Quin’s Story: Week 33 – Reactivity in dogs

Reactivity is such a challenge

How do you cope when your dog is reactive to certain situations? Reactivity is the worst problem we have to deal with in our dogs and for some people, very hard to cope with. Many owners sadly feel unable to train their dog past this and that is such a shame. Let’s start with a definition:

Reactivity is commonly confused with aggression. Dogs that are reactive overreact to certain stimuli or situations. Genetics, lack of socialization, insufficient training to learn self-control, a frightening experience, or a combination of these can cause reactivity, and fear is typically the driving force.

reactive dog
reactivity

What are dogs reactive to?

Reactivity results in manic barking and this can be at all sorts of things, including:

  • other dogs
  • runners
  • cyclists
  • cars
  • people

Remember, there are different types of barking and these are not all reactivity. Reactivity is when a dog is afraid, as described in the definition above. At other times the dog may just be excited! Start by learning about your dog’s different kinds of barking and whether they are really demonstrating reactivity.

How to tackle reactivity

I feel reasonably confident talking about this issue now, having had a dog who was pretty reactive. Quin has been barking very loudly at lots of dogs we have gone past on walks. I’ve found it really hard work to deal with and knowing how to tackle it. I have thought about putting him on lead more, or even buying a basket muzzle for him to wear, in case he went for other dogs. Fortunately, I decided to work through it. Here are my tips.

Start by staying calm. You will not help your dog by ‘reacting’ yourself. Hopefully, you have a brilliant recall, or your dog is already on lead. Call your dog to get its attention, calmly and quietly. When your dog is focused on you, albeit they may still be looking at the ‘disturbance’, give quiet praise. My friend Kate from the The Canine Hub recommends saying ‘Nice!’ whilst rewarding, as it keeps everything calmer.

Border Collie
Nice!

That’s it. Calm, focus, distraction. The trick though is to be aware of what may cause a stimulation and a reaction and be ready to tackle it. I’ve come unstuck a few times when the dogs have been running ahead of me and another dog has suddenly appeared round a corner. Not surprisingly, Quin has been a bit wary and has reacted by barking.

Warning: Don’t come near me!

This is what your dog is saying. They are also saying ‘help me!’ Your dog is not sure what is happening and wants you to support them. They are also warning you that something might be a danger and they can easily turn this into a compulsion to guard you. How they learn to cope really does depend on how you tackle it. If you grip your dog’s lead, shout at them to be quiet and drag them away, the dog learns that barking is just what is needed.

Reactivity in dogs
Stay away from me?

One step at a time

Like so many areas of training your dog, reactivity is something best tackled one step at a time. You won’t fix it in one day, but need to persevere. As I said at the start of this post, I could have just put Quin on the lead on walks, or bunged a muzzle on him and dragged him past other dogs.

Instead, I have chosen to work through this problem. Here are some of the steps I have taken:

  • practise recall, many times a day
  • practise saying ‘nice’ when I have his attention, with gentle stroking
  • walk with friends and their dogs, to ensure he has plenty of interaction without reaction
  • stop and chat to people when he has reacted to their dog. This has made him calm down and he has been able to wander off, then come back to me for a fuss
  • grab hold of him as people are coming towards me and calmly hold him still, stroking and praising – nice!
  • pop him on lead or hold his collar whilst going past some people
How many dogs?

Result!

In the last few days, as we go towards other dogs, Quin has been able to turn and look at me, then come back for a quick cuddle (and a sweetie!) then go past the other dogs, just like the girls do. Hurray! This is so magical for me, as honestly, a couple of weeks ago he was barking so violently, right in dogs’ faces!

Of course I realise he will bark again – we haven’t stopped it permanently. I am sure I will forget to pay attention and another dog will rush up to him barking, which will set him back a bit. But that’s fine. It’s a work in progress. Other dogs are learning at their own pace. Quin will also have other problem I will need to tackle…

Border Collie
Happy dogs

Be kind

It is absolutely infuriating when other dogs rush over to yours and bark in their face. I can completely understand why people become enraged and shout at the other dog owner. ‘Control your dog!’ Please try to be kind though when this happens. If we don’t let our dogs off lead, they can’t learn to behave themselves. And if we don’t try and fix it, it won’t be fixed, will it?

Please don’t shout at the other person or their dog unless they are showing no attempt to recall it? If the other person is making an effort, try to be patient with them? Recall your dog and reward them for being brilliant!

Remember..

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NB: I am not a dog trainer, or a dog behaviourist, just a dog breeder and owner. I can only offer my opinion, based on my experience.

3 thoughts on “Quin’s Story: Week 33 – Reactivity in dogs”

  1. Good post I have exactly same with my collie in fact she has been getting worse I really really want to help her in the right way and everything you say I can relate to.I think she gets excited at moving cars etc and barks but calms dow as walk progresses but other dogs are problem she turn circles and barks or lunges if they get to near especially when on lead if she is loose she chases them off air snapping, I will try what you say it’s catching the moment right which is hard. Thank you Penny.

    1. Thanks for your comment Jane – your dog sounds like a typical collie! Air snapping is perfectly fine in my book, so try and relax a bit? I know it’s a challenge but it is worth it!

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