By Anthony De Marinis, CDBC, ADT, LFDM, FFCP
Reactive behavior, also known as reactivity or sometimes leash reactivity, is one of the most common behavior issues dog owners deal with. It affects all dog breeds and occurs in all types of environments: city, suburbs, rural etc.
What Is Reactive Behavior In Dogs?
Reactive behavior represents an emotional response to a stimulus (i.e., the sight, sound and/or smell of something) that triggers an abnormal level of intensity (i.e., an over reaction). A common example would be a dog who barks excessively when seeing someone (the “trigger”) walking across the street. Reactive behaviors vary from dog to dog and often include barking, lunging, snarling, snapping, stiffening, hyper-vigilance, alertness, fearfulness and/or avoidance. When dogs become reactive, the overstimulation may cause loss of their conscious control. When this happens, overreactive, frustrated and/or aroused dogs can exhibit aggressive behaviors.
Types of Reactivity
Reactive behaviors can occur for a variety of reasons. They include, but are not limited to:
- Frustration or frustration build up
- Barrier frustration (This is when a dog is restricted or restrained by a barrier such as a fence, window, door or leash.)
- Fear, anxiety or stress
- Confident behavior
- Conflict-based behavior
- Insecurity-based behavior
- Over excitement
- Sensory overload
- The owner response(s) to their dogs issues and the way the owner handled issues in the past
- Traumatic or scary experiences that had occurred
- Health & Pain Issues
- Predation-based response (this is a controversial one, but for the sake of this post, I have included it because even though it may be an instinctual response, it is still technically a reaction.)
- Prior training in some cases can cause or increase reactive behavior depending on what the dog learned or took away from the training experience.
What Does Reactive Behavior Look Like?
Reactive behavior can have many different appearances. Furthermore, the severity level is dependent upon to individual dog and what causes them to react. Here is a list of what reactive behavior can look like.
- Can appear as aggressive behavior or turn into aggressive behavior
- Being very alert and fixated
- Vocalization: barking, whining, growling
- Lunging forward
- Fleeing or backing away
- Barking and backing away
- Confident types of behavior such as standing ones ground or even being pushy or controlling in some manner
- Displacement Behaviors
- Overly solicitous behaviors
- Fearful or avoidant behavior
Pro Tip: It is important to note that depending on how over threshold the dog is when in a reactive state, the dog may not be able to respond or process information the same way as they would if they were in a calm state.
Helping Your Reactive Dog
I’m always asked the question: “How can I help my reactive dog?” This isn’t an easy question to answer because, as I mentioned above, there are many reasons a dog might display reactive behavior.
We need to first learn more about your dog’s reactive behavior. You may find it helpful to keep a notebook handy so that you can start answering the following questions as this information will be important when trying to address your concerns.
- What triggers your dog to react?
- When your dog reacts, what does he do? What does his behavior look like? (bark, backing away, lunging forward, show teeth, snap, bite etc.)
- How far away from the trigger do you need to be for your dog to start reacting or over reacting?
- What does your dog look like just before he starts to react?
- What does your dog do when he is reacting?
- What does your dog do after he has reacted? Does he go back to being himself or is he very alert, hypervigilant etc.? And if so, how long does it take for him to settle down or recover after a reaction?
You may need to hire a qualified dog trainer or behavior specialist in order to help you answer these questions. Once they are answered, your dog trainer or dog behavior specialist can provide you with a behavior modification plan, training plan and safety and management plan tailored to your dog.
Additional Steps To Get Started
1- Learn What Your Dog Is Saying
I always recommend my clients learn canine body language and communication signals. It is REALLY, REALLY important, because once you can learn what your dog is saying with his body language, you will be able to better understand and help him, especially if you are trying to modify his behavior. Here are some great resources you can check out.
Credible Canine Body Language Links:
Video’s on Canine Body Language and Communication Signals:
2- Capturing Video Of Problematic Behavior
Personally, I recommend clients try and capture video footage of problem behaviors if it is safe to do so and without provoking anything. If you have any videos of the problem behavior(s), it can sometimes be helpful so that you can show your dog trainer or behavior consultant what the behavior looks like in case they don’t get to see the full picture in your session. I also suggest that clients even get video of what their dog is like just being himself, without displaying any issues as sometimes this can be helpful information. DISCLAIMER: When trying to capture video, it is important to either have someone video for you, or have a home camera system set up. DO NOT try capturing video on your own as this could put you, your dog or someone else in a bad or dangerous situation. Furthermore, DO NOT try to provoke your dog’s behavior or put yourself or your dog in harm’s way for video footage.
3- Keep a Journal With Your Observations
In a notebook, you should be writing down specific incidents when the problem behavior(s) occur. You should also include what happens before and after the behavior(s) as this provides valuable information. Include as much detail as you can.
4- Implement Safety & Management Strategies
Management means to essentially set your dog up for success so that you can prevent your dog from displaying problematic behavior(s). This can be very important during the behavior modification and training process. To get detailed strategies and tips on safety and management for your dog, check out my blog post How To Manage Aggressive Behavior & Reactive Behavior in Dogs. This blog post also has additional links to resources you may find helpful.
5- Hire A Qualified Dog Trainer and Behavior Consultant
There are many ways to address reactive behavior. Modifying reactive behavior needs to be tailored to you and your dog. Hiring a professional dog trainer and behavior consultant is key to success. You can learn more about finding a professional dog trainer and behavior consultant by checking out my blog, Do I need to hire a dog training and behavior professional with credentials?.
I hope you found this blog helpful. Owning a dog who is reactive can be challenging. Luckily you are not alone! Your first step is learning about reactive behavior, which you started doing by reading this blog. (Good for you!) Your second step should be contacting a qualified dog trainer or dog behavior specialist so that you can get proper help and advice. You may decide to hire a dog trainer or behavior consultant, as they may be better equipped to help modify your dog’s behavior.
If you are seeking help and looking for a dog trainer and dog behavior specialist, and you live near me on Long Island, please visit my website for more information on my services. If you are out of my area, I also provide online virtual consultations for behavior modification. For those located in NYC, Westchester, Putnam County, Hudson Valley, Connecticut or New Jersey, and you wish to work with me, contact me to learn more about coming to work with me at my studio space.
6 Skills To Help Your Leash Reactive Dog
Click here to get 6 Skills to help your dog’s leash reactive behavior. Videos are included!
Helpful Videos On Reactive Behavior in Dogs
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About Anthony De Marinis
Anthony De Marinis specializes in working with dogs with behavior issues, specifically with aggressive behavior. He provides comprehensive in-home behavior consultations and dog training services in most of Nassau County and western Suffolk County on Long Island, NY. (Online Virtual Consultations for aggression and behavior modification are also available for clients who are local and out of state.) Anthony is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant from the International Association for Animal Behavior Consultants, Accredited Dog Trainer by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, Licensed Family Dog Mediator (LFDM), and a Fear Free Certified Training Professional (FFCP). Anthony currently has an interest in training and behavior modification in Working & Sport bred dogs. He is also learning about and currently competing in agility and sheep herding with his own dogs. Anthony has two Australian Kelpies, Journey and Quest.