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Reactivity in dogs: where it comes from and how we can help

Olivia Leathley, Certified Pet Dog Trainer (CPDT) and a Canine Behaviourist and Psychologist, will in this article explain how you can help and understand your reactive dog. She will also provide you with guidance and advice on what to do if your dog is reactive.

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Olivia Leathley - Certified Pet Dog Trainer (CPDT) and a Canine Behaviourist and Psychologist

I’ve been working with dogs from the age of 18, and my journey into doing this as a profession started with a reactive dog called Oliver. Oliver was a tricolour show cocker spaniel in the kennels I worked at, and he was just terrified of people. Whenever I approached his kennel he would bare his teeth, growl, and lunge at the bars to try and bite me. A lot of people would have immediately labelled him as ‘a dangerous dog.’

What many people don’t understand is that a dog will snarl and growl because they are afraid. Think about it, if you wanted someone scary to stay away from you, you whispering: “go away please” wouldn’t have as much impact than if you shouted: “Leave me alone!”. Growling, showing teeth, and barking is how dogs communicate that they are uncomfortable and are desperate for space from the situation/person/dog they are finding frightening.

Reactivity in dogs

    Where does reactivity come from?

    One of the biggest hurdles our furry friends have had to deal with over the past few years are the constant succession of lockdowns. Lockdowns, and being away from all the hustle and bustle that usually comes with everyday life has had a massive impact on something called ‘socialisation’ with our dogs. Contrary to popular belief: ‘A new puppy must meet 100 people and 100 dogs in the first 3 months of life,’ can be extremely harmful to some pups. A lot of pressure is put on young dogs to be able to slot in with our lifestyle without any thought to whether they can handle it or not.  Reactivity can start incredibly early in puppies’ lives if they are forced to interact with dogs and people before they are ready. In order to know how to read your pup better here is my best guide to how they are feeling.

    Tail: Should be relaxed, hopefully wagging. If it’s tucked right under your pup is worried. If it is straight up and stiff, your pup is on high alert.

    Ears: Soft and relaxed is the ideal, if they are pinned back this can mean they’re anxious. Erect and forward can suggest arousal.

    Body Posture: A rigid body posture, stiff from head to tail like a statue, is a sign of a dog being unsure of a situation. Nothing about their body looks ‘relaxed.’ A confident pup looks loose and wiggly!!

    Lip licking: Especially if they’ve not had a treat or water recently.

    Yawning: This is what’s called a displacement signal and doesn’t always mean they’re tired.

    Shake Offs: A big shake from head to tail when they’re not wet. This is a behaviour I always praise as your pup is attempting to calm themselves down and regain composure after being over-stimulated. This can also be after lots of running around or playing! I usually reward by saying “Good shake” and reward instantly with a treat or a cuddle.

    That’s where reactivity can start with puppies, by being put into situations where they feel worried and don’t have an escape route. So how does it progress from looking a bit anxious to dogs that are launching themselves aggressively towards something or someone?

    At least 50% of the dogs I have worked with have been attacked or been played with too boisterously by another dog. There’s a huge scale here between rough play and a full-blown attack. Rough play can be anything from your pup being chased to the point where they start to panic, being pinned down in play by bigger dog, or maybe a playmate has bitten down a bit too hard and they’ve yelped. A dog attack however is outside the realms of just a play session. Teeth and claws fly and sometimes progress to full bite wounds. Its horrible and scary and super traumatic for everyone involved! Obviously, a responsible owner would have their reactive dog on a lead, but unfortunately other owners can be, at best, lax with letting their dog approach other dogs when they’re off lead. The shout of “Don’t worry they’re friendly!” can strike fear into the hearts of many a dog owner when they know full well that their pup isn’t. Drama then ensues as the reactive dog owner desperately tries to keep their terrified dog away from the ‘friendly’ intruder to their previously peaceful walk. Sadly, in most situations the reactive dog is always blamed as the 'aggressor’ and many of my clients are shouted at and told that their ‘dangerous dog’ shouldn’t be allowed out in public.

    How do I keep my Reactive Dog safe?

    Over the years I’ve found the best equipment to help you maintain full control of your anxious dog while still helping them to have space and freedom on walks. A strong harness like mine with a clip on the front is a great start. The front clip allows you to turn the dog to face you in order to better get out of nerve-wracking situations, as well as keeping all the pressure of your dog’s delicate neck. A super strong lead is a must, don’t ever use a retractable lead with an anxious dog! Retractables, while convenient, limit your control massively, and the locking mechanism is known to fail if a dog lunges out of fear. A great way to give your dog space without worrying about them running off is a lead called a long line: 10 metres of space to let them roam but you still have the other end to hold on to! Depending on the dog, muzzle training can also be extremely helpful.

    What to do when my dog growls

    A growl is a gift, trust me! Balanced trainers will often suggest the use of a slip lead, or even worse, prong collars, choke chains or worse still: shock collars. I am a force-free, all positive trainer. However, there are thousands of before and after videos of previously reactive dogs being trained with aversive tools that suddenly stop reacting and look calm as anything! So why does this appear to work?

    What really happens when a trainer yanks a slip lead, or a lead attached to a choke chain is that the dog is caused discomfort. So, when a reactive dog barks or growls at another dog the trainer or owner will pull sharply on the aversion tool to get them to stop having that reaction. This is effective, I’m not saying that it doesn’t work, but let’s look at what that does to a dog emotionally. What is really happening is you’re essentially punishing your dog for being afraid, because their loud (and yes, sometimes embarrassing reaction) is inconvenient to you at that time. Another awful thing that happens with aversion tools is that a dog realises that growls and barks go ignored, so they don’t bother to be vocal anymore. This is where you actually get a dangerous dog. A quiet dog, with no visible cues or signals they are uncomfortable, but is in fact still terrified. When confronted with another dog and won’t bother growling or showing teeth, because they’ve been told off for that previously, they will go straight for the kill.

