How to Help Your Reactive Dog Calm Down

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Tetiana Zhudyk
Updated on

Is your dog exhibiting challenging behaviors like excessive barking, lunging, or other mouthy tendencies? These actions might appear aggressive, leaving you uncertain about when to be concerned and when to seek assistance.

In this guide, we'll explore effective strategies to address and improve such behaviors.

Reactivity vs. Aggression

Reactivity can lead to aggression, but it’s not aggression in the first place. While aggression can be defined as an attack or an attempted attack by a dog against another dog, person, or animal, reactivity can be defined as responses that are more intense than usual (barking, whining, lunging, hypervigilance, panting, restlessness) to normal things, animals or people in the environment.

Why Do Dogs Become Reactive?

Most reactive dogs are actually fearful and/or anxious. Those reactions toward the scary things in their environment are distance-increasing behaviors; they're telling the trigger to go away because it makes them uncomfortable (scared, stressed).

Reactive dog behavior can have different causes. Some dogs may be genetically predisposed to react strongly, while others may lack socialization, i.e., exposure to various situations during their early development.

Health issues can also play a role in triggering reactive responses. The type of training a dog undergoes is crucial, and methods involving punishment may contribute to reactive behavior. Additionally, high stress levels, whether from the environment or past experiences, can influence a dog's tendency to react strongly.

How to Manage Reactive Behaviors

First of all, avoid punishing the dog. Yelling, putting pressure on the leash, or using force will only make your dog's reactions more intense, as they'll be even more anxious when the trigger appears because they'll associate it with your aggressive reactions.

Reactive dogs need to rest and be in safe environments without triggers to be able to lower their cortisol levels to cope with stress. They might seem calm during walks and react "out of nowhere" to a dog who suddenly appeared, but they're actually always hypervigilant with higher cortisol levels than a non-reactive dog.

So, to start, you should assess which stimuli trigger your dog and avoid them all by choosing the right environment to take them or changing the environment at home.

You can train them not to react, but if they do, your response should be taking them to a calm place where they can easily calm down, recuperate, and think about what you could’ve done differently (avoiding that street, not putting tension on the leash) and try it next time.

How to Train a Leash-Reactive Dog

Training a reactive dog is all about changing the emotional response to the trigger, from scaring to neutral, through behavior modification and counter-conditioning.

Dogs are often leash reactive because they can't escape from the scary things they find on walks, so we have to encourage our furry pal to build confidence and coping mechanisms and to understand that the triggers aren’t real threats while we get rid of the habit of putting tension on the leash.

Training an alternative behavior, such as "sniffing the ground," is super important as the dog will perceive they don't need to bark or lunge to get their point across ("go away").

This cue should be trained in safe environments and be used in real situations only when the dog is reliably performing it whenever requested.

When working on counter-conditioning a dog to triggers, it's important to take it slow. Control the distance from the trigger, adjust the trigger's intensity (for example, using stuffed dogs or calm companions if the dog is reactive to other dogs), and manage the duration of exposure.

The aim of the behavior modification plan is for the dog to gradually encounter triggers and form a positive and lasting association with their presence through rewards like high-value treats

How to Socialize a Reactive Dog

Depending on what your dog is reactive to, socialization is super important to rebuild their confidence, encourage the production of neurotransmitters, and ensure your dog is effectively able to communicate with other dogs by playing and interacting with them.

To socialize a reactive dog, you have to make sure to introduce the right dog/person/object to them. If your dog is reactive to other dogs, you can find a calm environment where it’s safe to unleash your dog (or use a long line) and arrange a playdate with a dog who's more likely to be their best friend.

If your dog is usually scared of large-breed male dogs, for example, try to find a neighbor with a calm and sociable small-breed female dog.

If your dog is not comfortable with it, you can go to a place where you usually see calm dogs walking and let your dog see them from a distance (more than 65 feet), which will teach them to read the other dog's body language and to let them know they don't have to interact with every dog they see.

The answer to socializing your dog is to go slowly, one stimulus at a time, and to choose the right one for your little friend.

Solve Reactivity with the LAT Protocol

LAT (Look-at-That) is a behavior chain that, when trained, results in this:

Owner says the cue - dog looks at the trigger - click/marker - dog looks at the owner - treat

LAT allows the dog to get information about the environment while classically conditioning them to understand that good things happen when they see the trigger. It creates confidence and teaches the dog to be focused on the owner.

To train it, you should start with a neutral object (something your dog doesn’t normally play with or get afraid of, such as a cone or a stuffed toy) in a low-distraction environment.

  • Sit quietly, holding the object behind your back and, without scaring your dog, present it. When they look at it, click/say "Yes", treat, and hide it again. (Repeat 5-10 times, 3 sessions.)

  • When your dog reliably looks at the object when you present it, you can put the object somewhere else in the room, and you should click/say "Yes" and treat them whenever the dog looks at the object, no longer hiding it after each repetition. (5-10 times, 2 sessions.)

  • When your dog is rapidly looking at the object to get the treats, it's time to add a cue. Start by saying the cue after your dog looks at the object, and then click/say "Yes" and treat. Say the cue again, wait for your dog to look at the object, and click/say "Yes" and treat them. (5-10 times, several sessions.)

  • Repeat the game but with different objects, still in a low-distraction environment so that your dog can generalize the cue for different objects.

  • Repeat the game in different environments, safe environments (no triggers around, low distraction level) with the same objects you've used before.

  • Start working on triggers, being careful to make sure you can manage your dog's behavior and the environment. For example, if your dog is reactive to dogs, you can ask a friend to be in that place with a stuffed dog, pretending they're walking it. This way, you're able to control the "dog" and the "owner" behavior.

  • Gradually go to more difficult environments, always going back to training if your dog needs to.

Wrap Up

To calm a reactive dog, you should identify your dog’s triggers, understand they’re actually fearful and anxious when they react, and train alternative behaviors such as the LAT behavior while counter-conditioning their emotional response. Your dog just needs to know that those scary things aren’t going to hurt them; they don’t have to interact with them, and even good things will happen when the triggers are around.

Written by

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Tetiana Zhudyk

Woofz Content Manager with a deep passion for dogs and a strong affinity for positive reinforcement training methods.

Reviewed by

Frederica Caneiro

Certified dog trainer, exclusive positive reinforcement methods & tackling aggression problems.