All Things Dog

The Reactive Dog

A reactive dog reacts in a way that mirrors your emotions. If you get upset, he gets upset. If you calm down, he calms down. Because of this, a reactive dog can sometimes be a frustration to live with, until you know how to handle him.

Often, the methods owners use to try to control their dog will excite a reactive dog. This makes these dogs a puzzle at first, but they needn't be. Reactive dogs are usually highly intelligent and sensitive. With the correct approach, you can train them quite easily.

What helps?

Staying calm helps. But staying calm can be quite challenging if your reactive dog is leaping, spinning, barking, and carrying on. Directing your dog to a behavior you like is a terrific approach.

Recognize that certain dogs may be more reactive than others. Although it is difficult to classify an entire breed as reactive, there are certain traits that set the reactive dog apart. The reactive dog is very aware of everything in his environment, no matter how small, and he reacts to every event. His reaction may include barking, jumping, and running in a frenzied manner.

Also, make sure your dog gets enough exercise and mental stimulation. Sometimes people mistake dogs of a medium- to high-activity level with reactive dogs. Instead, these dogs are suffering because they have too much energy, and no way to expend it.

Review any medications your dog is taking. Although not common, certain medications can lead to the behaviors that a reactive dog exhibits.

Suggested training approach

Being calm, clear, and focused are critical for successfully training a reactive dog. If you teach your dog what you WANT him to do, as opposed to trying to stop the unwanted behavior, you will be much more successful.

Instead of wrestling with jumping behavior, teach your dog to sit. Instead of chasing after your dog, teach him to "come" or to "down." Reactive dogs appear to get overwhelmed by intense human contact and are unable to think if they are being yelled at or scolded. However, show them how to please you, and look out! These dogs can really excel.

Consider professional help if you need it. Your veterinarian may be able to refer you to a trainer or behavioral specialist. This professional should be comfortable working with reactive dogs and, ideally, have experience with this type of behavior. And remember, reactive dogs don't respond well to aggressive training.

Praise and rewards

Perhaps more than most dogs, reactive dogs thrive on positive attention, if it is given in a way they can handle. If you ruffle your dog's fur or squeal enthusiastically, don't be surprised to find your reactive dog tap dancing on the ceiling. Keep your voice warm but calm, your hands loving and slow. Many reactives are irritated by a light touch, so stroke them firmly.

Effective training must include effective rewards. For some of these dogs, food rewards can be too exciting. Either choose a food he is less excited by or use another kind of reward, like calm praise and a firm, loving stoke across his back.

Using a leash

Make sure your dog is controlling himself when leashed, rather than you struggling with the leash in order to control him. The more he controls himself, the calmer he will be. The more you try to control him, the wilder he will become. You will know which you are doing by the tension on the leash. If it is loose, your dog is doing the work. If it is tight and you're wrestling with him, then you're doing the work.

Command hints

To gain more control over your dog's behavior, consistently instruct him to "sit," or say "down" to earn what he wants, including food, petting, play, or any other kind of attention. Be sure to give any commands in a calm voice, because you set the tone for your reactive dog.

If you've never dealt with a reactive dog before, you may need some help learning the skills necessary to handle him. If you have a trainer, be sure he feels comfortable working with this kind of dog. Avoid trainers who get rough in an effort to control reactive dogs. This is not an approach that works.

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