How Can I Help My Reactive Dog?
Many dog owners are struggling with reactivity – most commonly with leash reactivity. And we all have seen reactive dogs before, often without knowing it: Most people would call canines that lunge, snarl and snap at other dogs or people “aggressive”. But contrary to truly aggressive dogs, the intention of reactive dogs is not to attack and bite. They simply want to keep the perceived threat at bay – either by avoiding them, or by trying to scare them away by growling, barking or bluff-charging. By definition, a reactive dog is one that behaves in an unbalanced manner when confronted with certain triggers. But what causes these often inconvenient responses?
5 Reasons Why Dogs Become Reactive
Unlike aggressive dogs, reactive dogs want to keep the perceived threat away - either away from themselves, from their owner or their territory. Reactive dogs do not want to bite. But they might do if provoked, or cornered. The heightened state of arousal that goes along with reactivity sends dogs into a fight-or-flight mode. And depending on breed, age and temperament, some dogs will respond to a perceived threat with flight – and others will fight. Again, not out of aggression, but out of the perceived need to defend themselves, or their loved ones.
Reactive canine behaviour is expressed in various outer symptoms. These include leash pulling, lunging, barking, or freezing with fear. Sometimes, these outer symptoms of reactivity are causing dog owners enough concern to hire a trainer. In severe cases (especially if there is a bite history), desperate owners give up their reactive dog to a shelter. If you have a reactive dog on your hands right now, please do not loose hope! Trust in yourself and in your dog. We are here to help you and your canine companion. And to do this, let us discuss 5 reasons why dogs become reactive.
1. Lack of Leadership And Trust
Here at Fenrir, we speak a lot about calm, consistent leadership as the foundation for a loving, trusting relationship with your dog. Once this relationship is established, the communication pathways are wide open. At this point, communication flows freely both ways. This means that your dog has learned to look up to you for guidance and direction in all circumstances and situations. But it also means that you clearly understand your dog’s body language signals and vocalisations.
Perhaps your reactive dog gets triggered by other dogs, joggers, or cyclists. Some dogs start cowering whenever they hear a rumble of thunder. Reactivity can also be triggered by very specific stimuli, such as the scent of wild boar, or the sight of children playing with a ball. These are merely examples for how reactivity can show itself.
If your dog is reacting to anything in their environment, they are not looking up to you for guidance and direction. And this means that your leadership with your dog is broken. But without leadership, there is no working relationship between the both of you. Dogs without leadership can experience all kinds of negative emotions. This makes lack of leadership the root cause for sometimes chronic states of stress, anxiety, fear and frustration. In the absence of leadership, dogs feel the need to make decisions for themselves, such as bark at every dog they meet on the street. Dogs do not want to make their own decisions. In the absence of calm, consistent leadership, however, they feel they have no choice but to “take matters into their own hands”. And this puts tremendous stress and pressure on them.
Dogs with calm, consistent leaders in their lives may feel unsettled by certain stimuli as well. Some things in our world are scary to dogs. But as these dogs trust their leader to protect and guide them in any situation, they are far less likely to respond in unbalanced ways.
2. Insufficient Socialisation
Lack of socialisation is another common cause for reactive behaviour. Ideally, everyone would socialise their young puppies to many different stimuli such as vehicles, busy streets, dogs, other animals, and many different men, women and children. If this is not done, the dog may react with nervousness, anxiety or even fear-based aggression to these stimuli: Not out of aggression, but because they have never been familiarised and desensitised to them.
To a certain degree, socialisation happens naturally. For example, dogs who are raised in remote areas will not be familiar with the many different scents, sights, and sounds of a busy city. And we cannot expect them to respond to fast-moving traffic and vast numbers of people with calm serenity. However these farm dogs will be comfortable around livestock, farm vehicles and other items typical for farm environments. And the reverse applies to dogs who were raised in cities.
