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Dog Reactivity


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I'm posting this as part of a set of helpful 'easy reference' articles for common questions and problems. Feel free to add additional info on dog reactivity in this thread, but please start a new thread for specific questions relating to your dog.

My dog lunges and barks at other dogs

This is actually not uncommon but very few dogs really want to get into a fight. All of their instincts tell them not to - in the wild, the risk of injury is simply too great. In fact, aggressive behaviour is almost always rooted in fear.

By putting on a big display, your dog is trying to frighten off the other dog, his body language is saying 'I'm loud and big and scary, don't come close to me if you know what's good for you'. And almost always the other dog will retreat, or be taken away by his owner, so your dog's behaviour becomes reinforced. It worked, so he knows he can do it again.

So what can I do?

This sort of behaviour often happens when your dog is on lead, which means that he has found himself closer to the other dog than he would have chosen if he had been able to.

He will have an invisible radius of space around him where he feels secure. It's called flight distance, anything within that space triggers his fight or flight stress response, which you may have heard of. Find out what that is and keep him far enough away from other dogs that he is aware of them, but relaxed. Your goal is to train him that he doesn't need to react; not to stop a reaction in progress.

Reward him for being calm with something fabulous, like frankfurter sausage or a very special toy. The aim of this is to change your dog’s emotional response to the stressful thing (the other dog) by repeatedly pairing it with something good. In time, your dog will learn that scary dogs mean sausages appear and this creates something called a positive conditioned emotional response (+CER).

Gradually, over weeks and months rather than days, you can work on reducing the distance. This may mean you have to be selective where you walk - choose places with good visibility so you can give other dogs a wide berth, or where you can turn and walk away easily; always positioning yourself between your dog and the other dog as a sort of safety barrier. But - be aware that if your dog has had a stressful episode the stress hormone cortisol can stay in the body for some time. Studies in dogs are inconclusive but it may be several days. The distance he was comfortable with on one day might be too close on another day. So the safe distance can change, watch his body language.

Alongside that you could train a 'watch me'. As your dog looks at you, mark and reward the behaviour. Ask for longer periods of watching. Then if a dog approaches, after you have worked on the distance issue, you can get your dog to focus on you and not the other dog. BUT - some dogs find this scary as they cannot see the thing they are anxious about so you need to judge your dog. And importantly, don't ask your dog to watch you if it is the other dog that is reactive. Your dog should never be in a situation where he could be at risk while he is complying with something you have asked him to do.

Some dogs don't seem to bother him, others do

Trainers describe behaviour like this with reference to the three Ds. Distance, as above but also be aware of Duration - your dog might be tolerant for 10 seconds, but not 15; and Distraction - how distracting the stimulus is, a calm dog might not trigger any reaction at a given distance but a bouncy one might.

In addition, the conformation (shape) or even colour of some dogs can trigger a reaction. Very broad fronted dogs (such as mastiffs or bulldogs) create the impression of 'facing up' just because of their shape, which can be intimidating even if their temperament is perfect. And black dogs are thought to have facial body language that is harder to read. Some dogs will be more reactive to un-neutered males, or particular breeds for no apparent reason. Learn what triggers reactions in your dog so that you can give him the extra support he needs.

Will he ever get over it?

Odds are, you won't end up with a social butterfly, and I would encourage you not try. But there is no reason to think you can't achieve a dog that can go on walks without reacting to other dogs just being there, looking at him, passing him. If you can achieve a result which means your dog is neutral to others, that would be an excellent outcome.

For more detailed information, visit Care for Reactive Dogs
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