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  • Writer's pictureCheryl @ BrightPaws

Reactivity in dogs...

Hey everyone! :)

I hope you’ve all had a great week! We spent the first week of the half term holidays in Barend Holiday Village and we were incredibly lucky to have had such gorgeous autumn sunshine - it certainly makes the new Covid restrictions a little easier to bear!

In this week’s blog I’m going to talk a little about dog reactivity. I’ve had several people ask me recently about this and as the owner of a dog who can be a little reactive too, I’m going to share just some of the common reasons why it can happen with some tips about how you can deal with it when you are out and about.

*Photo Credit - Victoria Stilwell -

What is dog reactivity and why does it happen…?

So first of all, what do I mean by dog reactivity? Dog reactivity is basically when dogs react/respond to something or someone in the environment – a trigger. This can be displayed in a number of ways, with the most common ones being pulling, lunging, growling and barking. As humans we may consider these reactions to be inappropriate and it often looks aggressive, but for a dog it is actually a very normal reaction/behaviour. Dogs can only communicate through their body language and therefore the behaviour they display is their way of communicating to us and other animals how they are feeling.

There are many reasons that a dog may be reactive and some of these include:

· They are fearful

· They lack confidence/they feel insecure

· They are over excited/aroused

It is important to try to establish why a dog is reactive so that we support them and manage their behaviour more easily.

Dogs who are on a leash are often more reactive than those off lead. When dogs are feeling afraid or insecure they usually have 3 options, fight, flight or freeze. When a dog is on a lead and a trigger appears e.g. another dog, their flight option is removed because they can’t run away from it, so the options they have left are to freeze or fight. This is often why we see dogs lunging or barking at other dogs i.e. they are attempting to make the ‘scary thing’ go away by going into ‘fight mode’.

How can we help our dogs…?

As dog owners, we have to try to change the association of seeing a dog and feeling scared to one of, when I see another dog, good things will happen. This is something that takes time, effort and lots of patience to change.

There are several things we can do to help us to manage those reactions when out and about …

Firstly, DISTANCE is going to be your friend… wherever you walk your dog, try to make sure that you will be able to keep a safe distance between yourself and the trigger as much as possible. By safe distance, I mean a distance enough that your dog remains aware of the trigger but not reactive to it… this is easier said than done I hear you say… especially when people are approaching and there’s nowhere to go! Correct – sometimes it can feel like we have no other option and our dog is going to bark like a crazy out of control dog, but fear not, there are a few things you can try to help manage this…

· Walk at quieter times of the day

· Walk in large, wide open spaces or places where you are unlikely to meet the trigger

· If someone is approaching take a different path or turn around and walk away from the trigger

· Scatter food on the ground to distract your dog

· Teach your dog a hand touch and turn it into a distraction game

In the longer term we also need to help our dogs to feel safer and create a positive association with the trigger so that ultimately we no longer have a ‘reactive’ dog. This is the part that will be time consuming and take lots of practise and patience. As I said above we need to work out what our dogs safe distance is. Once we know this we can start the training…

1. Find a large open space where you and your dog can be a safe distance from the trigger

2. Whenever your dog sees the trigger, either say ‘yes’ and when they turn round give them a treat or when they voluntarily look at you, say ‘yes’ and give them a treat

3. Repeat, repeat, repeat over several short sessions and as much as possible at your dog’s safe distance

4. If the trigger gets too close and your dog reacts this means your safe distance needs to be increased

5. Gradually over time and lots of practise sessions you can decrease the distance between you and your dog, and the trigger, whilst still creating the positive associations as in step 2

6. Over time your dog will learn that seeing the trigger predicts good things coming his/her way i.e. treats/toys - whatever they value the most

7. Also, the higher the value of the reward to your dog, the more likely it is that your dog will choose the reward over reacting to the trigger! J

8. Remember to always go at your dogs pace and not expect too much too soon!!

For further info and advice, please get in touch, but for now have a great weekend and as always, happy training! :)

Cheryl x

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