If you’re struggling with a pooch who seems to react negatively towards other animals or people, dog reactivity training can help. This type of training teaches your furry friend how to stay calm and collected when encountering “triggers,”, making walks and trips to the dog park a much more enjoyable experience for both you and your pet. Let’s go over the basics, then I’ll get into some tips and tricks for success!
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Everything You Need to Know About Dog Reactivity Training
Dog reactivity training is a topic that I see a lot of pet owners discussing on forums these days. We all want to raise mellow dogs. Teaching them how to keep their cool in the face of overwhelming triggers is a big part of that. So I thought it was time to create a guide to discuss it and cover all related topics. Read on, and I’ll ensure your reactive dog can get the help they need.
The following sections will provide a more in-depth look into dog reactivity training. As a result, you’ll soon know what it is, how to do it, and whether your dog needs it. You can then start the process with your dogs or look into hiring a professional to help.
What is Dog Reactivity Training?
An excellent starting point for discussions is defining dog reactivity training. It’s all about preventing a reactive dog from experiencing an abnormal level of arousal when encountering an everyday situation.
In other words, a reactive dog isn’t one who barks once at someone who knocks on your door. This reaction is standard for almost any dog. After all, most humans even get a little surprised when getting a random knock on their door during the day.
Instead, dog reactivity training focuses more on dogs who act excessively in these situations. A typical example would be seeing another pup on the street or bypassing an unfamiliar human being and launching into “attack mode.”
The training works to solve the cause (aka the root of the problem) behind these abnormal reactions. First, it works on changing their fearful or stressed-out feelings when encountering their particular triggers. You’ll then look to turn those feelings into more relaxed or happy emotions.
In some cases, owners won’t be able to control their dog’s reactivity. Some dogs will showcase extreme reactivity levels, representing a difficult challenge. But hope isn’t all lost, as I can help you teach these dogs how to behave when facing their triggers appropriately. It’ll become more about managing your dog’s reactivity than solving it.
Before we get to that, let’s go over the signs that you may be dealing with a reactive dog.
Signs of a Reactive Dog
Since you know the training’s goal, let’s see if your dog meets the criteria. You must figure out whether your pooch is considered a reactive dog. Otherwise, this training could be counterproductive. You could actually end up training them out of good behavior!
I’d recommend starting by considering what’s defined as a reactive dog. As I mentioned, it’s when a dog provides an abnormal level of arousal to a normal situation. But this reactive event doesn’t only come out in one behavior.
Sometimes, we think our dogs are “reactive” when they’re really just happy. For example, your dog may get overly excited when a friend Sue comes over. He jumps up, barks excitedly, and lavishes her with kisses. While jumping on people and barking obnoxiously may not necessarily be desired behaviors, they’re not reactive behaviors.
The term “reactive dog” is more reserved for dogs who demonstrate aggressive behaviors in typical situations—turning their fear and stress into overreactions and causing dangerous circumstances for everyone involved.
Some of the more common aggressive behaviors include lunging or barking. Your dog might lunge at a passing human or nearby dog who’s across the stress. Before doing the training, my Beagle would do both whenever seeing any male canine bigger than him.
Along with barking and lunging, other signs of reactivity include:
- Growling at other dogs or people
- Stiff body posture, raised fur, or a tucked tail
- Excessive drooling or panting
- Trying to hide behind you or pull away from the situation
- Pacing or circling when encountering another dog
- Refusing to eat treats or respond to commands when in a reactive state
- Reacting to dogs or people from a distance (such as across the street or from a window)
- Difficulty calming down after a reactive episode
Aside from aggression, avoidance or fear is another expression of reactive dogs. They might crouch down, run away, whine, or hide from certain situations. For instance, thunderstorms are often a massive issue among these dogs.
Check out the video below for a good overview of what “reactivity” means in dogs:
How to Do Reactivity Training on Your Own
Anyone who feels their dog meets the criteria should attempt training them. But there are a few guidelines to know before starting this process:
- Never use punishment or negative reinforcement when training. Your dog isn’t going to respond well, and this only makes the issue worse.
- This process won’t be an overnight success. It’ll require patience and time on your part to achieve satisfactory results.
- Don’t be afraid to realize you can’t do this task alone. Some dogs will have reactive tendencies to the point where even experienced owners have trouble. I’ll discuss finding a dog reactivity trainer in a later section.
- If your dog doesn’t trust you yet, developing it before starting this training is crucial. Check out our article on bubble theory dog training to get a better handle on building a safe space.
Since I’ve covered the ground rules, let’s start our training process. It’s time to identify and solve what’s causing your dog’s reactive behavior.
1. Evaluate and Determine The Triggers
The first step will be determining what causes your dog’s reactivity. As I noted, it can be anything capable of making your dog act excited or fearful. It creates a long list of potential triggers.
But it does become quite apparent to any owner when the reactivity event happens. So it shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out the cause. Here’s a quick list of common triggers that I’ve found during my experience with reactive dogs:
- Other pets or animals (especially unfamiliar dogs)
- Unknown people
- Being hooked up to a leash
- Particular features on a person (wearing hoods, hats, or having a beard)
- Small children
- Feeling trapped in a small area
- Loud noises
- Quick movements
- A specific gender of the person
Honestly, the triggers can vary significantly from dog to dog. It’s also essential to note that your pup may have more than one and probably has several. So it would be best to be thorough when evaluating your dog to get a handle on them.
