Reactive dogs Q&A

by Jane J

Q. What is a reactive dog?
A. ALL dogs are reactive, just by the very nature of being alive & responding to the environment around them. However the term ‘reactive’ is usually applied to dogs who’s reactions to their environment are deemed undesirable, inappropriate or antisocial by us humans, for example lunging, barking or snapping.

Q. Why is a dog ‘reactive’?
A. ‘Reactive’ responses such as lunging, barking or snapping tend to occur when a dog is stressed by something. Dogs can become stressed when –

  • they are scared e.g. of another dog who is too close for comfort, of an unfamiliar person or noise, of a novel situation or environment, of a painful sensation
  • they are frustrated/overstimulated e.g. by waiting for a run to start, by the proximity of other dogs they’d like to play with, by the proximity of other animals they’d like to chase

Individual dogs all vary in what makes them scared or frustrated, down to a combination of genetics/breed-characteristics & previous experiences. It’s important to realise that ‘reactive’ dogs are not ‘bad dogs’, nor are they usually a reflection of ‘bad owners’.

Q. What should I do if my dog is ‘reactive’?
A. Don’t feel alone – lots of dogs, both within CSE, & in general, are classified as ‘reactive’, don’t blame your dog, & don’t blame yourself.

Try to Identify what is causing your dog to feel stressed, & hence ‘react’. You may need the help of a professional behaviourist to establish this. Once you know what is the cause, you can help reduce your dog’s stress by –

  • preventing stressful encounters by being mindful of your dog’s needs & communicating them well to others (e.g. by using a yellow ribbon, bandana or vest if your dog needs space) and preventing injury by using a muzzle if appropriate
  • avoiding/minimising their exposure to the thing they find stressful (including giving them space from it) e.g. you might try to avoid placing your dog right in the middle of a large group of other dogs who are all excited about the start of a run
  • desensitising them to the thing they find stressful (getting them used to it very gradually, usually starting at a distance)
  • changing their mind about the thing they find stressful (‘counter conditioning’ them to associate it with positive things e.g. treats)
  • pre-empting reactivity by noticing early warning signs of stress e.g. panting, head turns, blinking and escaping from/reducing the intensity of the stressor before your dog has a full blown reaction
  • praising & rewarding for appropriate (non-reactive) behaviour around the stressor

Some useful resources for reactive dog owners: