Is your reactive dog wearing you out?
If you’re always worrying about the next trigger, rushing across the street every time you encounter another dog, dreading visitors, cutting your outings short – you’re probably not enjoying dog ownership as much as you expected. It may be tiring, frustrating, even embarrassing when it feels like your dog is out of control.
By understanding what your dog is experiencing, you can start to drive positive change in their behaviour.
Remember, a reactive dog is not a “bad dog”.
Reactive dogs are scared. With a combination of factors that may be genetic, based on past experiences, due to a lack of positive exposure or based on diet and exercise, your dog truly does not know how to handle certain situations. With your guidance, your dog can learn to react appropriately to their triggers.
What’s The Difference Between “Normal” And “Reactive” Dogs?
Most dogs get excited when they see another dog, or a squirrel, the mailman, or a guest in your home. Every dog reacts.
But some dogs overreact. You may find it impossible to divert their attention when they’re overreacting. They may ignore cues and treats. They might even be harmful to themselves or others.
Every time a reactive dog has an episode of reactivity, they experience a spike in the stress hormone known as cortisol. A little stress is not a bad thing, but too much of it can actually lead to physical health issues down the road. In the short-term, the more cortisol produced in your dog’s blood, the more they will continue to produce it in excess, making it even harder for your dog to relax.
Managing Your Reactive Dog
First, identify your dog’s triggers. Be specific! If your dog goes nuts around other dogs, take note of when that happens. Your dog might be perfectly fine in small groups at the dog park, but will act up when meeting face-to-face on lead. They might bark uncontrollably at strangers that enter your home, but happily greet strangers on the street. Context is key.
Do your best to keep your dog out of triggering situations, or at least manage their intensity. For example, cross the street when you’re about to be approached by another dog. We tend to linger when stopping to meet other people walking their dogs, and this is a big mistake. On-lead meetings are very “in your face.” The dogs are instantly nose-to-nose with a stranger with no way to escape.
Managing triggers for your reactive dog does not mean becoming a hermit for the rest of your dog’s life. When you have guests over, a baby gate can do wonders in keeping your dog distanced from the front door so they can meet your friends once everyone has calmed down and settled in.
Avoid situations that lead to trigger stacking. Trigger stacking is when a dog is bombarded with too much at one time. At a family party, your dog might be overwhelmed by: the doorbell ringing, your guests, their dogs, their kids, plus the sounds of loud conversations, being stepped over, and the sensation of being pet by people they don’t know. All of these triggers, stacked together, can cause your dog to do something they normally wouldn’t, like bite.
Changing Your Reactive Dog’s Mind About Triggers
Most people are tempted to yell at their dog and may resort to punishments like painful corrections to get their dog to stop misbehaving.
While these punishments may seem to work, they take away your dog’s voice. If your dog is scared, they need to be able to bark or growl to let you know. A punished dog can seem calm on the surface, but may lash out unexpectedly because on the inside, they’re still fearful.
You cannot control how your dog reacts. But you can teach them to feel neutral, even good, about their triggers through counter-conditioning and desensitization (CC/DS).
Simply put, CC/DS is when we expose a dog to their triggers in small, manageable ways while offering them something they already enjoy, like a treat. For example, if your dog goes nuts when the mailman comes, we’d give them something very yummy when the mailman is down the road – far enough for your dog to just start to notice them, rather than waiting until they are right at your doorstep, because by then, your dog will be too overwhelmed to accept a treat.
On your own, you can make simple changes like carrying treats on walks or keeping a treat jar by your front door. That way, you will always be ready to create a positive association when your dog encounters a trigger.
Working on reactivity, though, can be a bit advanced. It’s easy for the average dog owner to expose their dog to too much, too soon, creating a stressful experience that can make reactivity worse.
Healthy Houndz offers reward-based, behavioural-science based dog training in Toronto and North York. Our years of experience of working with reactive dogs allows us to recognize body language and signs of progress that can be hard to notice on your own – especially when you’re juggling treats, a lead, and your sanity.
Get in touch with us today – we’d be happy to help your dog enjoy a happier, calmer life.