For instance, my Pitbull was terrified of men with hats or hoods. Anytime a man walked into my house wearing one, she would shake the walls with a thunderous part. At one point, I even put a sign outside my door saying,” Please remove your hats/hoods before entering.” You’d be surprised how many people didn’t adhere to my warning.
2. Make an Effort to Understand Your Dog’s Reactive Behavior
One of the fundamental keys to training a reactive dog is understanding their behavior. You must learn to recognize when they’re okay or not with a situation. The former is what experts call under-threshold, and the latter is over-threshold.
Our entire goal here is to keep a reactive dog under the threshold. It’s the key to stopping any situation from going haywire. In these moments, your dog won’t be entirely okay with encountering a particular circumstance, but it’ll be manageable.
The issue arises when your dog goes over their threshold. It’s where all the barking, growing, lunging, cowering, and other fear/stress-induced behaviors happen. You’ll want to avoid the over-threshold zone when training as much as possible.
3. Addressing the Trigger
You now know what’s causing the issues and understand their reactions. So how does a person reduce the impact these triggers have on your dog? Well, it all starts with positive reinforcement.
For instance, when your dog notices their triggers, reward them. A relatively straightforward option is using treats, but it’s worth noting it can be problematic. You don’t want your dog gaining weight during the training.
So I recommend using something else they value highly. For example, my dog has a green rope toy that he loves, which has become my preferred option. I can’t believe how many triggers it has helped my dog manage.
But the key is only to offer the toy once your dog sees their trigger. Your dog needs to understand the correlation between their trigger and the reward. Otherwise, it defeats the purpose of this entire exercise.
4. Practice Using Positive Reinforcement
Understanding the connection between triggers and their reward will take your dog time. So it requires a bit of practice. But this doesn’t mean going into a highly populated area with potential trigger issues.
So a dog who reacts to other dogs shouldn’t start at the dog park. Instead, it’s a much better idea to go to a local park where the interactions will be more limited. It’ll create an excellent area for this training to kick up a notch.
In this scenario, you’ll have ample time to react when seeing a dog closer. Then, once your dog sees them and starts showing signs of moving outside the under-threshold, present them with your positive reinforcement reward.
Repeat this step until your dog feels comfortable with another dog at a set distance. They’ll eventually understand that the presence of another canine gets them a reward.
5. Try Establishing a Closer Distance
Progress has been made if you’ve established a distance where your dog is consistently comfortable. It’s a serious accomplishment because many dog owners don’t have the patience to do it themselves.
But you’ve now made your dog associate their trigger with a reward. But, of course, it’s only at a set distance, so your next step is moving a bit closer to the stimulus. You’ll now want to repeat step 4 and see how far your dog’s comfortable with going.
6. Keep Practicing Until You’re Comfortable
Repeat steps 4 and 5 until you’ve reached a comfortable distance. In other words, a distance that you feel is manageable.
But remember, your dog may never reach your preferred distance. So it’s essential to be realistic about the outcome of this training. Your goal should be managing the situation rather than curing their reactive tendencies.
After all, your dog may never be okay being right next to another on their walks. But I’m confident this process can stop them from lunging or barking at one across the street.
7. Start Phasing Out the Reward
Once you’ve reached a set goal, it’s time to phase out their reward. It must be a gradual process rather than simply removing the treat or toy from the situation.
Start by giving them it every two times instead of whenever a trigger is present. It would be best to continue until the reward is only needed sometimes.
But it’s vital to use the reward occasionally to ensure the training sticks. So you could reward them every 5th or 10th time, or if the occasion calls for it.
What to Look for in Dog Reactivity Trainer
If you feel uncomfortable doing the training, the next step is seeking out a professional. These experts will have a better handle on dealing with these issues. But it’s all about finding the right one. So here are a few tips to help you find the perfect one near you:
- You don’t actually want to work with a “dog trainer.” Trainers are only sometimes well-versed in dealing with behavioral issues. They’re much better suited for teaching obedience and commands than helping with reactive dogs.
- Seek out a dog behaviorist instead. These experts are uniquely suited to help reactive dogs as it’s their specialty. So any reactive dog would do much better with them than an obedience trainer.
- Finding an accredited canine behaviorist is vital. Many people use this term to beef up their resumes for potential clients, so seeking out the real thing is essential. It’s the only way to ensure your dog gets the help it needs from a good source.
- An accredited canine behaviorist will have specific certifications from reputable organizations, such as IAABC, CCPDT, and AVSAB. You should feel confident and comfortable with any behaviorists mentioned in those directories.
Once you find one nearby, set up an appointment and get your dog in training. The results should progress gradually but be noticeable with time.
All in all, dog reactivity training is about patience and managing expectations. These dogs will need time to progress through it, but if done correctly, it’ll produce solid results. It’ll also be well worth it, as it’s beautiful to see them come out of their shells.
Let me know if you’ve had experience with dog reactivity training in our comment section. I would love to continue this conversation and help in any way possible. Thanks for reading!
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