Help for Reactive Dogs
April 15, 2014
It’s finally spring, and we are all out walking our dogs more. Many of us have had the embarrassing and distressing experience of having our dog bark, lunge, or growl at something or someone else (often another dog or person) on a walk. The general term for this behavior is reactivity, and whatever a dog reacts to is called a trigger. A trigger can be almost anything but common triggers include strange people, dogs, vehicles, or bicyclists. Most dogs will have a distance beyond which they do not react to their trigger and within which they do react; this distance is sometimes called the distance threshold.
What is reactivity?
Reactive dogs are NOT “bad” dogs; the two most common causes of reactivity in dogs are frustration and fear, neither of which is an intentional choice made by or a pleasant experience for your dog. While it may seem to us that a reactive dog isoverreacting to something innocuous, try to empathize with his/her stress and anxiety. If I have a debilitating phobia of spiders, for example, whether someone else is afraid of them or not doesn’t change my fear when I see one.
Reactivity rooted in frustration often occurs when a dog is somehow restrained – on a leash or tie-out, or behind a fence. This is sometimes called barrier frustration or barrier aggression. When thwarted from approaching something s/he wants to investigate (often another dog or person) a dog with barrier frustration, much like a toddler who lacks mature coping skills to constructively express strong emotions, wildly acts out excitement and frustration as a tantrum. In addition, dogs on leashes or tie-outs may be prevented from expressing normal body language, which can heighten their stress and frustration. Most dogs with barrier frustration are neutral or even friendly towards other dogs and people if they are off leash.
In contrast, reactivity rooted in fear often occurs whether on or off leash (although it is often worse when a dog is restrained as the choice to retreat from something scary has been eliminated). For these dogs, the best defense is a good offense. Barking, lunging, and growling are distance increasing behaviors; that is, they are trying to make whatever they are scared of go farther away. Unfortunately, the behavior often gets worse over time precisely because it usually works.
Of the two, barrier frustration is relatively easy to deal with because you are primarily trying to modify behavior, not emotions. This means that working on basic obedience commands and impulse control can go a long way towards improving the behavior in addition to using several games described below. Fear based reactivity can be more difficult to address, because all of the obedience training and impulse control in the world cannot magically erase fear. While a dog can successfully learn to perform skills such as heel, sit, stay, etc when s/he sees his/her trigger, the fear is still present in a suppressed state and may erupt again if at any time fear overrides obedience.
How Can I Help My Reactive Dog?
First of all, keep in mind for your own mental health that there is no quick fix for reactivity. This is a long term project that takes a lot of time and repetition and setbacks are common, so be easy on yourself and your dog and try not to get frustrated. Keep working, be consistent and patient, and you will make forward progress even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
It is extremely important that you never punish a dog for being reactive, regardless of the cause. Firstly, in the moment of reactivity your dog’s emotions have completely taken over and s/he is simply not in a state to learn anything. Try doing complicated math problems in your head when you are trapped in a traffic jam and late for work or when being followed by a stranger down a dark street at night; brains are simply not designed to think and learn while experiencing intense negative emotions. In addition, punishment in this moment is likely to increase your dog’s stress and anxiety, which may only serve to reinforce to your dog that s/he has a good reason to be afraid of or frustrated by his/her trigger and make the behavior worse in the future. In the moment, just remove your dog calmly and quickly from the situation. The real work will take place separately.
The basic principle of addressing this problem is to use desensitization and counter-conditioning to replace fear and frustration with positive feelings. Generally, this means exposing the dog to his/her trigger in gradually increasing increments and rewarding for noticing but not reacting to the trigger. It is extremely important to always work below your dog’s threshold; that is, in order for your dog to learn anything you must be far enough away from your dog’s trigger that s/he has not yet started to react. Over time, your dog’s threshold distance should get smaller and smaller.
Sometimes you cannot control the distance between your dog and a trigger. You may come around a corner and find yourself face to face with another dog, you may not notice a dog in its fenced yard until you are walking right by the house, or you may misjudge your dog’s threshold distance. In these instances, simply remove your dog from the situation as quickly and calmly as possible if s/he starts to react (see the Keep Going! game below to help with this).
