Getting Training Right With Your Reactive Dog

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

Getting Training Right With Your Reactive Dog

April 2, 2024 Uncategorised 0

When we live with a dog who barks and lunges on the lead, it can send us reaching for quick fixes. Although we want to help our dogs, our frustration gets the better of us. Despite how easy it is to be seduced by shock, prong and choke collars, there are many reasons to step away from corrective or coercive methods.

Quick fixes seem so promising.

The Problem With Quick Fixes

The trouble is that these never address the underlying emotion driving behaviour. Whether our dog is barking at other dogs or people because they’re afraid or because they’re frustrated, if we don’t address these needs, we will find ourselves not only using aversive equipment but with even stronger feelings.

Take the dog who barks at other dogs because they’re afraid, for instance. We may get a choke collar and issue a quick ‘correction’. That method may even seem to work. They may then stop barking at other dogs.

It does not, however, help them with their fear. At best, we can hope that they ‘get over’ their fears and habituate to other dogs. This is a big gamble, though, especially if their fears are well-founded. If our dog learns that they don’t need to bark and lunge, we got lucky.

But it’s actually more likely we’ll get unlucky. In fact, it’s not unlucky. It’s hugely predictable.

The Predictable Fallout Of Corrections

For instance, barking may be very effective at keeping a lot of dogs away. Without the bark, those dogs will then be rushing over. This time, instead of barking, our dog may lunge, snap or even bite.

My boy Heston had a mighty bark. He was wary of people around the property, especially those people who came in uninvited and unannounced. The bark was very good at keeping them exactly where he found them. If Heston was barking at you, you wouldn’t keep moving forward.

Putting a remote-activated bark collar on him or jerking a choke chain until he stopped it and ‘faced his fears’ would predictably end in two ways: the behaviour returns or the behaviour changes to another one that’s very good at keeping people away.

What that behaviour change might be is a complete lottery. Well, not a complete lottery. The ‘Big Six’ include growling, barking, snarling, lunging, snapping and biting. If I’ve taken barking out of there, snapping and biting get more likely.

When strong emotion fuels behaviour, corrections aren’t likely to stick.

Ending up with a dog who still feels all the big emotions but who has a more limited repertoire of communication is not a good thing.

How can we change the underlying emotion?

Truth be told, our starting point should always be to ask if the situation was too demanding for our dog. Did we make an unreasonable request, given the fact that they are a dog?

Asking Heston to tolerate people coming onto the property unannounced when all his lovely shepherd genes told him that this was a big deal was an unreasonable request. It was especially unreasonable because that was not how he was brought up. I hadn’t gone to the trouble of teaching him that strangers could come onto the property unannounced when he was young enough for that learning to make a difference.

Punishing a dog because I made an unreasonable request is not acceptable.

And although we may wish our dog was able to cope with the situations we want to put them in, sometimes it’s just too big of a request.

For instance, you may have bought a pedigree dog from a specific breeder in the hopes that they would be super-social and appreciate a complex, busy and intricate life, only to find that they cannot cope with it at all.

Our first stop should always be to ask if what we’re expecting is reasonable for our dog.

Avoiding triggers

If we realise that we were simply asking too much, we can then put management into place. I had a gas engineer come round during the week. He’s very lovely and I know he would be kind to my dog Lidy. But Lidy doesn’t cope well with strange people, especially when they are moving about her space.

It doesn’t make her feel safe.

She went into the bedroom with a chew and a stuffed Kong. The gas engineer did what he had to do. Lidy ate her chews. She was happy, peaceful and quiet. He didn’t even realise I had a dog!

Sometimes, we may have to do a bit of work to help our dog accept management of this kind. Many of my clients do not have dogs who would cope well behind closed doors even if they are afraid of strangers.

This is fine. It’s straightforward to teach our dogs to accept these occasional inconveniences that keep them safe and prevent them from having to practise behaviours.

It’s always useful to carry out a Frustration Assessment and Audit first. If our dog struggles with frustration, they may also struggle with some aspects of management.

Beyond settlement and management

Accepting our dog’s limits and avoiding triggers are very useful strategies, but they do not change our dog’s underlying feelings about things in general. It may help them relax if they’ve just temporarily sensitised to things, but generally speaking, it does not change the underlying emotion.

We should never underestimate the importance of accepting our dog’s limits. It’s easy to get fixated on an improvement agenda because society dictates what our dogs should be able to tolerate, or not. It can be tough to accept that what people say our dogs should tolerate is often wrong.

But at the same time, a small world can get an awful lot smaller. At times, this world becomes restrictive. The dog who does not accept unfamiliar humans handling them, for example, will really struggle at the vets.

That in turn can really restrict their lives.

It makes us sometimes unwilling to seek medical treatment when it would be sensible to do so, simply because we’re trying to keep vet visits to a minimum.

When we go beyond accepting our dog’s boundaries and reducing their exposure to triggers, we have four main ways we can do that.


Habituation is our main tool when we work with dogs who are sensitive to things that are unpleasant but not life-threatening.

For instance, in human terms, smear tests, prostate exams and breast checks are not pleasant. Nobody is lining themselves up voluntarily and plenty of people avoid regular testing. At the same time, smear tests won’t kill you.

For our dogs, there are regular unpleasant situations that have long-term benefits, just like preventative medical screening has for us. Vet visits, handling, grooming and care form the mainstay of those experiences.

There are also experiences which might not have direct benefits for the dog, but are essential for us to live with our dog. Sometimes those have indirect benefits. Being able to leave our dog from time to time does not benefit the dog directly, but it benefits us. Although we might keep absence to a minimum and be mindful of how long is reasonable for a dog to be left for, if you can’t go out for your own health checks, that could be costly to your dog in the long run.

