What many dog owners don't realize is that most reactive dogs are not necessarily aggressive, but rather insecure or excited. The reactive behavior actually comes out of insecurity or is caused by hyper-excitement.
A fearful or anxious reactive behavior, however, can easily turn into aggression. In fearful/anxious dogs, the main reason for the reactive barking and lunging is due to the fact that the owner is holding the dog on a tight leash and conveys an anxious or stressed out mood. A lot of dog owners will unconsciously tense up and hold their dog back. This tense hold on the leash conveys to the dog that there is something to worry about, so the dog is on alert. Because he is fearful or unsure of himself, he barks and lunges. He does this in the hopes the imaginary threat (the other dog or person) will see him as tough and will walk away. The closer the "threat" comes, the more the dog barks and lunges.
On the other hand, if the dog is hyper-excited, then he is barking and lunging out of excitement. Unable to contain himself, he jumps around wanting to make lots of noise to draw attention to himself, in the hopes the other dog, or person will come over and give him attention. This type of dog will usually whine or bark excitedly the closer the person or other dog gets.
No matter what the reason for your dog's reactive behavior, there are 3 main things you can do to help your dog get over his reactive behavior and recondition him to be more relaxed and better behaved on-leash.
1. Teach your dog to NEVER pull on the leash
The first and most important behavior to teach a dog that is reactive is to condition him to walk on a loose leash. This is something that only 50% of dog owners actually teach their dogs! We teach all our customers to expect their dogs to walk on a loose leash. When your reactive dog is taught to walk in this way, he is conditioned to this behavior. Because it is his job to keep the leash loose, he is unable to display his lunging, which will take away much of the reactive behavior.
When we teach a reactive dog to walk on a loose leash, he immediately becomes less reactive, because now he won't lunge or pull. What remains is a barking dog, which is much easier to handle.
2. Redirect your dog with a correction or a scent
Once your dog has learned to walk without pulling on the leash, you can practice redirecting the reactive barking by interrupting his behavior. There are two ways to do this:
1. You can give your dog a correction. This is usually a tug or sideways pull with the leash and works best if you use a training collar ( https://amzn.to/2HIjCEc). The tug is like a tab on the shoulder, telling your dog to pay attention to you.
2. You can use a high-value treat, something with a strong smell that will grab your dog's attention and get him refocused. Do not GIVE the treat to the dog, rather hold it in your closed fist and offer the scent only to redirect his attention.
When you encounter a trigger - something that usually causes a reactive behavior in your dog - try to redirect with either method before the dog escalates into the reactive behavior. If he is already barking, put some distance between you and the trigger and continue to work on redirecting the dog. It is very important to have a loose leash! If your dog still pulls on the leash, you need to go back to the first exercise and recondition your dog to NEVER pull on the leash!
3. Display a calm and confident posture
Now that your dog knows to NEVER pull on the leash and you are able to redirect his behavior, you will be able to walk him through any situations. One of the most important aspects of working with a reactive dog is to maintain a calm and confident posture. Most dog owners unintentionally actually trigger a dog's reactive behavior, because they tense up and tighten up on the leash when they see another dog or something that might trigger the reactiveness in their dogs.
First and foremost, don't be embarrassed or frustrated when your dog gets reactive. See it as an opportunity to train him. If he doesn't react, how can you train him not to?
Then, become aware of your own body language. BREATHE and relax your shoulders! Keep the leash loose at all cost. If the dog can't feel you on the tight leash, he is on his own. You may hear a frustrated bark, but a dog on a loose leash won't lunge or act stupid.
If the dog escalates, put some distance between you and the trigger. I am not suggesting to avoid the trigger, I just want you to be a few feet away until you can get the dog redirected and under control. When he is paying attention to you, bring him closer to the trigger and expect him to keep the leash loose. You may have to keep going closer and then again further away, working with your dog on the reactive behavior by redirecting him. This will only work if you send a calm and confident signal! If you feel frustrated, end the exercise and walk away. A stressed out handler CANNOT control a reactive dog.
We have worked with many dog owners that had problems with their dog being reactive. Don't get caught up in the why and move to resolve the issue by becoming a calm and confident handler, teach your dog to always walk on a loose leash and learn to see the signals of him getting into the reactive state to interrupt and redirect early in the process.
By becoming the one in control of your own dog's behavior, you will soon see a well-mannered dog that is less reactive. You will be confident in walking your dog anywhere. When your dog escalates, you will know what to do and will remain calm and in control.
Thank you for stopping by. Keep your paws on the road and please comment and share!
About Birgit Walker
Jim and Birgit have trained dogs in Arizona, California, Montana, and Hawaii. They offer dog training services through their company Modern Canine Services in Phoenix, Arizona. Birgit just published two books Chew On This - Homemade Dog Treat Recipes, and Keep Your Paws on the Road - A Practical Guide to Traveling with Dogs. She also authors a blog and newsletter and offers a lively Facebook group that shares dog travel adventures. Jim and Birgit travel with their three dogs throughout the US in their Fifth Wheel.
For more information about Modern Canine Services, please visit ModernCanineServices.com or contact BIRGIT WALKER at (602) 688-4060. You can also email under BJWMCS@gmail.com