Do you have a dog that behaves strangely or out of control at times? Do you feel he is nervous or frightening you with his behavior? If so, you could have a dog that is reactive. We spoke with Angela Hoover, LVT, regional director of technician services at VCA Animal Hospitals and a dog trainer certified by VCA, to understand the definition of a reactive dog and what to do if your dog is acting out.

What is dog reactivity?

dog running on beach during daytime

Dog reactivity is often confused with aggression. They aren’t identical, though they may be linked.

Abrupt Behaviour

Afraid behavior is about creating separation from something. The dog is basically trying to push a threat away. In reality, the majority of aggression is rooted in fear. For instance, a dog might be fearful about losing access to a valuable resource, like their beloved pet or toy, or even food. Dogs also may be aggressive in situations where they feel unsafe (like when a stranger is in their home or walks into them).

Aggressive behavior is also related to pain, just as it does in humans. Dogs may also exhibit what appears to be an aggressive way when they’re hunting prey however technically, it isn’t an act of aggression. It’s predatory behavior and predatory behavior doesn’t mean getting something out of the way; it’s actually the opposite.

If your dog occasionally yells but isn’t a sign that you’ve got an animal that is dangerous. It’s a method by which your dog signals that he needs something to stop or to go away. If the dog’s bark is respected and the dog isn’t agitated, nothing more serious is likely to occur. Issues could be experienced by dogs that attack or attack without or no prompting, but. If a dog is frequently aggressive (and not always due to a logical trigger) is there an issue that’s deeper–perhaps even a health risk.


Dogs’ reactivity, on other hand, doesn’t always be a sign of aggression. Like humans, dogs (and all other animals) react to the things that happen to them every day.

Sometimes, the reaction is to get involved, for instance, when your dog spots an individual they recognize or another thing they are thrilled about. In reality, your dog could be so excited about engaging that they begin to bark and scream in frustration over not getting to the subject or person at the moment.

Sometimes, the response is to either ignore or observe such as when a leaf blows in the breeze.

In certain situations, there are instances where the dog exhibits an instinctive reaction to defend itself when something appears to be like it could be dangerous. Canine Reactivity is typically an overreaction to something which causes anxiety in your dog. Dogs who have anxiety stressed could:

Common triggers that cause reactive dogs are:

In certain situations, it is possible that the dog may be in a state of panic and barking and lunging as they want to reach something and is annoyed by the inability to. In other situations, the dog is uncomfortable and learns that actions like lunging and barking can make the threat disappear. For dogs that are nervous, the behavior is strengthened, as the dog is relieved after it is agitated and the threat is gone. In the dog’s brain, it’s a simple cause-and-effect. That is an anxious dog’s enthusiasm and anxiety could result in them exhibiting aggression. If the dog is not dealt with and untreated, the behavior could become more severe.

How to reduce reactive behavior

Helping your puppy overcome the reactive behavior requires being aware of his triggers as well as engaging in some form of training.

The Art of Identifying Your Dog’s Triggers

“The first thing I suggest to reduce the behavior that causes anxiety is to encourage pet parents to keep a notebook and note down any time their dog is having an emotional moment,” Hoover says. Write down the date of the week and the time, weather, as well as any other events that took place. Note down all the details to assist you in identifying the cause of the problem for your dog.

Certain dogs go on hyper-alert during rush hour and can hear the traffic. Other dogs might become scared in the evening and when they have a problem with their sight. If you own an older dog who is beginning to lose vision, for instance, your dog might become anxious at hearing sounds but is unable to discern what’s happening.

Counterconditioning and Desensitization

Since reactive dogs have been trained to be fearful in certain situations, you have to assist them in developing new emotional reactions to perceived threats. One method to accomplish this is to use desensitization and counterconditioning (CC&DS). CC&DS can help dogs transform their negative thoughts (like believing “the postal employee is terrifying”) into positive thoughts (like believing, “the postal worker is fantastic because whenever he arrives, I receive treats”). Also, the program helps dogs become at ease with what had previously scared them off.

Desensitization and counterconditioning are the processes of gradual exposure. It’s a process of gradually exposing your dog to triggers and offering valuable rewards simultaneously according to Hoover. A trained dog trainer or a certified behavior expert can assist you to come up with a strategy to alter your dog’s reactive behavior, and then demonstrate the steps you need to follow. This is an illustration of how to use it:

  1. If your dog is known to lunge at other dogs when you go for a walk take a bag of treats along on all your walks.
  2. If you spot another dog approaching from the distance, keep an eye on your dog, and wait until he spots the dog in front of him.
  3. When your dog spots the dog next to him, begin giving him small bits of cheese, meat, or any other food your dog enjoys.
  4. When the other dog has gone by Stop feeding them and continue walking.

In essence, you’re instructing your pet that rewards begin when another dog is around and end when the dog appeared away. This is a way to teach your dog that other dogs are the ones who make treats (yum!) and that whenever a dog is present it’s important to make sure you check in with them (since you’ll be giving treats). If you are patient and persistent your dog will be taught that dogs leave by themselves without having to be positive. CC&DS can help your dog to understand that dogs don’t cause major issues.

What to Do If Your Dog Displays Reactive Behavior

If you notice your pet getting stressed or notice something that you are sure is triggering you should remove your dog from the situation. So, he will be able to relax. Begin by trying to coax your dog away with the sound of a smile. Also, you can place an item of food near him to test if he takes the treat away. If none of these methods work the most secure method of moving your dog is to put an appropriate leash on his collar (if there’s not already the leash) and then take the dog to a different area. Dogs who are upset could be angry when you tug on their collar or pull them into your arms. Therefore, the use of a leash makes you safe. But, you shouldn’t take the leash off and punish your dog, advises the Animal Humane Society as this will only add to the dog’s stress level.

If you suspect that your dog exhibits reactions, Hoover suggests preparing ahead of time. Keep high-value snacks readily accessible at home, and be sure to bring plenty of food items with you every time you go out with your dog also. So you can have short training sessions when you notice the potential triggers for your dog.

Can Dog Reactivity Improve?

“In many instances, reactive dogs (improve) with constant training and practice,” Hoover says. “However the moment an underlying fear-based behavior is ingrained in dogs, it could not completely disappear. If this is the case you can reduce the amount of reactivity, but you need to maintain control of that throughout the dog’s life.” This means that you must continue to provide snacks to help keep the dog’s impulsive behavior in check, and also limit the amount of time your dog is exposed to triggers.

The change in your dog’s behavior isn’t going to occur overnight. However, with patience and training, you’ll see a calmer and more confident dog.

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