Habituation is a gradual exposure process. We gradually and gently expose our dogs to those experiences little by little so that they get used to it. Often, the biggest benefits come from doing this gradually with very young puppies. It then becomes the norm. For instance, my dog Heston was very used to being groomed and handled, because he had habituated to these early in life.

Habituation can be done pre-emptively with things that might be unpleasant. It can also be done after accidental sensitisation.

Fading old associations

There are also things in life which our dogs have learned predict unpleasant or life-threatening experiences. For example, seeing dogs running around off-leash in the park may come to predict that those dogs may rush over and interact.

If our dog finds interactions with unfamiliar dogs to be unpleasant or potentially dangerous, then seeing dogs off-leash in the park may cause the exact same emotions as being attacked would in itself.

Lots of things come to predict unpleasant experiences. For dogs who have been sick in the car or felt trapped, being in the car may come to trigger those feelings directly. For dogs who have been restrained and handled in the vets, things like the vet or the stethoscope may come to predict that restraint. Seeing the vet or the stethoscope can cause the exact same feelings as restraint itself.

When this starts to interfere with our dog’s life, we may want to ‘uncouple’ the association. For instance, if seeing a stethoscope makes you feel as powerless as being restrained and handled by unfamiliar people, then it primes us to over-react.

Fading the predictive power of things like keys, cars and stethoscopes can be important work. This is also true for things that predict a lot of excitement, like seeing a cat or a car. If our dog enjoys chasing, we may want to reduce the predictive value of these learned triggers.

Teaching alternative behaviours

Habituation and fading triggers work to reduce the power that the world has to cause unpleasant emotions.

These two methods work to help our dogs re-process the world so that they learn it’s not so bad after all. When we use these methods when our dogs are relaxed and in a positive emotional state, it makes it even more likely that they will habituate more quickly. We should also work to reduce the intensity of their triggers. Reprocessing the world is unlikely to happen when we’re faced with our fears at full strength.

We can also teach our dogs other behaviours. Like us, our dogs get trapped in unproductive behavioural habits that can then be very challenging to break. This is especially true when our body is telling us to avoid danger.

Fight, freeze and flight are normal for our dogs.

It’s normal for them to try and and avoid danger, to freeze if they cannot escape, and to be left with no other choice than aggression if they feel trapped.

It’s also normal for our dogs to get trapped in those behaviours, just as we do. When the behaviour no longer serves us, it can take professional help for us to break out of those unproductive habits.

We can expand our dog’s behavioural repertoire and give them some other strategies.

Addressing attentional biases

One thing that is very common is for a dog to be very watchful for triggers, especially in uncertain or unpredictable environments. This can also become a very difficult habit to break.

The problem is that it can be self-perpetuating – a vicious circle. Our dogs can get trapped in vigilant states, and then when triggers appear, they reinforce the importance of vigilance.

It can be very challenging for our dogs to learn to relax.

One thing we can do here is help our dogs learn to settle or relax around distractions. Once they can do this, it makes it easier for us to include distractions that are potentially uncertain or unpredictable.

We can also help our dogs focus on more fruitful or productive activities that tap in to the innate pleasure of being a dog. The irony is often that our dog pays more attention to fruitless hypervigilance which puts them on guard and makes it more likely they’ll over-react. Even when they’re able to do more fun stuff, they’re often trapped in vigilance.

What’s happening here is that they are focusing on the negative things in the world and ignoring the good stuff as if it is a distraction, instead of the other way around.

Building up our dogs’ skills of focusing on the good things in life can make an enormous difference.

Broadening their behavioural repertoire

Many times, it seems like our dogs get stuck in a rut. It’s almost as if they don’t have any other behaviours in the bag to pull out. They default to the same thing, over and over.

For this reason, we may find that we need to help our dogs expand that repertoire. This helps them be more flexible and adapt. They’ll also learn that there is no value in what they were doing. The Lighten Up Toolbox includes all the behaviours that expand our dog’s repertoire. Having just a few extra in the bag can make all the difference.

There is no value in hypervigilance. In fact, hypervigilance can get in the way of doing more fruitful activity.

There is also no value in pre-emptive avoidance behaviour like barking and lunging. In fact, barking and lunging might even be counterproductive.

Teaching dogs skills like a recall, a u-turn or even to pay attention to you can make a big difference in their life. A u-turn, for example, creates more distance from triggers. In that way, it serves the same purpose as barking and lunging. Both of those behaviours create distance.

Being able to trust that you are safe to do other things is tough. It’s a hard habit to break. That means it can take us some time to build up new behaviours. These new behaviours are much more fragile, which is why they need care and nurture.

The benefit of broadening behaviour

So often, we fixate on stopping behaviours or reducing them. We fail to think about what will go in their place. When we fixate on reducing behaviours, we also reduce agency. We can address that balance by building and bolstering more productive behaviours that will replace them.

Now I’m a woman who loves my work. I think you can tell that! But I find it very hard to switch off sometimes. If you simply focus on reducing my work behaviours, you’re going to cause me a lot of anxiety. What’s more helpful is building healthy, growth-promoting behaviours for those times when I’m struggling and likely to fall back into writing about dogs as a default.

Doing nothing won’t help.

It simply makes it even more likely that I’ll return to writing about dogs in that vacuum.

Teach me how to relax, do tai chi, go for a walk, read books… they’re all healthy, growth-promoting alternatives. Learning how to build these fruitful and productive behaviours for our dogs will certainly help them default to those rather than hypervigilance. The Resilience Roadmap is built on those principles.

Getting training right with our reactive dogs

Getting the right balance for our dogs who bark and lunge is not always easy. If we stick to using these four methods, however, we will find that our dogs flourish rather than foundering.