Understanding why your dog is reactive

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

Understanding why your dog is reactive

October 3, 2022 Uncategorised 0

Our first questions often relate to solutions when our dogs bark and lunge out on walks. Can reactive behaviour be cured? Will our dogs get used to other dogs they see? How do we best train a dog who is barking at others?

Understanding why our dog is reactive is probably low on our list of priorities.

Single factors do not cause reactive behaviour

Reactive behaviour usually results from ten interlinking factors. Every reactive dog is a unique blend of those ten combining influences on their behaviour.

You can read about them here:





neophilia or neophobia




escape behaviour

lack of early socialisation

Our first step to resolution is understanding these ten interlinking factors

The problem with taking a simplistic approach

Every dog is unique.

Different factors combine in different ways to drive behaviour.

Many guardians start training their reactive dog without really understanding the interplay behind these ten factors. When we do this, we depend on luck to resolve underlying issues.

There are many commercial programmes available to the guardian of reactive dogs. You can spend anything from a few pounds for a book right up to thousands of pounds for a trainer who is accredited with various organisations.

Some of these programmes are very good with certain types of dog. Other times, they fail dogs completely because they only ever really look at a narrow range of the ten factors. Some, for instance, focus on fearful and anxious behaviours.

What these programmes don’t always do is state right from the beginning that they cannot help your dog or that they will be less successful.

For instance, if elements of frustration or impulsivity are driving your dog’s behaviour, it’s imperative that you work on these first. If you don’t, the first time you take your dog out to practise, you will find that YOU become frustrated and impulsive alongside your dog and you will both struggle.

Many of these programmes also stress the importance of calmness. They use terms like ‘sub-threshold’ or ‘under threshold’ to insist that your dog should not be working when emotionally aroused. If you have a novelty-seeking dog, you may struggle to ever find that tiny moment of calm.

Because commercial programmes rarely differentiate between the two or three factors that they focus on and the remaining seven or eight, this inevitably results in failure for you and your dog.

It’s not all about fear and anxiety

Many guardians and dog trainers start with the assumption that barking and lunging are caused by fear. Perhaps the dog has an anxious disposition. They may have come from lines of anxious dogs or had inadequate socialisation prior to twelve weeks of age.

They may also start from the belief that rescue dogs or street dogs are fearful or traumatised.

The natural belief that fearfulness, anxiety and lack of socialisation cause our dogs to bark or lunge on lead when out on walks leads to certain training protocols.

These protocols are usually very effective with dogs whose problems are caused by anxiety, inexperience or fearfulness. Firstly, they involve the necessary compromise in our expectations about what can be achieved. They may also involve medication. Once those factors are addressed, they then work on the principle that dogs can learn to overcome their anxieties through gradual exposure to things that scare them.

Sometimes training programmes rely on habituation alone. They allow the dog to relax around unfamiliar individuals and take their time to reappraise. This is done with the hope that dogs will realise they are safe. The aim is that the dog gets used to the world around them. They learn that they are safe.

The main problem with this approach is that some dogs never learn to feel safe.

When our dogs don’t feel safe

When our dogs don’t feel safe, our training methods become ethically concerning. All we are doing is exposing our dogs over and over to things they find unpleasant. Although we go to great lengths to reduce the time and intensity of these exposures, our dogs may still never come to reappraise the world as a safe one. This is especially true if they are lacking in appropriate socialisation, if they suffered trauma or if they have an anxious personality.

Even programmes that specialise in fearful or anxious dogs do not give you clear ideas about how to teach your dog that they are safe. Despite the fact that there are clear ways to speed this learning, few commercial programmes use them or teach them. Instead, they depend on the dog eventually learning that they are not under threat.

For many reactive dogs, they have spent years feeling uncomfortable around other dogs.

If they haven’t learned it by now, when will they?

The risks of ignoring impulsivity

Some dogs have not learned to dial the volume down on their responses. They resort to much larger, intense or frequent behaviours than are required in the circumstance.

If you’ve ever sworn at anyone who cut you up in traffic, you too have been temporarily hijacked by your emotions. You may well have tooted your horn or even spent five minutes flashing your headlights at the offender.

However, we know of instances where some humans have chosen a much less appropriate level of response to this relatively minor social infraction. We see these stories in the news: people who’ve smashed into another driver on purpose; people who’ve behaved violently towards other road users; people who’ve even gone on to injure other drivers.

Whenever we are in a specific situation, we have a palette of behaviours from which to choose. Any would be successful. In this case, our aim might be to make sure our anger is known and to vent our spleen. Flipping off other drivers and swearing is one way. Getting out and hitting them is another. Between those two choices are a rainbow palette of others.

