Reactivity: Is it Fear? Frustration? Something Else?

Dogs are reactive for many reasons. We can’t truly get inside their heads, but by watching body language and getting to know the dog, we can take some good guesses.  By understanding WHY our dog is reacting, we can better choose a strategy to help them… and us.  Being a reactive dog is hard, and having a reactive dog is hard.

Common reasons for reactivity include but are not limited to:

  • anxiety or fear,
  • frustration,
  • territorial aggression or guarding,
  • over-excitability,
  • predatory aggression, and 
  • true dog aggression.

Dogs may have one or more of the reasons above for being reactive.  The hardest cases are when a dog has multiple motivations for reactivity, i.e a dog who is afraid of other dogs but really wants to meet them (perhaps inappropriately), so becomes frustrated when on leash.  

Below different training strategies for these common reasons for reactivity.  Each dog and each human are unique, and there is no recipe for reactivity that will work for every dog. This is why I struggle with offering an on-demand program.  No two dogs need the same plan. However, do check out my FREE Online Reactivity Course and Support Group. 

 

Anxiety

Anxious dogs might be this way due to trauma, genetics, lack of (or improper) socialization, or simply from being misunderstood. If we are able to set fair expectations for our fearful dogs, this is one of the easiest types of reactivity to address. Training, even with the help of medication, will not likely ever change an anxious dog into a confident socialite.   Set fair expectations for the dog, i.e. if they are afraid of strangers, don’t allow people to pet them. If they are afraid of dogs, don’t take them to busy off leash areas.   Maybe one day they will surprise us and be ready for these things, but maybe not.  Instead of trying to make them a more outgoing dog, teach them appropriate ways to communicate to you that they are afraid – and then when they communicate, step up and protect your dog from the scary things. This will build confidence!  

Anxious dogs often benefit from:

Frustration

Frustration is a very common reason for reactivity. Quite often, these dogs do great in dog parks or day cares, but lose their marbles when they see a dog when on leash.  Frustrated dogs sometimes play very inappropriately with other dogs, rushing in and smooshing them, not respecting the other dog’s communication.  This is another type of reactivity that we often successfully address.

Frustrated dogs often benefit from:

  • Relaxation Protocol (check out my version).
  • Focus and Obedience type games.
  • Practicing calm and polite greetings with people and dogs.
  • Supplementary exercises to meet the dog’s physical needs (tug, biking, wrestling, etc.)

Territorial Aggression & Guarding

This type of reactivity is often seen when a dog charges their fence, or worse, runs out of their yard and attacks or barks at a passerby, whether human or canine.  You might also see it if a dog has access to windows facing the street or trail where they can watch people passing. With dogs who are genetically predisposed to guard, we need to have fair expectations.  We cannot train a dog who was bred to guard for many many generations to become a friendly retriever who loves everyone.   

Territorial dogs often benefit from:

  • Relaxation Protocol (check out my version).
  • Recall training.
  • Communication from their people thanking them from guarding, then letting them know they are off duty.
  • Supplementary exercises to allow the dog to guard in an appropriate way while not scaring the neighbours. 

Over-Excitability

Think Pomeranian =)   Often these dogs bark a lot in their general life, and are super excited about everything. Then when they see a new potential BFF on the street, they just CANNOT contain themselves. 

Over-Excited dogs often benefit from:

Predatory Aggression

We see predatory aggression commonly towards cats, squirrels, rabbits, deer, etc.  Luckily we don’t see this directed at dogs or humans nearly as often as you might think.  Sometimes a frustrated dog is labeled as predatory, but it’s usually not the case. If your dog is truly predatory toward other dogs or humans, please don’t take advice from a blog or other online source – get help from a qualified professional certified by IAABC or a similar credentialling board. 

Predatory dogs often benefit from:

True Dog Aggression

Typical dogs who fight with other dogs will approach, stop and sniff with stiff body posture, then engage in a loud display where not much damage is done. Those are not the dogs I put in this category as they might just be frustrated or socially inappropriate.  The dogs in this category attack other dogs on sight, often silently, and they do damage.  Their intent isn’t to drive off the other dog, but to do harm. They are generally anti-social and often don’t have a history of having canine friends.  Don’t confuse this with two particular dogs who have been fighting off an on for some time and now will fight on sight – that is a different issue. 

Aggressive dogs often benefit from:

Congratulations if you made it this far! Don’t worry, the vast majority of reactive dogs fall into the first few categories. Reactivity is often very trainable!  Check out some of the links in the page, join the FREE Online Reactivity Course and Support Group, and try the exercises with your own dogs.