9 Tips for Reactive Dog Training

Filed in Dog Training on February 26, 2021

reactive dog training

Are you interested in reactive dog training?

Reactivity is when your dog overreacts to stimuli in their environment. This can be extremely stressful for both you and your dog.

While it’s debatable whether reactivity can go away, there are ways to reduce the reactivity through training, so you don’t have to deal with this all the time.

Here are 9 tips to help improve the effectiveness of reactive dog training and help your dog become less reactive.

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Tip 1: Managing Your Reactive Dog

While not specific to the training itself, management is still a part of the process when engaging in reactivity training.

There will be times when your dog becomes reactive during training. As a result, you want ways to stop their behavior in its tracks. Some recommendations include:

1. An Escape Proof Containment

The best way to make sure your dog won’t escape is to use a sturdy harness attached to a martingale collar. Attach the leash to the harness, not the collar, because you don’t want tension on your dog’s neck to amp up a reactive response. Use a bite-proof leash.

If your dog is large and powerful and you’re concerned about controlling them, it’s a good idea to use two leashes, one for the collar and one for the harness.

Attach the leash that goes to the harness to your waist and use the collar lead to take control of your dog’s head in case of an emergency situation.

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2. Muzzle TrainingDog muzzle training for reactive dog

Muzzle training can help when your dog goes over their reactivity threshold. Muzzle training is very simple. Just give your dog tasty treats whenever the muzzle is on.

Smearing peanut butter on the inside of a basket muzzle is an excellent option. Keep sessions short until your dog is practically begging to have the muzzle on.

Working dogs like military and police dogs wear muzzles throughout their workday and aren’t the least bothered, and your dog can get used to it as well.

3. Avoidance

When starting reactive dog training, one tip is to avoid walking your dog during times and in places when other dogs are most likely to be near your dog.

Your goal in reactivity training is to control the level of stimulus. So you want your dog to encounter other dogs at a distance that enables them to be aware of the other dog, but not so focused that they can’t pay attention to you.

It’s almost impossible to achieve control over the stimulus when you’re out on a neighborhood walk. Early in the morning and late in the evening are good options.

Consider driving to a hiking trail instead of using neighborhood roads. You can also take them near a hill overlooking a dog park.

Eventually, you’ll get to a point when your dog is less reactive and you can include your daily walk in your training.

Tip 2: Enrichment and Routine for Reactive Dog

Another tip to help with reactive training is to make sure your dog has an enriched daily routine. Enrichment is the process of using natural activities that satisfy your dog’s natural drives.

Some examples of these natural behaviors include digging, chewing, licking, playing, and sniffing. They are satisfying to your dog and essential to their mental and physical well-being.

A dog who is relaxed and happy is less likely to be reactive and is more receptive to modifying their behavior.

Make sure they get plenty of active exercise including before your training session. They will be in a calmer state when you’re ready to begin your training.

Provide their daily food in food-distributing toys like Kong toys. Offer natural chew toys like bully sticks and turkey or beef tendon. Licking and chewing are naturally soothing for dogs, so having these kinds of things will keep them calmer.

Build a routine around everything in your dog’s life. Have your dog sit before they get a treat or before they are leashed for a walk.

Make sure that you provide food toys at about the same time every day. The more routine in your dog’s life, the calmer they’re likely to be and more open to changing their behavior.

Tip 3: Find What Motivates Your DogDog playing with tennis ball

Every dog is motivated by something. Some dogs will do anything for some boiled chicken or a piece of cheese, while other dogs find their tennis ball or frisbee to be the most compelling thing in their world.

Find whatever motivates your dog the most and deliberately increase their obsession with that thing:

  • Reserve favorite treats for reactivity training.
  • Build intensity around certain toys by always stopping the game when your dog is still excited about it. When you bring that toy to a reactivity training session, your dog will be more excited about the toy than worried about the other dog.

Tip 4: Build Easy, Dependable Behaviors

You need to ask your dog to do something during reactivity training to be sure that they’re able to respond to cues. It’s best that the behavior you ask is simple and diverts attention away from the other dog.

“Sit” or “down” can work well, but many dogs are too anxious to put themselves into a potentially disabling position when they’re feeling reactive. Therefore, many people find that the best cue for reactivity training is a simple “Touch” command.

Ask your dog to touch your hand with their nose and then give them a reward. This activity is simple, distracts from the other dogs, and it’s clear to you that your dog is following a command.