What stops us from shooting people who make minor social transgressions is a process called behavioural inhibition. Behavioural inhibition simply means that our familial and cultural upbringing teaches us to adjust our choices depending on the circumstance. This process is encoded in our pre-frontal cortex and, unless our developmental period interferes, we will be more likely to override our more basic instincts.

When our dogs don’t understand that they have the ability to choose appropriate behaviours even when emotional, then they will struggle with interactions. That often ends in socially inappropriate choices and ends in fights or vet visits.

The risks of ignoring frustration

Many dogs who struggle on lead are struggling with frustration. The choices that they would rather make are impossible. Thus, when our dogs cannot get what they need, they become frustrated. When this is coupled with a lack of impulse control, the behaviour can be very noisy, intense or inappropriate.

Frustration is also an unpleasant state. It does not feel nice to be frustrated. When we are constantly putting our dogs in frustrating circumstances, it can be deeply unpleasant for both them and us.

Frustration also often tips over into anger. Redirected aggression is one known side-effect of frustration. Frustration works on the same neural mechanisms as rage. When we don’t address our dog’s inability to cope with frustration, then the risks are huge. They are more likely to behave aggressively, even towards us.

As you can see from these examples of frustration and impulsivity, some dogs have groundwork they need to do first before embarking on a programme for reactive behaviour. In fact, many of my clients who have completed frustration tolerance or impulse control packages have then found that their dog’s barking and lunging has stopped completely without the need for any actual training specifically addressing it.

Why don’t people take more time to understand the problem?

Probably because they’ve been living with it for a very long time!

When we’ve been living with a problem for a long time, we just want it resolved.

That is especially true if we have tried out lots of other programmes that haven’t worked properly. If we’ve been reading books or watching videos about dogs that weren’t really like ours, that can be very frustrating.

Many people also just want a simple solution.

Some dog trainers say that there are no simple solutions or quick solutions.

There can be, but only for very specific problems that you truly understand.

Guardians should see progress within a session. We should be concerned if we don’t.

However, one of the reasons we fail to see progress is because we’re working on the wrong problem or we’re working in the wrong way. We’ll also fail to see progress if we think that there’s only one reason behind our dog’s behaviour. Taking reactivity as a behaviour with a single cause will also lead to failure. Unless we address all of our dog’s needs, then we are not likely to see long-term success.

In fact, we need to go slow at first in order to go fast.

When we do that, our progress is likely to be much more secure. It will also be much more durable.

The importance of understanding the degree of each factor

For dogs who score highly with anxiety or fearfulness, it will be important to have discussions with your veterinarian. It will also be important to let your vet know if your dog struggle with impulsivity as there are specific medications that may work better with dogs who suffer from anxiety and impulsivity.

Although medication will not cure your dog from barking and lunging, it will most likely speed up your training at the beginning. If your dog suffers from extreme anxiety, to start without medication may mean that your progress is glacially slow. It may also mean that while you are training, you are exposing your dog to chronic levels of fear-eliciting triggers.

‘Fearfulness’ is not one single quality. There are degrees of each of the ten factors. Another reason many self-help programmes fail is because they do not help guardians understand what is normal and what is not. They do not help the guardian understand the severity of their dog’s emotions.

For instance, our dog’s daily walks may seem horrifying to us. We may find their behaviour embarrassing and upsetting. Social media is filled with posts telling us about how important it is to look after our dog’s emotional welfare, and this may also be a source of shame for us. If asked to judge the impact of our dog’s behaviour on their welfare, we may see this behaviour as completely abnormal and completely detrimental. In reality, it may not be that serious.

Other guardians may live with high levels of reactive behaviour but think that this is relatively normal. They may think a self-help package will be enough when in reality, they need specialist support.

How this affects our training

When we do not understand the severity of our dog’s difficulties, we may either pessimistically assume that they are ‘the world’s worst dog’. On the other hand, we may optimistically think that our dog has a few rough edges but they’re coping just fine.

We do not always have a scale against which to measure ourselves.

When we misunderstand the severity of the problem, this can impact on how quickly we need to work. We may need to take the situation more seriously. Or, we may find that it’s simply a matter of a little fine tuning with some very specific support.

To conclude

If we want to make progress with our reactive dogs, we really need to understand where we are first. When we take just a little time to understand the factors behind our dog’s behaviour, we are much better prepared to choose a programme that will be efficient. Instead of fumbling around in the darkness, we can shine a light on the situation. In turn, this will help us see more clearly and choose more wisely.

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