The best way to prevent reactive behaviours later on in our dogs’ lives is to socialise them to as many things as possible. This includes exposing them to many different situations, circumstances, vehicles, objects, nature spots, buildings, surfaces etc. As our own neighbourhood may only offer a certain number of these different environments, we should routinely take our dogs to different places. But even if we do this, there will always be sounds, sights and situations that are unfamiliar to the dog. But a well-socialised canine will be able to behave adequately in the face of all these stimuli.
3. Lack Of Exercise
One of the most common forms of reactivity is leash reactivity. Understandably, most people do not enjoy walking their severely leash-reactive pets. This is why leash reactivity often leads dogs and their owners into a vicious cycle: Because walking their leash-reactive dog has become an unpleasant experience, owners shorten their walks. Sometimes, they stop taking them out in public altogether. As a result, this reactive dog receives less and less exercise – which intensifies their reactivity even more. If the same dog is prone to leash pulling, they will pull more and more strongly whenever they do get a walk.
But all dogs (and especially reactive dogs) need exercise and mental stimulation on a daily basis. And more often than not, they require far more of it than we think. Not getting enough physical and mental stimulation leads to the dog’s nervous energy building up – and eventually, boiling over. And if we fail to provide positive ways to release this pent-up energy, it can express itself in severe reactivity.
Oftentimes, reactive behaviour is caused by confusion: Many dogs simply do not know what to do during walks. These dogs habitually react in certain ways because no one has ever told them not to. As they have not learned to remain calm in the face of many different sights and sounds, these stimuli trigger their fight-or-flight response. Take motorbikes, for example. If a dog encounters one of these noisy, fast-moving vehicles for the first time, their fight-or-flight response can easily get triggered. This means the dog will either try to flee from the bike, or attack it. After all, no one has taught them how to properly respond to motorbikes. This is where lack of socialisation and lack of leadership converge: Under-socialised dogs that lack the guidance of a calm, consistent leader do not know how to respond to strong stimuli.
Very young puppies routinely touch one another with their mouths. And they start play-fighting with their littermates when they are only a couple of weeks old. This form of “puppy biting” is natural and necessary, as it teaches the infant canines how to use their bodies and how to engage with other dogs. If one puppy bites down too hard, the other will typically yelp and move away.
And yet, confusion is perhaps the easiest form of reactivity to work with, and to correct. One of the simplest ways to do this is by giving these dogs a job to do. Dogs thrive on structure, and on performing a task. This can be as simple as staying in the heel position on walks, until told otherwise. Most dogs that live with us do not have a job. And this lack of structure leads to confusion, stress, anxiety – and ultimately, reactivity.
To some degree, reactivity is breed-related. Large guardian breeds, for instance, are naturally alert and protective of their owners. And if another person approaches in ways the dog deems suspicious, they may growl, bark or even lunge at them. Terriers or dedicated herding breeds are more prone to nervous barking and nipping than gentle Retrievers, Pointers, Spaniels or Hounds. Livestock guardian breeds like Great Pyrenees Mountain Dogs or Turkish Kangals are highly reactive by nature. They are prone to loud and prolonged barking or bluff-charging whenever they spot, or smell, the presence of a perceived threat – such as another dog, a person or a predator. And some dogs of different breeds are born with a tendency to be timid, and to react with fear and anxiety to unfamiliar situations. If not mitigated by calm, consistent leadership, such genetically caused anxiety can escalate into reactive behaviours such as nervous barking or fear-biting.
How To Calm Reactive Dogs
Now that we have discussed possible causes for reactivity, let us see how we can help our dogs to adequately respond to anything they might encounter in their lives.
1. Building Leadership and Relationship
Leadership is the basis of a trusting relationship between us and our dogs. And it is this trust in us that makes our canine companions feel safe: Dogs with calm, consistent leaders have no reason to react inappropriately to people, other animals, or unfamiliar events: They know that we will guide them safely through any situation. These dogs have no need to be afraid or over-protective.
