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What is a 'reactive' dog?

I hate the term 'reactive dog'. It really doesn't mean much. Reactions are normal. It's part of every species' repertoire which helps them survive.

What about 'reactive human' then? If we looked at human behaviour through the same lens we look at dog behaviour, most of us would be considered 'reactive'. Road rage is a common situation where we see lots of 'reactive human' behaviour. Reactivity toward inanimate objects is also something a lot of us struggle with. That's definitely my biggest trigger. If I stub my toe, I blame whatever it was that I stubbed my toe on and scream at that thing a few less than pleasant words. I reacted. But nobody has ever labeled me a reactive person.

But, am I a 'reactive human'? No.. That label doesn't make much sense at all. Sure, I react in certain situations but that's not an accurate description of me on the whole. The same applies with our dogs. Yes, there will be triggers that may lead to a reaction but it's not a helpful label for them - they are not reacting all the time and most of the time we know what will cause the reaction . The same can be true for aggression, but that's for another blog.

We need to break it down. Instead of accepting we have a 'reactive dog' we need to look at everything else. Firstly, we need to think about the antecedents which lead to the reactive behaviour. An antecedent is anything that precedes something else. We may think then that for a dog-reactive dog, the antecedent is another dog, but I'd argue we can look for lots of other antecedents here too. The whole walk may be an antecedent. Why? Because a walk precedes seeing a dog, which most often leads to an unwanted reaction.

Like everything else regarding dog training we must be the first ones to change our own behaviour and expectations before we can expect our dog's behaviour to change. We can't simply carry on doing the same things, taking the dog on the excursions and reacting the same way we do when our dogs react if we want to resolve the issue.

They don't mean to be giving you are hard time, they are the ones having the hard time.

What this means is that when a dog does react in certain situations it should be information for us to take on board. Some dogs exert a lot of energy when reacting and using up lots of energy is only useful in dire situations. So we should then assume that some dogs are having a REALLY hard time.

We need to support our dogs through these challenges, we should not be adding anymore stress.

The next time your dog reacts get them out of the situation and reassess what needs to be done differently next time. Ask yourself lots of questions. Is the environment too much for them right now? Do they have good coping mechanisms? Have we attempted to teach them to perform something else instead of the lunging and barking? Is this outing beneficial for their overall well-being? What do I want the dog to do instead? And think of something more specific than simply 'not reacting'. For example, looking to you and leaving the situation might be something that you'd like instead that would also be beneficial for the dog if they knew that was another option.

The first thing we stop when initially working with dogs that have a history of reacting in certain situations is simply to stop putting them in those situations. You might then be thinking well my dog can't go for walks then. They can, it will just require you to be more creative and change where you take them. We also like to replace these stressful outings with things that aren't stressful. We up the dog's enrichment. What does the dog like doing? Sniffing? Cool, let's teach them scent work. They like to chase things? Cool, let's incorporate some flirt pole. They like a select few dogs? Cool, let's arrange outings with just those dogs. This doesn't mean the dog never gets to go back on that walk. But initially we have to change the environment first before we can expect to see behaviour change. I use this analogy a lot and I think it is still useful. If we have a friend struggling with alcohol the last place we should want to take them is the pub - it's too much of a trigger for them to drink.

With any species if we want to change ANY behaviour, we first have to change their immediate environment.

One thing to understand is that the training that will help change your dog's reactive responses doesn't happen when they are about to react or mid-reaction. That's just damage control. Nearly all the work we do with reactive dogs is away from their triggers. Meaning all the training we do, especially at the start, is in the home environment where there are no triggers present. We focus on teaching them useful skills to help them cope better. We typically teach every dog we work with about 7 things regardless of what we are working with them for. We need a very good level of foundational skills before we can tackle the big problems.

Here is a video with those 6 initial foundational skills:

With reactivity it's helpful if we change how we think about the dog reacting and how we can help them get past their biggest challenge so they don't feel the need to react or can choose a different behaviour instead.

I like to think of the situation in which the dog reacts as the exam. Them reacting and not being able to do anything else is a fail. So if we fail something, we go back to the drawing board and figure out what we need to learn and do next time to pass. This is where the training at home comes in, similar to the revision and study we need to do for an exam.

What do we need our dog to be able to do? A good start would be have them checking in with us more and WANTING to follow us. Here's a very basic starting point. Reactivity isn't the simplest thing to overcome for lots of reasons and I could write all day about how we could tackle a case. But all dogs are different and require a slightly different post. If you are really struggling then it would be wise to get into touch for some personalised help.

So to conclude, what is a reactive dog? It's not a thing. It's just a label that doesn't really describe much except a dog has big feelings in certain situation. Just like every person on the planet. It's not something that requires 'fixing' as there's nothing to fix. It's just information. We don't fix behaviour. We change it. What a dog perceives as appropriate behaviour compared to what we consider appropriate behaviour is vastly different. We can turn 'bad' behaviour/habits, into 'good' behaviour/habits with people and dogs. It just takes understanding and time. It's a journey and sometimes there isn't an end goal. Like us, we just have to take things 1 day at a time and keep heading in the right direction. There will be hurdles along the road but that's just life.

If you do find yourself on the other end of the leash with a dog reacting, here's a breakdown with how we manage it and other things you need to know:


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