Reactivity and Training A Reactive Dog

Reactivity is one of the most frequent behaviour challenges people seek help with.  Training a reactive dog takes a lot of time, patience and often includes doubting the progress.  A few months ago I adopted a highly reactive dog and these are my lessons from the first few months.

What Is Reactivity?

Reactivity is any reaction, from small changes in body language to barking, lunging, pulling, to what we would see as a fairly safe thing. Grisha Stewart describes the levels of reaction as the BAT zone.  We call the things a dog reacts to their triggers. 

Now, in the case of my girl, triggers include flower pots, cakes in the shape of flower pots on the TV and any other flower pot type object that we see when we’re out and about. In the weeks since I’ve had her she has reacted to statues of other dogs. her own reflection, real dogs, joggers, cyclist vans, cars, beanbags, a leaf in a puddle, among too many other things to mention. 

Reactivity triggers don’t have to make sense to us as humans. 

Why Does Reactivity Start?

We might be tempted to look for a logical reason for the reactivity, such as a dog is scared of people because she has been mistreated. The actual truth of the matter is, it may be that they are just highly anxious dogs. A lack of early socialisation, a dog who has never learned to be calm, a dog who is overtired, a dog high on food additives can all be factors in reactivity.

Reactivity can also start after an event where the dog learns that a particular trigger is something to be wary of.  Examples might be a dog who previously loved being around dogs and after being attacked now barks to keep other dogs away. This is much less common though.

Whilst it can help to understand our dogs’ past it’s not essential. Most of what you’ll do with a reactive dog is observe them in the moment and advocate for them to make the best choice there and then.

Training A Reactive Dog: The Good the Bad And The Ugly

People Will Stare

I understand that the sight of a German Shepard doing an impression of an angry kangaroo is a little odd. And to most people it will look like a crazed beast wanting to rip to shreds everything in her path.  And that no one else sees her soft cuddly side or her being a doofus and that’s ok.  Whilst I am doing everything I can to calm and support her, sometimes she’s had a major wobble.  I feel like having raised a child with autism I’ve gotten used to the stares over the last 20 years.  Having a reactive dog in public feels very much like having a child with autism having a meltdown. I understand the public reaction and I also know that I have her safe and under control and whatever other people think about that isn’t my concern.  You can tie yourself up in knots worrying about what other people think and it doesn’t help you, your dog or change their opinion no matter how much you overthink about it.


Good Equipment Matters

Our first shopping trip was for a good solid harness, headcollar and lead with carabiner style clips.  If she had a moment of madness I was ready.  That gave me confidence that in any given situation I ultimately wasn’t putting her, me, anyone else or any other dogs in danger. I was meeting my obligation as a dog owner to stop my dog causing fear of injury. It also stopped any nerves travelling down the lead so we could crack on with the important stuff like learning not to be scared of Christmas lights.

She Never Stops!

I’ve already got a working breed dog in the home but my new girl was like Zebedee from the magic roundabout at a rave!  She just never settled. 

She was highly anxious in all aspects of her life, there was an unwillingness to be alone and a lack of sleep during the day. Adult dogs need around 16 hours of sleep per day and she wasn’t getting anything near that.  So the first thing I did was to crate train and give her an ‘off duty’ space where she could relax.  

That meant that she was rested and calmer so we had more chance of training behaviours we wanted to see.

Everything Was A Trigger!

It feels like you’re living your entire life wondering what’s going to kick them off next. Yes you can eventually train a different behaviour to each trigger but we also needed to decompress.  So walks dropped to only 2 or 3 times a week, and in places we knew we could control the environment such as private paddocks and out of the way areas. Physically she needed time to recover from each session, a stressed dog cannot learn.   

Your dog will not suffer if they do not get walked every single day for a short period of time. We know when dogs have operations that we put them on bed rest. Some dogs with serious operations are on bed rest and gentle duties for months.  They will however quickly suffer the consequences of chronic stress.

What we’re doing after every training session is giving her at least 72 hours to calm down so if we’ve had a situation where she is being triggered and she’s shown reactivity, I’m giving her body the opportunity to reset itself to a calm level before I introduce anything else. I’ve managed out the stress of daily walking and the daily pressures that she’s experiencing and what that meant is she started to calm.

Management Makes Life Easier 

I see my girl as a dog who is suffering massively from chronic stress. My job right now is to reduce the stress in her life to as small a level as possible so that she can start training. Start counter conditioning and start desensitisation in a controlled way. I made a very long list of all of the possible things that triggered her and managed out of her life as many of those as I could. 

There’s now a privacy film on the window at the front of the house because she was reacting to other dogs and people going past the window. Now she doesn’t have to sit staring out of the window reacting to everyone and everything that goes past. Yes, I could train an alternative behaviour and in time I will. But she needs time to decompress and we need to work on one thing at a time. So whilst a privacy film for £15 can solve that problem for us in the short term and allow us less stress in our daily life it’s well worth it. 

We also used Adaptil plugins for the first 3 months for both dogs benefit.  This helped to send calm pheromones around the house and gave us a little extra help in the settling in period. 