    How can I start to help my reactive dog?

    What I, and many other trainers like me, do instead is make sure that your pup is always communicating and that they are listened to when they’re afraid. This next section is how I believe you as an owner can start helping your reactive dog in an all positive way.

    Ascertain what their triggers are

    Every anxious dog has a bucket. When they see things they are reactive too, like dogs, children, bicycles, each of those things can be a drop in that bucket. The fancy term for this is called ‘trigger stacking.’ It’s like us having a one-thing-after-another day and just snapping at the end of it! When a dog’s bucket is full, going over their stress threshold, they cease to be able to learn. Try and figure out what their triggers are. Is it big dogs? Small dogs? Males? Females? Movement? Look for that rigid body posture and make mental notes of what makes them anixious.

    Teach Counter-Conditioning to Lead Pressure

    When you see another dog when you’re out with your reactive, you know as well as I do that you will immediately pull your dog closer to you to keep them safe. However, when you do this, your lead will get extremely tight and tense. Imagine your lead is a telegraph wire between you and your dog. If that lead is tense; they think you’re tense too! Then this happens:

    Dog walking and sniffing, human pulls them in so they’re tight against their ankles.

    Dog: “Why is Human freaking out? Why is the lead super tight?” 

    Another Dog appears.

    Dog: “ENEMY. Human is stressed too, should I be stressed? I should be stressed.”

    Dog continues approaching.

    Dog: “I don’t want that dog anywhere near me and clearly my human doesn’t either, so I’ll shout at them until they go away.”

    Human: “I’m sorry he doesn’t like other dogs!”

    Sound familiar? It’s naïve to think that you are never going to need a tight lead ever again, so why not change the way your dog feels about it? Start in your living room or garden, or somewhere quiet where there aren’t any other dogs. Pull gently on the front of your dog’s harness and call them. When they turn and look at you say “let’s go!” and reward by throwing a treat. Build up consistency where the dog will turn with no pressure at all to follow you when you say this command. This way, even when on a walk everything goes to pot and a dog approaches you and your pup, you have a pre-conditioned response with your “let’s go” command- which is to follow you. This does so many wonderful things for your anxious dog:

    1. Shows them that a tight lead just means to look for you rather than panic

    2. Helps them realise that you’ve got their back and not to be as afraid

    3. By throwing the treat in the direction you’re going, you’re rewarding them three times over! One by giving them space away from the thing they’re worried about, two by getting them to sniff, and three with a food reward.

    Stop pavement pounding, and go on sniff-aris

    Walking on narrow pavements can put a lot of pressure on reactive dogs, they have nowhere to go if they feel worried or anxious, and you can find yourself constantly crossing the road. By going to a quiet field, or even an industrial estate or car park, you can just let your dog relax and wander without worrying about triggers. Scatter feeding is a wonderful way to encourage dogs to sniff and relax. Snigging, licking, and chewing are all under an umbrella called ‘calming enrichment.’ All of these behaviours release dopamine which is the calming hormone. Licking can be encouraged with toys like kongs or lickimats, and chewing can be expressed through toys or natural chews like antlers or pig’s ears.

    Teaching a ‘Disengage’

    This is a great way to move past simply avoiding other dogs at all costs to starting to build your dog’s confidence. Having a friend available for this can be super helpful! Consider renting an enclosed field or using a quiet car park to make sure you’re not disturbed by the rogue, off lead ‘don’t-worry-they’re-friendly’ dogs! Start mega far apart and see if your reactive dog can look at the other dog and look away. You might have to start 100 metres apart to begin with, but everyone has to start somewhere! Try to see if your dog can look up at the other dog and then go back to sniffing- which you can encourage with scatter treats on the ground. A great way to mark the instant your dog is able to look away from the ‘threat’ is by using a clicker or a marker word, such as “yes!”

    You can pre-condition a marker word or clicker in the comfort of your own home, just get your dog to do something simple like ‘sit,’ click the moment their butt hits the ground, and follow up immediately with a treat.

    Teach a Focus Cue

    Ask your dog to sit and hold a treat up to your eye level. Say the word, “Watch!” or “Look!” and mark and reward. This is a wonderful way to get your dog to focus on you and not the thing they’re frightened of. See how long you can get them to hold eye contact!

    Obviously, these are only the first steps to moving forward to a calmer world with you and your reactive dog. If you’d like to start making bigger strides, please contact a local, all-positive, force-free trainer, or if you’re in Manchester - send me an email!

    Good luck on your journey, and I promise you, it does get better.

    Olivia Leathley Certified Pet Dog Trainer (CPDT) and a Canine Behaviourist and Psychologist

    Who?

    Olivia is a certified dog trainer (CPDT) with a level three qualification in Canine Behaviour and Psychology. She's been working with dogs since she was 18, and in 2020 decided to take the plunge and start her own business.

    Fun fact

    Her name is Olivia Leathley, but she's better known as the Biker Girl Dog Trainer! She's a fountain of advice and information to help you and your little one get started off on the right paw. Working with dogs is genuinely a dream come true for her! She help owners and their furry companions live confident, happy lives together.

    Why?

    Olivia has been working with dogs from the age of 18, and her journey into doing this as a profession started with a reactive dog called Oliver. Oliver was a tricolour show cocker spaniel in the kennels she worked at, and he was just terrified of people. Whenever she approached his kennel he would bare his teeth, growl, and lunge at the bars to try and bite her. She now specialises in puppies, but also help with other more complicated, ingrained behaviours such as reactivity.

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