Ah reactivity. When describing a dog, it is a word that is heavy and very common. A word that comes with shattered dreams of what you thought it might be like to have a dog and go on long, relaxing walks and adventures with them. It’s completely normal to romanticize this. Everyone does it. Man, walks with my dog are gonna be so great! Yeah. Until you find out that your dog has some pretty big thoughts, feelings, emotions, opinions, and reactions to things that to humans, don’t really seem like a big deal. But to our dogs, they are a big deal. In fact, they are everything!
Reactive (in dog terms): a dog who over reacts to certain stimuli. Reactions can include barking, whining, screaming, lunging, snapping, growling, bouncing around, and even freezing and shutting down. Reactivity is not aggression. We need to keep those two separate. Yes, even freezing and shutting down is a form of reactivity. Barrier frustration can also play a hand in this too. You know when a dog is wonderful off leash with other dogs but as soon as you put them on a leash, they turn into a mess? That’s barrier frustration because the leash is preventing the dog from doing the one thing they want to do which is to greet another dog or person.
I often come across the notion that these behaviors need to completely stop and not occur, ever again. My dog is not allowed to have reactions at any time to anything. How do I train that?
Well, unfortunately that’s just not realistic for anyone. Dogs will always react. It’s just that sometimes we don’t like or don’t approve of how they react and what they react to. I mean a bicycle Fido? Really? Come on man! But the same is for humans. There are certain things that can trigger us and it can be hard to extrapolate ourselves from the overwhelming emotions that we can feel. When something is important to you, when something causes you to have a visceral reaction and someone tells you to “just get over it”, how does that make you feel? Bingo.
Dogs are allowed to have emotions and feelings, just like we are too! Sometimes things are just irritating, bothersome, frustrating, or just down right scary to dogs! That’s okay. It’s important to point out (and try to remember) that your dog is HAVING a hard time, not GIVING you a hard time. Don’t take your dog’s reactivity personally.
Okay that’s great and all, but my dog is an absolute nightmare to take out into public and it stresses me out! Totally get that and I totally feel that.
So what can you do?
1. Learn your dog’s triggers (by also understanding that they can change based on many factors. For example, just because your dog freaks out at bunnies, doesn’t mean they will necessarily freak out at all critters). By trigger, I mean anything that they could find overwhelming and it can be literally anything (and some of them are so silly, I know, but they are not silly to our dogs!) Some common triggers: other dogs on leashes/off leash/behind a barrier such as a fence, anything on wheels, critters, people moving (runners, bikers), people being still (someone sitting on a park bench), loud vehicles (delivery trucks, diesel engines, etc.)
Trigger stacking: when multiple triggers occur within a short time span, often resulting in even bigger reactions and meltdowns. For example: 1. Dog on leash 2. Another dog on leash 3. Loud vehicle drives by 4. A bicycle, etc. etc. They may have been able to handle Trigger 1 and recover, but by the time they got to Trigger 4, it was just too much.
2. Try to avoid triggers whenever possible. We only have so much control over this. If your dog is really triggered by walking in your neighborhood, take them to an open space so they don’t feel as closed in. If your dog is triggered by other dogs out walking, try to avoid walking at the busier times of day and in busy areas (open spaces where you can see everything and have room to move are fantastic and so are cemeteries!)
3. Acknowledge that your dog’s triggers can become your triggers. When we see something that we know usually bothers our dogs, it’s not uncommon for us to hold our breath or tighten up on the leash a little. We often think “oh shit” and your dog can pick up on that. I will talk out loud to my dog “Hey, looks like there is a (insert trigger here) up there. Yeah I see them too. How about we go over here instead?” etc, etc. When you are speaking out loud, you can’t hold your breath. Seems silly I know, but give it a try.
4. Adopt a proactive vs. reactive mindset. Instead of waiting for the behavior (or reaction) to occur (this is reactive), try to be proactive, which is where you assess the situation and make educated decisions to hopefully prevent the behavior or reaction. How can you do this? Change direction, hide behind a car/building/tree (use your environment), use games like nose targeting, recall, and chase, scatter feeding, etc.
5. Reactions are going to happen! It’s just a part of life. Look for more resilience and recovery after a reaction occurs. Yeah, yeah. So your dog absolutely lost their mind at something, but were they able to refocus, recover, and move on? Yes? That’s amazing and we’re going to put that in the win category! Woohoo!
6. Self care. If walks stress you out with your dog, don’t take them with you all of the time. You are allowed to enjoy a walk without your dog and without having to take on their baggage all of the time. Make sure you are taking care of you and doing things that YOU enjoy. You can skip walks with your dog some days, but you need to make sure that you are fulfilling your dog’s physical and mental enrichment needs in other ways. Walkies aren’t necessarily for everyone!
7. Distance is your friend. If your dog can keep their shit together from 50 feet away (but not any closer), this is amazing info! Now you know what your dog’s threshold is with that specific trigger and when you can typically expect a reaction.
8. Explore other activities for you and your friend! Walks are great, but not if they stress you out. Work on confidence building and strengthening your relationship. You can do many activities in your house, back yard, or even a quiet open space. Play fetch, set up an agility course using household items, hire a qualified professional (dog trainer or walker skilled in and comfortable working with reactivity), work on training, teach your dog a new trick, consider using a longer leash so your dog has freedom to move their body and explore with their nose, consider dog daycare or trips to the dog park (if appropriate), check out SniffSpot and rent someone’s yard if you do not have a safe, outdoor space to work in, etc. You and your dog do not need to be held hostage by reactivity anymore!
It’s hard work. But you got this. You and your dog got this. More than you know!