways to handle dog reactivity and change your dog's reactions with counter-conditioning, desensitization, and training alternative behaviors.
If you have any questions on management or working with your dog and reactivity, jump into our Community Discussion. Continue in our Reactivity Channel where you'll learn everything you need to know for your dog from our community of Dogly Training Advocates.
If you ever need more individualized guidance, get started in your dog's training plan.