General Thoughts and Resources about Reactivity

I know there are a lot of reactive dogs out there and people have varying ways of dealing with their dog’s reactions. For sure, owning a reactive dog is a challenge. It’s embarrassing. You feel like you should be doing something but you’re not always sure what to do. Sometimes you just want to hang up your dog’s collar and never leave the house with them again!!

When used properly, the prong collar can be a valuable tool. However, I feel it has no place in rehabilitating a reactive dog.

Many people start with collar corrections to try and curb their dog’s reactivity. I know that’s where I started. It seems like the right thing to do. You don’t like what your dog is doing so you make sure to let them know by issuing a correction. In time, your dog will stop reacting. But is that what really happens?

In my experience and from what I’ve read, this is rarely the case. One of two things can happen. You can actually make the behavior worse by pairing corrections with the sight of another dog. Or you eliminate the behavior but not the underlying cause.

When your dog reactive dog sees another dog, he gets tense. When the stress becomes too much, he explodes in a lunging fury trying to drive the other dog away. Then, out of nowhere, he gets a collar correction when that dog gets near. Over time, he may connect that correction to the appearance of another dog. His reactions may start sooner and be more intense. “Go away! If you get close, I’m going to get corrected!” Suzanne Clothier discusses this in one of the great articles on her site: Flying Dog Press.

On the other hand, you might be successful in stopping your dog from barking/lunging like a maniac when he sees other dogs using collar corrections. But punishment only suppresses behavior. He is still afraid and tense. What might he do now instead of barking and lunging? Squeal? Pull away? Turn and grab your pant leg? Something worse?

I know of others who don’t correct a dog for reacting, but for ignoring a cue before their reaction. These owners tell their dogs to ‘watch them’ or ‘sit’ before a dog approaches. If the dog fails to comply, they are issued a correction. While we as humans are capable of making that distinction, I’m not sure dogs always are. Not to mention I think it is very difficult to look away from something you find terrifying!

A flat collar (left), a front-clip harness like the Easy Walk (middle top) or the Sens-ible (middle bottom), or a martingale collar (right) are all better alternatives.

I think it helps sometimes to think of what your dog is going through in human terms. For my examples, I’m going to use arachnophobia (the fear of spiders) since it seems to be a common human fear.

Imagine you’re terrified of spiders. You see one in the room and you scream and run off in fear. As soon as you react, someone yells “NO!”. Every time a spider shows up and you cry out, you get screamed at. What are you going to do? The sight of a spider is now worse than ever. Not only is it frightening to you, but someone chastises you whenever you do anything about it! Maybe you could stop screaming and running to avoid being shouted at but what else can you do to alleviate the stress of seeing one? Perhaps you’re tired of being yelled at and decide to hit them?

How about instead of being yelled at for freaking out, the same person tells you to look at them whenever the spider enters the room. You know the spider is there. But they insist you maintain eye contact with them. How close is the spider now? Is it getting ready to climb on your arm or still 10 feet away? You turn to look for the spider and you get shouted at. You’re told to keep looking at them, not the spider. You must have a LOT of trust in a person to assume they will keep you safe from the spider and be able to ignore the scary thing in the room.

On our final trial, the spider enters the room and you run away shrieking. Someone hands you $100. Again, a spider shows up and you get $100. Every time a spider arrives someone hands you $100. You start to feel differently about that spider now, don’t you? While he used to cause irrational fear, he is now a predictor of something spectacular. You start to look forward to seeing the spider knowing that $100 is on the way!

That final example is what’s known as classical conditioning. Pairing something great with something bad (or it can be neutral). The sight of the stimulus = the presentation of something awesome. No matter what the subject is doing at the time. I know it seems counterintuitive, like you’re rewarding your dog for it’s bad behavior. However you cannot reinforce emotion (like fear). Not to mention when a dog (or human!) is reacting, they are incapable of thinking. It’s impossible for them to think “My person is rewarding me for losing my mind!”

With a lot of hard work and patience, your reactive dog can learn to enjoy the company of its own kind.

If you find yourself struggling with your dog’s reactivity, your best bet is to find a qualified trainer who uses confidence-building, positive methods to rehabilitate your dog. Working with a reactive dog is a long, hard road. You’re more likely to succeed if you have a hand to hold along the way as well as a support group when you have set backs. I was never able to enroll Risa in a reactive rover or scaredy dog class. Most of her training I have done on my own with just a network of online friends who understood what we were going through as my support.

If you have no luck locating a quality training class, I would highly recommend grabbing some books and finding a spot on the couch to enjoy them. The books I found the most beneficial are:

Scaredy Dog by Ali Brown: This book was the turning point for me and Risa. My “Ah ha!” moment when I finally realized Risa was behaving ‘badly’ because she was afraid. I cannot recommend this book enough. The DVD is a great companion (ha, pun!) to the book and is especially helpful to those who prefer to be shown what to do.
Focus, Not Fear also by Ali Brown: Her second book follows a class of reactive dogs. Inside, you can experience how she runs a reactive class as well as ride the ups and downs of the rollercoaster that is reactive dog rehabilitation.
Fiesty Fido by Patricia McConnell: I love Patricia McConnell’s stuff and this short book is no exception. It’s a quick read and full of good information and exercises to try with your reactive dog.
Click to Calm by Emma Parsons: This book also contains great step-by-step instructions on how to rehabilitate a reactive dog as well as first hand experiences from the author.
Fight! by Jean Donaldson: Don’t let the title scare you away, this book addresses dog reactivity, poor self control (which often manifests itself in a similar fashion), as well as true dog aggression. It’s another quick read but full of great information.
Help for your Fearful Dog by Nicole Wilde: While this book addresses all aspects of canine fears and how to help your friend overcome it, it does spend some time on reactivity. Since reactivity is fear-based, you’ll find a plethora of pertinent information in this book.
Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt: While not a reactivity-specific book, this book contains many exercises that can benefit reactive dogs. The “Look at That” protocol is especially helpful.

On top of books that focus on rehabilitating reactive dogs, any book addressing canine body language/behavior is a must! You can avoid a lot of trouble by learning to read your dog. I would recommend On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas and Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook by Barbara Handelman. Friends of mine also have good things to say about Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide by Brenda Aloff though I have never read it.

About Jamie

I'm just a traditionally-trained artist with interests in dog training. I currently teach classes at the local obedience training club (tricks, freestyle, and Rally-FrEe) and I also teach classes professionally for an organization who helps veterans train their own service dogs.
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