One of the easiest ways to establish leadership is by teaching your dog to engage with you when they are on a leash. Building engagement is also the simplest method to stop leash pulling, and to decrease leash-reactivity. The first step to encourage engagement is by introducing simple directional changes. So, at any point during your walk, you stop, turn around, and then walk back.in the opposite direction. Before you turn and walk the other way, you make sure that there is a little bit of slack in the leash. In this way, your changing direction causes a short pop on the leash. Initially, no verbal cues are needed. Just focus on repeatedly changing your direction. After a while, your dog will stop charging ahead and pulling on the leash. Instead, they will check back with you, simply because they are learning to look to you for cues. The beginning stages of building engagement (which goes hand in hand with loose-leash walking) do not require food-rewards, as you do not want to “bribe” your dog to pay attention.
Once you have built engagement, leash reactivity and other forms of reactivity will cease to be a problem for you: Because every time they fall back into the old habit of pulling, you can simply stop and change direction. Dogs that pull on leashes want to go forward – and not back. In combination with the short pop on the leash, this method ensures that you will determine the speed and direction of your walk – and not your dog. An ideal tool to use for building engagement is our Ragnar Slip Leash. This strong and durable leash will withstand any amount of (temporary) reactive lunging and pulling whilst your dog learns to look to you for guidance and direction.
2. Socialisation And Structured Walks
Daily walks are healthy for people and canines: They provide exercise in the fresh air and the opportunity to go on adventures and explore new places. Walks also provide mental stimulation in the form of different scents, sights and sounds. This makes them ideally suited for socialising our dogs - which should be an ongoing process: Because unless they are taken out into the world regularly, even well-socialised dogs can become reactive to people, other dogs, traffic and other stimuli over time. This is what makes walks so essential for keeping our dogs healthy, happy and well-balanced. And dogs who receive regular structured walks on a loose leash are far more likely to look to us for guidance and direction. These dogs will have no reason to react inappropriately to other canines, cats, children, lawnmowers or any other stimuli they might encounter out in public.
Structured walks on a loose leash are very effective in boosting our dogs’ confidence. And building confidence is very important in helping reactive dogs remain calm in any situation. Every positive experience that a dog has on a walk will help them to become more confident. Every challenge they master under their leader’s loving guidance will boost their self-esteem – and decrease their reactivity. And this improvement allows you (as the owner of a formerly reactive dog) to enjoy your walks to the fullest.
When it comes to the question which tools are best for walking reactive dogs, we recommend the Ragnar Slip Leash and the Ragnar Harness. Both products effectively keep reactive dogs safe: Many dogs have learned to slip out of a flat collar to either run away, or chase after something. This is very dangerous, especially in areas with lots of traffic. In combination with the Ragnar Training Lead, the Ragnar Harness effectively prevents dogs from escaping. Its dual traffic handles make this harness the perfect tool for keeping reactive dogs under control at all times: Whenever you find yourself in a situation that triggers your dog’s reactivity, simply grab the handles. This allows you to prevent your dog from lunging at other dogs, running into traffic, or jumping up on people. At the same time, the comfortably padded Ragnar Harness gives your dog the freedom to explore the world - without harming their throats by pulling. Thanks to its unique and extremely safe attachment system the Ragnar Harness allows you to clip in and head on your walk.
In balancing structured walks with playtimes and opportunities to freely explore the world, we ensure that our dogs are happy and fulfilled. This, in turn, significantly lessens their desire to pull on their leash. And dogs that walk nicely on the leash have better lives: Simply because their owners enjoy taking them on walks, hikes, and other outings. In this way, they receive more exercise – and are less likely to pull on their leash or be reactive. This is how we create a spiral of success.
As we saw, certain breeds are naturally more reactive than others. We cannot alter our dog’s genetics. And neither can we change any negative experiences they had before they came to us. But as we said, there is much we can do to help reactive dogs improve. In building up a loving leadership, we free our dogs from “the burden of command”: The simple act of taking control and providing guidance and direction will liberate our dogs from most of the stress and tension they have been holding. And ultimately, this constant strain is the reason why so many dogs react in unbalanced ways to their environment. In combination with exercise, building engagement and continued socialisation, we can absolutely improve the lives of reactive dogs – no matter their breed, age or history.