Reactivity: What does it mean and how can we begin to help reactive dogs?
with Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw, Training Advocate

“Reactive” has become something of a buzzword of late. Let’s dive into a bit of what we mean by a “reactive” dog, and how we can best support dogs with the label.


First of all - when we say “reactive” we usually mean a dog who growls, lunges or generally overreacts to stimuli like other dogs, strange people, cars, bicycles, scooters, other animals, etc. The scope of what the dog reacts to and how the dog reacts is VERY broad. And when it comes down to it, all dogs react to some stuff - a dog that doesn’t react to anything is, well, a dead dog. 


I believe that the term has been well received and widely used because we all prefer to have reactive dogs as opposed to “aggressive” dogs or even just “bad” dogs! But from a behavior standpoint, the word doesn’t convey a whole lot of useful information. When I get an email from a potential dog client about a reactive dog, my response tends to consist of approximately one thousand follow-up questions. 


So moving on to more practical discussion - how can we best support dogs that have come to be labeled as reactive? The first step is to observe your dog’s behavior. It’s actually helpful to keep a written log, observing each and every situation in which a reaction occurs. Here are some things to note when logging a reaction:


  • What seemingly caused the reaction (dog/bike/kid, etc).
  • Where that trigger was in relation to the dog - both in terms of distance from the dog, as well as movement in relation to the dog (ie 20 feet away and moving away or across the street moving towards).
  • Time of day and location.
  • Body language observations both leading up to as well as during the reaction (ie stopped when observed other dog, body stiffened, tail lowered, ears pinned, lifted paw, sniffed the ground, lunged towards other dog, etc). The more specific you can be about what the body is actually doing the better. Avoid simply using terms like “reacted” or “freaked out.” What did you see with your eyes?
  • Notes about recovery (did the dog’s body relax shortly thereafter or did she remain tense?)
  • Background information from the day (other encounters with triggers, playdates, illnesses or injuries, stressful incidents whether or not they elicited a similar reaction). 


The more specific you can be in making these observations, the more accurately you’ll be able to predict your dog’s triggers, and therefore begin to work on her behavior. 


Your next step in helping your dog work towards reducing his big explosive reactions is to avoid those triggers at all costs. Manage your dog’s environment so that he is not exposed to the things that make him go bonkers.


People hate this step. We love our neighborhood walks, our routines, and our ideas of who our dogs should be and how they should cope with certain stimuli. But if our dog is reacting in these over the top and embarrassing ways, we are getting important information about what they are capable of right now. 


Managing the environment so that our dogs aren’t exposed to triggering encounters is more than just avoiding the issue, it’s also letting our dogs know that as their partner, we have their back, and that we won’t put them into situations that they can’t handle. It’s also giving them a break from the stress hormones that flood their brain during a big reaction, which can take a long time to dissipate from their system. Furthermore, it is pretty much impossible to teach a dog new behaviors when they are continually practicing the old behaviors we want to avoid. If our dogs are rehearsing these undesirable behaviors often, we’re not going to see any progress.


This is a big step, I know, and it often involves rethinking big aspects of life. But it makes a huge difference, and once we take this step on, we can begin to move onto other ways of helping our reactive dogs be more confident and comfortable in the world, and therefore behave in ways we appreciate more! Stay tuned!