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Tip 5: Find Your Dog’s Threshold

Even the most reactive dog has a level of dog exposure that they will tolerate. After all, anytime you take your dog out for a walk or even if they get a whiff of the breeze through an open window, they’re able to smell other dogs.

You want to start somewhere where your dog is aware of other dogs around, but is still responsive to you. Here is some behavior color coding to help you find your dog’s threshold:

Green  Yellow Orange Red
Your dog is sniffing, interested in the reward, obeying the handler, and has a relaxed attitude on the leash. Your dog is alert and stiff, with a focused gaze on the other dog. You need to repeat yourself several times before they respond to a cue and show interest in a reward. Your dog is extremely tense, leaning on the leash, emitting a low growl or short, single woofs. Your dog won’t respond to cues or show interest in a reward. Your dog is in active attack mode, lunging, barking, snarling, growling, and showing every indication that they will bite if they can. Your dog isn’t responding to you or showing interest in a reward.

Tip 6: Keep Your Dog at the Right Stage

In reference to the chart above, you want to keep your dog in the green, but make sure you are going close enough to the yellow zone to know that your dog is aware of the trigger. Training won’t be effective if your dog isn’t under any stress.

Training also won’t be effective if your dog goes into the stressful state of the orange zone. You want your dog to be aware of the other dog and slightly concerned about it, but still very interested in the reward.

Tip 7: Expose and Reward CalmCalming a reactive dog

Once you have your dog at the right stage of reactivity, you want to reward the right behavior. Reward your dog when they respond to cues like having them touch your hand.

Reward spontaneous calm behavior as well. This is called marking. Marking calm behavior teaches your dog that they get a reward for any kind of relaxed behavior like sniffing, sitting, lying down, or choosing not to focus on the stimulus.

Tip 8: Practice, Practice, Practice

Teaching your reactive dog to accept other dogs won’t happen overnight. Expect to spend many hours gradually going closer and closer at what may seem like a snail’s pace.

Your dog will inevitably have setbacks, requiring you to move further away again and gradually make your way closer. Don’t give up or lose patience. It takes a long time for your dog to learn not to be reactive.

Tip 9: Socialize

For most reactive dog owners, this is by far the hardest part. It’s a very good idea to enlist the help of a trainer or reactive dog class at this point.

It’s tempting to skip this step once your dog is able to be near other dogs without reacting. However, unless your dog learns to enjoy the company of other dogs, they’ll likely have setbacks.

A dog that hasn’t actually interacted with another dog hasn’t really internalized that other dogs are okay. They just learn to tolerate them at a slight distance.

Socialization should start with only one other dog that is extremely dog friendly and calm in a completely controlled situation, while your dog is muzzled.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do Dogs Become Reactive?

It’s shocking for owners to see their happy-go-lucky, friendly puppies suddenly turn into reactive adolescents or adult dogs.

Sometimes this happens even when dogs have been well-socialized. There are a number of reasons why dogs may become reactive:

Trauma During a Fear Period

Dogs go through two fear periods, the first when they’re 8 to 10 weeks old and the second when they’re between 6 and 14 months old. During these fear periods, dogs may react fearfully to things that hadn’t bothered them before.

Furthermore, a bad experience, like a fight with another dog, can cause deeply ingrained reactivity after only one incident.

Breed Tendencies

Some breeds are more likely to develop reactivity than others:

  • Breeds that haven’t historically spent a lot of time around other dogs, like herding breeds
  • Breeds that have historically been bred to fight other dogs or to protect property from strangers, human or canine

These dogs are more likely to develop reactivity since getting along with other dogs hasn’t been important in their breed history.

Size

Small breed dogs may be more likely to be reactive than large breed dogs, for the simple reason that dogs can seem more frightening to them.

If a small dog has had a bad experience with a larger dog, even if the larger dog meant no harm, reactivity becomes even more likely.

Conclusion on Tips for Reactive Dog Training

It takes a lot of time and effort to train a reactive dog to be less reactive.

However, with these 9 tips, you can increase your chance of success and possibly lower the time necessary to change their behavior.

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You may also be wondering whether it’s better to just manage your dog’s behavior.

However, managing a reactive dog throughout its lifetime is a lot of work for you and deprives your dog of the enjoyment of other dogs’ company and the freedom of casual walks.

I wish you luck in your reactive dog training and for a more well-behaved and relaxed dog.

Please leave any comments or questions below.

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