Reactive Dogs: An Introduction June 16, 2011

One common cause for reactivity is fear. By putting on a fearsome display, the dog effectively scares his trigger away. The increased distance makes the dog feel more comfortable, and is therefore reinforcing. (Photo Credit: Leon G. - Flickr)

This post is the first in a series I will be writing about canine reactivity. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any future posts!

What is a “reactive dog”? Simply put, a reactive dog is one who over-reacts to particular things in the environment, typically either to other dogs or to people.

Some dogs will react to anything resembling their “trigger”, but other dogs are more specific. Dogs may be particularly bothered by a specific sub-type of a stimulus. For example, a dog might be okay with adult humans but react to children, or relaxed around women but not men. On-leash reactivity, where a dog will only react to other dogs if he is on a leash or otherwise restrained, is not uncommon.

In the past, many reactive dogs were labeled as “aggressive”. That term does not accurately define the behaviors these dogs exhibit, as reactive dogs are acting out of fear or confusion.

What constitutes a “reaction”? Typical reactions involve lunging at the trigger accompanied by vocalization. You may also notice the dog’s hackles (the fur around the shoulders and base of the tail) rise, the whites of the eyes showing, and a stiff tail.

Every dog is different and will have its own unique reaction to its triggers. I have worked with dogs that launch themselves completely airborne towards their trigger while barking rapidly with very “forward” body language, and others that shrink towards the ground, tuck their tails between their legs, and skitter forwards and backwards while uttering a high-pitched, squeaky bark.

What causes reactivity? In both of these cases mentioned above, the dogs are fearful of their triggers. One just had more self-confidence in its ability to “scare away” the trigger, while the other was still trying to decide whether fight or flight was its best option.

It is rare that one true, specific “cause” for a dog’s reactivity can be pinpointed. Factors that can contribute to reactivity include genetics, poor socialization, prior abuse or neglect, harsh and inappropriate training techniques, or a one-time traumatic incident. In almost all cases, reactive dogs seem to be harboring some fear towards their trigger.

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