The prevalence of reactive dogs in the UK is certainly on the up – there are a number of possible contributing factors, from the increase in imported rescue dogs, the popularity of poorly-bred “designer” dogs and even the recent pandemic, giving rise to the “lockdown puppy.” In addition, in this age of social media our expectations for our dogs are higher than ever. Many dog owners dream of taking their dogs everywhere and anywhere, expecting a happy, relaxed and sociable pup who loves every person and dog they interact with and never puts a paw wrong.
Not only can this lifestyle quickly lead to serious behavioural issues, it can also lead us to overreact to what are actually very normal dog behaviours – a dog who grumbles when yet another stranger goes to pet them is not broken, they might just be fed up with having their quieter stress signals ignored once more. However, it is when we ignore these behaviours and continue to put our dogs in stressful situations that we can create reactivity and anxiety in dogs who previously had no predisposition for it, which is why these heavy expectations can be so damaging for our dogs.
Behaviours such as barking and lunging on the lead are typically associated with reactivity, but that doesn’t mean your dog is reactive just because they’ve barked or pulled on the lead – there are a number of things we can look at to determine whether your dog is really “reactive.” It’s important we make this distinction, because how we address an unwanted behaviour will vary depending on the cause – a dog who is fearful and reactive needs support, time and commitment to help them get past whatever phobia they have developed and learn to cope, while a gobby adolescent who just happens to default to barking when he’s excited will need an entirely different training approach if we find his barking problematic.
So, if you’re wondering whether or not your dog is reactive, this blog is certainly for you!
Barking is Normal
The first thing to address is that barking is a normal dog behaviour. Many dogs bark and how much they bark will depend on a few things – them as an individual, their reinforcement history for barking (if they’ve managed to win themselves some attention or treats by barking at their humans, they’ll probably do it again!) and their genetics. Some breeds are known for being vocal – for example, hounds have an infamous bay and many toy breeds historically doubled as alarm systems. It's worth researching the breed you are getting and finding out how vocal they are known to be, so that you can avoid a noisy breed if you know barking is something you will find particularly frustrating to deal with.
However, any breed or dog will bark from time to time – it’s a very normal way for our dogs to communicate. They might bark to illicit attention or play, they may bark if they are unsure of something unusual/unexpected, they might bark to ward off garden invaders… there are lots of very normal contexts in which dogs may bark and, while we can certainly train our dogs to bark less and to offer a different behaviour in many of these situations, we should also remember to accept them for the creatures they are, as we’ve invited them into our homes.
What is Reactivity?
Reactivity is when our dogs’ barking, lunging or other behaviours are caused by extreme emotions such as fear or even frustration. We would typically say that a dog is “overreacting” to whatever they are triggered by, going straight into fight-or-flight mode even if the trigger is at a distance. Reactivity is categorised by how we perceive our dogs to be feeling, rather than the behaviours themselves. This is why reactive dogs need a different approach to your average barky dog, because we need to address the dog’s emotional state and the cause of their behaviour before we can expect to simply teach them to do something else.
Causes of Reactivity
Reactivity is often caused by anxiety or fear – this can sometimes be due to a genetic predisposition, a lack of or poor socialisation (see our blog on socialisation to learn more about how to socialise your puppy) and/or a traumatic experience such as a dog attack. Reactivity can also be caused by frustration – dogs who are not taught how to be calm and ignore other people/dogs can become incredibly frustrated when they are on a lead and unable to access the person or dog, leading to reactive behaviour.
Signs of Reactivity
As we’ve mentioned, barking and pulling/lunging on the lead can be normal dog behaviour that needs to be addressed with regular training. To help you determine whether your dog is barking because of a gap in their training or whether they are reactive, we’ve listed some signs of reactivity below.
Stressed Body Language
Body language such as a stiff, rigid body, fixated stare, tightly closed mouth, raised hackles, tongue flicking, out-of-place yawning, wide eyes (particularly if you can see the whites of their eyes) are all signs your dog is feeling stressed out. Watch your dog when you know they are feeling relaxed, as you will be able to learn what’s “normal” for them and this will help you to notice any sudden changes in the presence of their triggers.
Signs of Over Arousal
As we’ve mentioned above, reactivity might also be caused by over arousal around dogs/people leading to frustration. Signs of over arousal can include not eating/accepting treats (this can also be a sign of stress), jumping up, lead biting and other typical reactive behaviours such as growling and barking.
Long Recovery Time
How does your dog behave after the trigger has gone away? A vocal but non-reactive dog should be back to normal pretty much right away – they may need some help calming down and focusing if they were a bit excited, but they’ll be largely back to their usual self quite quickly. A reactive dog is likely to really struggle to settle after an event, and you may continue to see signs of stress like those listed above.
What to do if….
Your Dog is Just Vocal
If you’ve read the above and don’t think that’s your dog, then they’re probably just barking because that’s what dogs sometimes do. The exact cause can vary – they could be excited, unsure, etc – but it’s likely that regular training to help teach our dogs a more appropriate way to react and to help them learn to be calm and engaged with you around distractions will all go a long way to reducing the barking behaviour. Working with a professional trainer either via a 121 session
, in group classes
or both is a great way to get your pup on track and teach them how to be a model citizen.
Your Dog is Reactive
If you can relate to the points above and feel your dog is displaying signs of stress, it’s important you seek help and support from a qualified and experienced behaviourist as soon as possible. There’s not much to be said for “muddling through” when it comes to behavioural issues – every episode our reactive dogs experience is a stressful incident for them and only serves to reinforce their feelings of fear or frustration and compound the issue.
Not only are these high stress levels unpleasant for our dogs and damaging to their quality of life, but reactive behaviours can easily begin to escalate and we can find ourselves in a potentially dangerous situation. Stressed dogs often redirect towards humans, leading to bites – this isn’t because they are a vicious dog, it is because they are incredibly stressed, they are not themselves and not in control of their actions and you are the closest thing to them. This can happen even with the sweetest and loveliest of dogs, so is a real risk even if you could never imagine it happening – and it is, understandably, often incredibly damaging to our confidence and our relationships with our dogs.
Behavioural support should be in-depth and should only ever be provided by a fully qualified, externally accredited behaviourist. Make sure you look into what qualifications your behaviourist has before working with them, as this is an unregulated industry and there are countless “professionals” out there working as “behaviourists” without appropriate qualifications.
For a behavioural consultation with an accredited and qualified behaviourist click here