Why is my dog reactive?
Updated: Oct 14
Our dogs reactions or behaviours can be as a result of many things and each individual dog needs to be observed closely to establish what is the root cause of the behaviour. We must ask ourselves “WHY” our dog is behaving the way it is or “WHY” our dog is not understanding what is being asked when being trained.
Most reactive types of behaviour may be as a result of an significant event where our dog has had a negative experience or alternatively, our dog just feels uncomfortable with a particular person, environment or animal etc. These reactions can even be dictated by different fear stages as our dogs grow and develop. Even though the significant event may not be obvious to us It could have still have occurred without us being aware. What we deem as a significant event may be totally different to how our dog perceives the event. People, environments or animals can be the triggers for many of our dogs' reactivity. These triggers can then be split further into gender, race, dogs, cats and so on. For example, I have witnessed dogs which are fine around females but will react aggressively to males.
A trigger is the term used to describe the cause of our dog's reactive behaviours. If our dogs are exposed to the trigger then this can take them over their threshold. The threshold is the term used to describe how much our dog can cope with before it feels like it needs to react.
It's not uncommon for our dogs to be triggered by a combination of things which causes undesirable reactive type behaviours. When there are multiple triggers this is known as trigger stacking. As these triggers stack up then it becomes more likely our dog will react and it goes without saying that the more triggers, the quicker the dog will react.
How will my dog react?
Our dogs have 3 options when deciding how to react to the trigger:
Fight - If our dogs feel like they have no other option then they may choose to fight. This is often when you see our dog making themselves look big, hackles raised, rigid posture, tightly ticked ears, barking, growling, lunging, showing off their teeth and will often result in biting.
The misconception is that a dog going into fight mode is big, strong and dominant, however, most often it's the complete opposite. These dogs are often feeling insecure, nervous or frightened which provokes their reactions.
Flight - When our dog is triggered they may choose the flight response. This is when you see a dog run away from the perceived threat or trigger. Ultimately our dog is trying to create as much distance as quickly as possible between itself and the perceived threat (trigger)
Freeze - This type of reaction is often seen when our dog decides to stand completely still in hope that the perceived threat or trigger doesn't see it or by standing completely still the trigger or threat will just walk on by and leave them alone. You will often see this type of behaviour with wild rabbits when they clamp down in the grass hoping you can't see them. Eventually they will normally start to run (flight) if we get too close.
How to help my dog when triggered?
To help dogs that are triggered which results in undesirable behaviour we use a training method called Counter Conditioning. This method can be very successful if a strategy is put in place and implemented consistently with good timing and awareness by the owner.
Keeping it simple, we are going to teach our dogs that the behaviour that they are currently displaying to the trigger is not desirable and often unnecessary. We are going to change their thought process so when our dog sees the trigger and feels uneasy, they will feel calm. We are going to show them that there is a more appropriate way to react or behave. Not only is it better for the owner but by teaching our dogs how to remain calm, this will in turn ease the stress and pressure the dog is feeling when coming across these triggers.
How to apply the method?
The first step is to find something that motivates and drives your dog. We want to find something that the dog finds desirable and really wants. High value treats such as cheese, chicken or sausage are good examples. Boring kibble or biscuits tend to be less effective. If our dogs are not motivated by food then toys can be used. However, it can be more difficult to keep the reward rate high in the initial stages. The reward rate is the rate in which the dog receives the treat/reward. A high reward rate is when the dog is being given treat after treat as opposed to a low reward rate which is where the treat is spaced out and the dog has to offer more of the correct behaviour before it is rewarded.
Once we have established what the dog likes, then we start the process of teaching our dog to focus or engage with us. This should be started as soon as possible in an environment the dog feels safe and secure and away from any other distraction and especially what triggers your dog to react. It can be beneficial to put the focus on cue. For example, ask your dog to “watch me” then as your dog looks up at you start flooding (high reward rate) the dog with rewards. The cue word can be anything that comes natural to you but it must be consistent.
Practise getting your dog's attention in more demanding environments, whilst still trying to control it the best you can to maximise the chances of success. We are still not ready to introduce the triggers if your dog will not focus on you when it's in more demanding environments.
Once your dog will readily focus on you on cue in a variety of environments then we can start to progress.
Whilst still choosing our environment or managing the environments we can slowly introduce the triggers. When doing so, its best practice to ALWAYS INTRODUCE THE TRIGGER AT DISTANCE or at far as reasonably practicable. There is no set distance because every dog's threshold is different. If your dog is already reacting then you're too close. Either you move back or get the trigger to move back. Either way distance must be created.
When introducing the trigger you must watch your dog's body language carefully. There will be lots of signs telling you how your dog is feeling well before your dog fully reacts to the trigger. We must start as soon as the dog is aware of the presence of the trigger. Its essential that you start this process BEFORE your dog goes over the threshold as no learning will take place once they start barking and lunging.
As soon as you see your dog starting to change we use the cue/command that you have already been teaching and ask your dog to focus on you. This is the same process you have been practising away from the trigger. Once the dog's attention is on you, start rewarding the dog as long as the trigger is present.
Once the trigger goes away then allow your dog to go about its normal business whether playing free, walking or resting. We have just taught the dog that by remaining calm and focused on you the trigger will eventually go away and nothing will happen to them.
You then repeat this process EVERY TIME you see your dog's behaviour change towards the trigger. We treat every interaction with the trigger as if it is going to result in your dog fully reacting. You will know when you are making progress when the trigger is present and your dog turns to look at you for praise, treats and rewards. Even if your dog stands or sits totally passive looking at the trigger then you have still made progress.
Congratulations, you have completed the process of basic counter conditioning. You have started the process of teaching your dog that its previous reactive behaviour is no longer an option and you encouraged your dog to make the right choices resulting in rewards and praise.
How do I progress?
Like with any dog training, you can only progress at a pace which is comfortable for your dog. Don't be afraid to take a step back before you can move forward. This is not uncommon in dog training. It's more important that you develop strong foundations rather than skipping parts out and progressing too quickly. When planning your training and progression, you could try some of the options listed below, but you MUST ensure your dog is kept under the threshold. If your dog is pushed too hard and too fast then you could undo all your hard work.
Options for progression:
Slow down the rate of reward but maintain focus.
Keep the reward rate high but bring the trigger closer.
Move the dog closer to the trigger.
Change the dog's environment when training (location, people, animals, etc)
This is not an exhaustive list but I'm sure you get the feeling for how to progress.
How long will it take to see the benefits?
Dog training is very much a marathon and not a sprint especially when trying to resolve behavioural issues such as reactivity. Too often I work with dog owners who expect too much too soon and they become frustrated or dismissive of the training plans put in place.
Take your time. Always remember that the key to any successful training is PLANNING, CONSISTENCY AND PATIENCE.