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Navigating the World of Dog Reactivity: A Compassionate Guide for Dog Parents

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

By Sparky, Canine Psychologist and Behaviourist

Picture this: You're out for a leisurely walk, soaking in the fresh air and enjoying some quality time with your four-legged family member. But then, another dog appears, and your peaceful outing turns into a stressful ordeal as your dog lunges, barks, and generally loses their cool. Sound familiar? If so, you're dealing with a reactive dog. But don't worry, you're not alone, and there are effective ways to manage this behaviour. Let's dive in!

What's Behind the Reactivity? First things first, let's understand what makes a dog reactive. Often, it's a mix of fear, lack of socialisation, or past experiences that perhaps traumatised the dog. Beyond these common reasons are a plethora of potential root causes that are in excess of what can be covered in this blog. Still, we can say that reactive dogs are like they're in a heightened state, reacting to the world around them in a way that seems excessive to us but is very real for them.

Identifying Triggers

The first step in this journey is to identify what exactly sets your dog off. Is it other dogs, people, or specific situations like crowded places? Once you know the triggers, you can work on gaining your own capabilities to be able to teach your dog how to cope. Experience in dog care is often not enough for a dog parent rearing a reactive dog. They need to know how they are being perceived when the trigger is around - someone to be protected or a protector? They need to know how to recognise early signs of stress and discomfort - does my dog have an upset stomach with the new treats, or is he calm and comfortable? They need to use their body posture and vocalisations to convey their lessons. What does this mean for you? It is likely that without your own work on your own skills that a teaching plan tailored to your dog's needs can be properly executed.

The Power of AND: Avoidance AND Training

While it's tempting to avoid triggers altogether, that's only a short-term solution. What we aim for is the "power of AND"—avoiding triggers (management) while also training your dog to cope better (building). This dual approach to Management and Build, prevents the behaviour from becoming a habit that's hard to break, while developing new ways for the dog, and you to cope.

Counter-Conditioning: The Treat Trick

Always have treats handy when you're out and about. The moment a potential trigger appears, reward your dog for calm behaviour. This way, over time, your dog starts associating the trigger with something positive. It's like saying, "See that dog over there? Good things happen when they're around!"

For dogs dealing with extreme fear or trauma, a more nuanced approach is needed. Instead of immediately rewarding your dog when a potential trigger appears, start by exposing them to the trigger at a safe distance where they can observe without reacting. Gradually reward them through your own praise, vocalisations and treat-giving, for maintaining calm at this distance, reinforcing the idea that "good things happen" even when the trigger is present but far away. Over time, and with consistent positive reinforcement, you can incrementally decrease the distance to the trigger, always ensuring your dog remains comfortable and relaxed. This method allows your dog to build a positive association with the trigger in a more controlled, less overwhelming manner.

Can Reactive Dogs Coexist with Other Dogs?

Absolutely, yes! But it requires some groundwork.

Controlled Introductions

Start by introducing your dog to a calm and well-behaved dog. Keep the meeting short and positive, and do it in a neutral space to avoid territorial issues. Gradually, you can let them spend more time together, always under supervision, of course.

Is There a "Cure" for Reactivity?

The term "cure" might be a bit strong, but many dogs do improve significantly with consistent training and sometimes medication. The key is to be patient and committed to your dog's well-being.

The Golden Rule: Be in Control, Not in Confrontation

Remember, all reactive behaviour stems from a need to establish control. Your role is to be in control, be prepared, and be calm - what we call the Protector role. This avoids your dog not feeling the need to take over. This doesn't mean being authoritarian; it means leading with calm assurance and strategic thinking.

Final Thoughts

Managing a reactive dog is a journey, not a sprint. It's about understanding your dog's triggers and working consistently to help them cope better. And always remember, you're not alone. If you're struggling, don't hesitate to seek professional help.

Outcome for the Reader: By embracing the "power of AND" and leading with calm assurance, you'll be well on your way to transforming walks from stressful experiences into the peaceful outings they should be—for both you and your furry family member.

Disclaimer: Original Content

All insights, ideas, and content presented in our materials are the result of original thought, extensive expertise, and dedicated research in the field of canine psychology and behaviour. The methodologies and approaches are developed from a unique Human-Centric perspective, tailored by Sparky, an award-winning Canine Psychologist and Behaviourist, specialising in the care and rehabilitation of traumatised and rescued dogs.

Our content is crafted with the utmost integrity and a commitment to the welfare of dogs and their human caregivers. We pride ourselves on authenticity and innovation in our field, and we assert the originality of our work in all its forms. Any resemblance to other published works is coincidental and not intended, as we uphold the highest standards of professional ethics and originality in our contributions to the field of canine psychology.

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