Ask the experts: A training guide for reactive dog owners

Woodgreen’s behaviour and training specialist, Lindsay Arliss, explains why dogs become reactive and shares some top training tips.

Does your dog bark and lunge at other dogs? Woodgreen’s behaviour and training specialist, Lindsay Arliss, explains why dogs become reactive and shares some top training tips.

In an ideal world, we all hope for our dogs to be friendly, easy-going and comfortable in different environments. In reality, this just isn’t the case for all dogs, especially those who have quite an extreme response to everyday situations like seeing other dogs and people. This is what we call a ‘reactive’ dog and it’s very common, so you’re not alone! As one of Woodgreen’s qualified dog behaviourists, here are some questions Lindsay is regularly asked about reactive dogs:

Why do dogs become reactive?

Dogs are usually reactive if they don’t have very good social skills and feel worried by other dogs and people, or if they’ve had a bad experience in the past which frightened them. Another thing we see is excited dogs that love people and other dogs a bit too much. They often get frustrated when they can’t go bounding over to say hello and play. These triggers cause a reaction which can differ for each dog.

For worried or frightened dogs, they trigger a ‘fight or flight’ response. If they’re on a lead, they can’t run away, so they defend themselves the only way they know how, by growling and barking. They’re telling the other dog or person to stay well away! Frustrated dogs respond by pulling on the lead, spinning or turning around and grabbing their owner to get rid of some of their energy.

In both cases, it’s a highly emotional state so you may find that your dog can’t listen to you or take treats while they’re trying to cope with the situation.

Can I train my dog to be less reactive?

Yes, you can! In fact, it’s never too late to start! At Woodgreen, we recommend three things:

  1. Practice basic training

All dogs benefit from having a good recall and knowing simple cues like ‘sit’. This builds trust between you and your dog, and will make the bigger issues easier to tackle. Marker words like ‘good’, ‘yes’ or a clicker are powerful training tools. This will let your dog know instantly that they’re being praised and a treat is on the way. You can also work on calm behaviours throughout your day – teach them to wait for their food, settle down on cue and solve problems through enrichment (like Kongs and puzzle feeders).

  1. Keep your dog away from triggers

Inevitably, we can’t control the outside world and don’t know who will come around the corner. The good news is, there are steps we can take to remove our dogs from stressful situations – especially during the training period. Try taking them for walks at quieter times of the day, like early in the morning, or take them out into the countryside or enclosed dog fields away from the hustle and bustle. Alternatively, walk your dog less and replace the activity with games or training in the garden.

If you reduce the opportunity for your dog to be reactive and increase their practice of alternative behaviours, it will be become second nature.

  1. Teach them alternative behaviours

For times when your dog is confronted by a stressful situation, teach them to sit down (“sit!”), sniff out some treats on the floor (“find it!”) or turn away and walk in a different direction (“this way!”). All of these should be rewarded with something your dog finds motivating, like their favourite treats or a toy.

First, you should teach these cues while you’re at home before trying them out on a quiet and calm walk. Then gradually increase how close you can get to your dog’s triggers – but make sure you go at your dog’s pace. The more practice your dog has, the more they will associate their triggers with positive outcomes rather than stressful ones.

Have an open mind and be realistic about what your dog will be capable of. Fearful and long-term reactive dogs may never happily mix with groups of dogs – but you should be able to feel confident walking your dog calmly, without regular incidents. This would be a big win!

What if something goes wrong?

It can be embarrassing when your dog causes a scene out in public, but it’s important to consider how your dog is feeling. They’re probably scared and need you to stick up for them. If you can see another person approaching you with a dog, it’s okay to keep your distance and ask them to stay away if you need to. Training is not a straight-forward process, your dog will need time and patience to develop these new skills and habits.

If you have a bad day, take a deep breath and head home, but don’t let it put you off. Take a break and go back to the basics with gusto. Any progress you’ve already made, you will be able to pick up again, so don’t give up! If you need help, Woodgreen’s team of behaviourists are on hand to provide free support – just get in touch.

For more information and advice, come along to our free monthly ‘Helping reactive dogs’ online event. Find out more and sign up at www.woodgreen.org.uk/events

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