Our dogs are more integrated in our lives than ever before. They have moved into our homes, vehicles and sometimes even work places. More and more places are becoming “dog-friendly”, meaning many people are taking their furry friends to public places. With our dogs being exposed to more things, people and pets than ever before, we are noticing a higher incidence of reactivity among our canine companions. Much like people with social anxiety, a reactive dog’s brain is on HIGH ALERT at all times. So, you may ask, what does reactivity look like? Reactive dogs tend to speak before they think… we’ve all known a person like this right? The dogs are labeled as "jerks", or "bad dogs", but theres much more to it than that. They overreact by barking or lunging at whatever stimuli is “setting them off”. Their triggers can range from different noises to people or other animals (strangers or friends and family). They can also startle easily when they hear a loud or unexpected noise. They are essentially on edge and are more tense than other dogs.
For example, Dr. Sophia Yin's Learn to Earn program is a wonderful way to have your dog focus on you and let you do all the decision making. More detailed information is in her book, Perfect Puppy(it applies to dogs of any age). Adequate exercise is important to manage anxiety. Having a routine, especially in regards to exercise and play, will also help with managing anxiety. An important thing to remember is when you use punishment in any way, your dog will either subdue the emotional reaction and it will be worse in the future or it will increase aggressive behaviour, anxiety or reactivity. Reactivity is an over-exaggerated emotional response and punishing that will just create fear-stress and anxiety to build whether you see it or not.
Making sure the dog doesn’t reach its reaction threshold is extremely important for success. If a dog is allowed to practice a reactive behaviour, it becomes more difficult to change that behaviour.
For example, the most common trigger is another dog. Having a Gentle Leader will make this training exercise much easier. When you encounter another dog while walking on leash, begin give rewards continuously (food is the easiest reward in this situation) as soon as you notice the dog. If your dog stops focusing on you, have them sit with their back to the approaching dog and continue to give rewards. You must be fast paced with the rewards so you remain more interesting than the other dog. If your dog continues to lose focus on you, you will need to create more distance between your dog and the approaching dog by moving off the path. Ideally, your dog will only pay attention to you and ignore the other dog all together. You must do this every time you encounter your reactive dog’s trigger. Over time, he or she will learn to associate the strange dog with a reward.
Conditioning you dog to change its behaviour takes a lot of time and patience, but in the long run is well worth the effort. Once you address the dog's underlying anxiety, you and your furry companion can begin to work together towards a full life of experiences. If you have a reactive dog, speak to your veterinarian for tips or medications that may be helpful to your training process.
Dr. Juanita Ashton, BSc, DVM, ACDBC-IAABC is a certified Canine Behavioural Consultant, and one of the owners of the Elmsdale Animal Hospital