For a variety of reasons, some dogs become “riled up” around certain triggers, especially when leashed.
These triggers could be other dogs, skateboarders, runners, etc.
Thankfully, there are ways to manage this behavior, and in many cases even help the dog overcome the issue.
I thought I’d share some tips from three other dog owners on how they manage their reactive dogs. I want this post to give some hope to others who may have recently adopted a reactive dog.
Please leave your questions or suggestions in the comments, as this is such a common problem in dogs.
Tips for managing a reactive dog
Know your dog’s triggers and threshold.
First, determine what causes your dog to react. These are your dog’s “triggers” and are most likely things like other dogs, children, bikes, etc.
Gina Caballero is the owner of a cairn terrier mix named Oz.
“Oz is reactive to only one thing, other dogs, and only when on leash,” she said.
To help manage her dog’s behavior, Caballero said she has to know Oz’s threshold, or the distance from the trigger where he will begin to react. This allows her to use different training techniques to distract him or desensitize him before he has a chance to react.
Caballero also said since Oz does not react to every dog, she has to pay close attention to his body language so she can try to figure out what his reaction will be.
You’re not the only one who feels judged.
Caballero said she often feels judged when Oz reacts to other dogs in the neighborhood, even though she knows he is actually a gentle, loving dog with obedience skills.
“He appears ferocious, and I get looks from people that say ‘Train your dog!’” she said. “It can be very embarrassing.”
Mahogany Gamble is the owner of a mixed-breed dog named Kayo and said her dog used to react to “anything that moved.”
At that time, Gamble also said she would feel judged and embarrassed by Kayo’s behavior.
“I woke up extra early to walk her before the streets were filled,” she said. “I learned routes that weren't crowded and even found a small dog park that was rarely used.”
Later, when she learned to use training tools such as a prong collar, she felt judged for that decision as well.
“In both cases, my ultimate realization was that I felt judged because I lacked confidence in myself,” she said. “As my confidence grew, I began to learn how to focus on my work with my dog rather than on the fearful or judgmental looks of others.”
It’s worth it to hire a dog trainer.
Lara Elizabeth is the owner of a border collie/Jack Russell mix named Ruby. She considers Ruby’s reactivity “quite extreme” and strongly recommends seeking the help of a professional trainer for anyone who has adopted a reactive dog.
“I scheduled a few sessions with a local positive reinforcement trainer to make sure I was on the right track with Ruby,” she said.
She also suggested dog owners read all they can about reactivity.
“There are many great resources for this fairly common issue, and I believe the more people feel they aren't alone, the more patience they have for their dogs,” she said.
Gamble said she worked with seven different trainers before finding the right ones to help Kayo.
“Several trainers insisted that my dog could only improve with medication,” she said. “Some even hinted at euthanizing her.”
She later worked with a trainer who said Kayo’s high energy and drive were simply her personality.
“Once I met the right trainers, they inspired me to look beyond my dog's instinctual behavior and see the greatness she possessed,” Gamble said.
According to her, Kayo now spends her days as a confident dog with a “very wide world” constantly surrounded by what used to trigger her reactivity.
Gamble said she encourages all owners with reactive dogs to seek out a good trainer who can give them the tools to build their dogs’ confidence and good behavior around triggers.
There is no quick fix.
It’s important for people to know that a dog’s reactivity will not be cured overnight, according to Elizabeth.
“It very often takes lifelong management and training,” she said.
For example, she said she is lucky to live in a quiet townhome community where she doesn't have to take Ruby into a crowded or busy situation.
“I am always alert when walking and will change direction when needed if someone is approaching,” she said.
Caballero said owning a reactive dog can often be two steps forward and one, two or three steps back!
“You have to be consistent and try to not get frustrated with your dog or yourself,” she said. “It is a learning process for both of you.”
Believe in yourself.
Gamble said she would like to encourage other dog owners to believe in themselves and in their dogs.
“While there are numerous techniques that I learned and now use in my work with dogs, my attitude did play a significant role in my dog's transformation,” she said.
“Without believing in what we both could do, we couldn't have achieved anything great.”