Trigger Stacking Exists 

The straw that broke the camel’s back! You think that you’re working really well, having a really calm walk and then all of a sudden the trigger that you work walked past perfectly okay the other day is suddenly a worry. And this is because of trigger stacking. 

Imagine the stress level of a dog as a sink that is filling up. The tap is running into the sink and filling up and eventually it overflows. Or the tap is faulty, you turn it on and a gush of water pours into the sink.  Either way the sink overflows unless you find a way to reduce the flow or pull the plug.

That tap trickling is the tiny triggers, things that don’t even get more than a tight face or a stiffness in the body of your dog but they build up.  Sound sensitivities, movements or changes in their environment, a knock at the door that they coped well with but a phone going off that they didn’t. It’s all part of trigger stacking. And so in any given hour, your dog may be subjected to 20 or 30 different triggers that they might cope seemingly okay with and then all of a sudden they just can’t cope anymore and the sink overflows. So whenever we train him with a reactive dog, we have to keep things short and sweet and take the plug out often.

Using Human Logic Doesn’t Work 

I’ve noticed my own human drive in play, I desperately want my girl to understand that the world is not a scary place. I want her to relax. I want her to understand that everything’s okay and that if we see a flower pot on the street, it’s not going to jump out and eat her. And she’s actually safe and she can just enjoy the sniff walk that we’re doing. 

The problem with that is it’s me that wants that for her. She is still scared.  She doesn’t have human logic. I have to meet her where she’s at, in that moment and help her get distance from the scary thing.  Even if that scary thing is a leaf in a puddle.

We’ve focused on training a command for ‘come away’ which mimics her natural flight response even if she’s on lead.  That gives her the knowledge that she can move away from danger.  If there’s something scary I can walk the other way cue her to ‘come away’ and give her a distance that feels safe for her.

I’m Not Perfect

Even as a dog trainer, I made bad judgement calls. We walked past a jogger the other week on a walk and I was so thrilled that the walk was going so well that I continued the walk a little bit longer than I planned. And just that experience of the extra five minutes and the triggers that she’d faced in that time meant that she didn’t end on a win. And she actually ended up reacting to a car in that incident. 

So we have to be masters of our own human nature and really stop before we cause a situation where the trigger is unbearable and that trigger stacking goes on too much.  

Once I realised that her absolute maximum work time was 40 minutes I started to call off all training sessions at 30 minutes, all sessions were planned to be under that time threshold and shorter if I saw she was struggling.  

Have Fun

It’s really easy to get caught up in all the annoying / hard / difficult bits that we forget to have fun and enjoy our reactive dog.  Dopamine is the feel good chemical in the brain that makes us and dogs more happy and confident.  You’ll both need lots of it!  A confident dog is less likely to react to triggers, or at least take a few seconds to think it through.  A dog that gets regular respite from their worries and has a brilliant trusting relationship with their handler learns to calm a little.  


My girl has really enjoyed learning new tricks, some are helpful for her reactivity.  ‘Look at me’, ‘front’, ‘wait’, ‘heel’ all have practical applications out and about (which is why we train them in our Foundation Course!). But we’ve really been training just for the love of it and to get to know each other better.


Watching Your Dog


I’ve really enjoyed watching her watch things.  Taking note of her body language and her reaction to new situations.  Sally Gutteridge has a fantastic book on Canine Communication if you want to know more on that.  What I saw was that rather than being an aggressive or naughty dog, she was actually a bit worried about most things.  That means rather than forcing the issue I could slowly introduce new situations with lots of positivity and give an alternative approach to ‘angry kangaroo’.

This is her trying to work out if an upturned bin is scary or not.

I noticed tail chasing, spinning and drinking water were all early signs of stress for my girl.  When she’s tired she’s obsessive about asking for her ball to be thrown and wants to chew her blanket.  These are signs that communicate her needs to me.  I listen.  In turn she trusts me when I ask her for a specific behaviour.  It’s a partnership not a dictatorship that wins the reactivity battle.


One Thing To Avoid In Training A Reactive Dog


Your reactive dog isn’t in control when they are barking and lunging at the end of the lead.  It’s their instinctive response to get rid of the danger.  Punishment for being scared will add to the fear not take it away.


Final Thoughts


The only method that works long term is calming the whole situation down. Gradually and slowly reintroducing them to the world with lots of treats.  


I doubted this fact many times, even though it’s my job to know better!  


Training new behaviours in place of reactivity will take time. As I write this it’s exactly 3 months since she moved in.  Last week was a doubt week.  I could see some good progress but she still wasn’t getting it completely.  Then this week we’ve had two amazing sessions, we even did heelwork past a cat! 


Actually that was a really big deal…. WE DID HEELWORK PAST A CAT!!!!!!


I’ve found keeping a journal of her training really useful (along with the amazing support of Lizz and Izzy.) Share the positives with people. Even if it’s like my big joy 2 weeks ago when my reactive dog did a poo in the woods! How’s that for a relaxed doggo!

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