Reactive Dogs

What do you think when you hear the term reactive dog? My editor jokingly asked if I was going to write an article about radioactive dogs—maybe another time, Amy. In the veterinary world, Dr. Karen Overall, an animal behaviorist, defined the term as an animal who responds to normal stimuli with abnormal- or higher-than-normal-level intensity. It’s brought on by something in their environment they perceive as scary, but is usually harmless.

When I take my dog, Scout, for a walk, he gets so excited! He loves greeting other dogs and hearing other owners say how handsome he is. Scout’s a bit egotistical, but not reactive. We pass some reactive dogs on our journey, though. They’re the ones lunging and barking when someone comes their way. Then there are the dogs we see and hear through a window as we pass a house—barking and jumping at the window until we’re out of sight.

When a reactive dog perceives something’s scary, whether it’s another dog, a UPS driver or postal carrier, a bearded man, or even a clicking furnace, it triggers a physiological response: fight or flight. Their blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing increases as their body prepares for action against whatever’s scaring them. There’s no conscious thought behind it, and the dog goes from calm to nuclear in a heartbeat.

If this happens on a walk, you could be pulled down or involved in a dog fight, making your enjoyable excursion dangerous. The reactive behavior affects a dog’s quality of life too. They don’t get to take as many walks or are continually exposed to stressful situations. Imagine your life if you thought a truck was going to hit you every time you drove down the street.

The good news is that reactive dogs can be trained to react less. It’s important to help your dog become more confident in their environment. Teaching basic training with lots of positive reinforcement is a good place to start. By practicing sit, stay, shake, down, and other tricks, your dog becomes more confident that they understand what’s expected of them, and that you’ll give them yummy treats and praise when they do them.

Dan Antolec, a local certified trainer with Happy Buddha Dog Training, teaches the following skills to help dogs with leash reactivity.

Touch

This command helps distract your dog when a scary thing is encountered on a walk. Hold your hand at nose level or lower in front of your dog. When they sniff your hand, use a clicker or click with your tongue, and then give them a small treat. Remove your hand then do it again. When your dog bumps your hand rather than just sniffing it, say “touch” and give them praise. Then offer your hand in different places so your dog has to move to touch it. Once your dog gets really good, start doing it when they’re a little nervous about something. If you see a dog approaching in the distance, say “touch” so your dog pays attention to you. Be sure to carry lots of treats so you can continue the game until the scary thing has gone away.

Find It

Another fun game! Start with your dog in front of you and a handful of treats behind your back. Say “find it,” then toss a treat a few feet to your right. When your dog gets to the treat, make a clicking sound just before they eat it. Repeat on the left side. Keep going back and forth until your dog is easily finding the treat. Toss the treats farther and farther each time. Then when you encounter a scary thing on your walk, play the game, keeping treats close to you. Your dog will then associate fun and treats with the scary thing.

U-Turn

This game gives you a way to run away when you see something ahead on your walk that will be too much for your dog. They won’t be running in panic, they will be doing it because it’s fun. As you walk your dog on a leash in a quiet, safe environment, say “u-turn,” then turn around and run fast, encouraging your dog to follow. You can use a prized squeaky toy or treats, whatever your dog loves most. You’re convincing your dog that following you away is more fun than getting scared by something in front of them.

What about the dog that barks behind windows? First, block the view. Use decorative window film on the lower half of the window, close the shades, or find some other way to block access to the window so the visual stimulus is gone.

Next, ignore the behavior. If you’re yelling “no,” your dog just thinks you’re joining in, which increases arousal. A study in Psychology Today showed that only yelling “no” can increase anxiety and aggression by 15 percent. The hard part is that your dog will first increase the behavior, hoping you’ll join in, before the behavior eventually stops. It can take weeks to months, but be strong!

Keep your dog busy doing other things throughout the day. Taking them for walks, teaching them games and tricks, using food puzzles, and distracting them with frozen food in a Kong toy can improve mental stimulation and use the dog’s energy more appropriately.

Quiet

A good trainer can help teach your dog a “quiet” command. When choosing a trainer, it’s important to work with someone that uses positive-reinforcement training. I’ve seen dogs trained with positive punishment (i.e. shock or vibration collars), and it makes them much worse. As an example, if a dog is barking and the owner pushes a shock collar button, the dog stops barking. When the dog stops barking, their behavior has changed, and the shock stops. It’s a negative reinforcement because the pain is removed and the behavior is made stronger. Imagine being shocked every time you started talking. You’d be scared to talk with anyone! A good trainer should have a professional dog trainer’s certification and be an accredited force-free trainer.

Because a dog can’t learn to be calm if they’re already in fight or flight mode, it’s also important to consult your veterinarian. Some reactive dogs will need medication to reduce anxiety so they can process what’s being taught. If they have a panic attack every time they see another dog, they won’t respond to training. Medication alone isn’t enough to change the behavior, though. Working with a trainer is an important part of the solution.

Lori Scarlett, DVM, is the owner and veterinarian at Four Lakes Veterinary Clinic. For more information, visit fourlakesvet.com .

Photograph by Brenda Eckhardt