Management techniques can help reduce the number of reactive incidents your dog experiences while you are working on this behavior. The easiest is to simply walk your dog when and where you are very unlikely to encounter his/her trigger. This may mean early in the morning or late at night, or walking in neighborhoods where not many dogs live. For barrier frustration specifically, arranging “play dates” with a friend or family member’s dog in a safe, fenced environment where the dogs can interact off leash is a great idea. Some specific exercises that can help with reactive dogs (especially fear-induced reactivity) include “Look at That! (LAT),” “Open Bar/Closed Bar,” and “Keep Going!”
Look at That! (LAT)
In this game, you are teaching your dog that s/he will be rewarded for calmly looking at whatever they are afraid of or frustrated by. For example, if your dog is reactive to other dogs, find a place where you are likely to see other dogs but still have control over how far away those dogs are. For example, you can work near (but not IN) a fenced in dog park or a yard where you know a dog lives. Start far enough away from the other dogs so that your dog is not reacting, and simply do nothing. Wait for your dog to notice and look at the other dogs, then immediately mark (clicker or marker word such as YES) and give a treat. Use a high value treat and be generous! Repeat this 5-10 times in a row, and then take a few steps closer and repeat. Work for just 10-15 minutes at a time no more than once or twice a day, and try approaching the trigger from different directions on different days. Each time you change direction this way, start over from far away again and work your way closer gradually. Do not be discouraged if your dog has setbacks along the way, this is extremely common. Just start over at a slightly farther distance. Eventually you should be able to approach very closely and pass by your dog’s trigger without seeing a reaction.
If your dog fixates on his/her trigger and will not respond to you when you click and treat, you are too close. Try moving a little farther away and starting over. If your dog reacts or fixates no matter how far away you are, you may need to work behind a visual barrier such as a privacy fence at first, until your dog can respond to you even when s/he knows that the trigger is present behind the barrier.
LAT is demonstrated in the following video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EdraNF2hcgA
Open Bar/Closed Bar
In this game, you and your dog stay in one place and practicing with triggers that move past you. Find a walking/bicycle path, park bench, or other area where you can sit with your dog and triggers are likely to walk by you. You want enough distance between you and where the triggers are likely to pass that your dog will not react to them.
Think of yourself as a “bartender,” but the bar is only open when your dog’s trigger is present. When the trigger leaves, the bar closes. Sit calmly with your dog. As soon as your dog notices its trigger, start rapidly and continuously feeding him/her very high value treats. Continue feeding until the trigger has passed by into the distance, then say something like “all done!” and close the bar (stop giving treats). Your dog learns not only that his/her triggers make food appear, but that it is a good idea to orient to you instead of fixating on his/her trigger.
Open Bar/Closed bar is demonstrated in the following video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNL6FZui8OY
This exercise gives you a tool for when you just need to get your dog out of a situation where s/he is reacting or about to react. Start this game in a familiar environment at first with no distractions and no triggers. While walking with your dog, toss a treat in front of him/her in the direction you are already walking and say “Keep Going!” (or whatever phrase you want to use). Your dog should quickly pick up that you want him/her to chase the treat. Once s/he starts to grasp this point, practice by tossing multiple treats in a row (say your phrase once for each treat). Once your dog catches on to the game, start to practice in increasingly distracting situations, then slowly fade the treat by using the phrase but tossing a treat randomly instead of every time. Your dog should still keep moving forward when you use your phrase.
Now when you have an unexpected encounter with a trigger, such as a dog being let out into its yard as you are walking by, you can give your dog the “Keep Going!” command and continue on your way. If your dog does not respond, simply do the best you can to keep moving away from the trigger as quickly and calmly as possible.
In addition to the exercises above, “It’s Yer Choice” is a great game for teaching impulse control. It is demonstrated in the following video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipT5k1gaXhc
You can also read more about reactivity at: