Reactivity is a common behavioural problem for dogs but many pet owners struggle to pick up on the early warning signs. Dogs must then escalate their behaviour to let us know that something’s wrong.
Expert dog behaviourist Philippa Short is here to help you recognise those early signals and prevent your pup from becoming reactive to other dogs. And if things do escalate, Philippa explains what you need to do next.
There’s a big debate on what is a ‘reactive dog’. After all, it’s normal for dogs to be alert and react to all the sights, sounds, and smells around them.
When we take ‘reactive’ to mean an unwanted behaviour, a reactive dog is one who can’t emotionally cope with what’s happening around them. As they can’t speak to us, their behaviour shows us they’re going over their emotional coping limit.
There’s two reasons why a dog may struggle to cope emotionally and become reactive.
Working out which category your dog falls into is tricky, as both types will show the same body language signals at first. So always bring in a professional to help you work out if your dog is frustrated or frightened.
A happy and well-socialised dog is content and easy-going. They have a neutral reaction to their environment and the stimulating things around them.
The early signs that show a dog is moving away from this balanced behaviour include:
If you miss the early warning signals, your dog will escalate their behaviour. Signs of this are:
If you think your dog is generally unsure and unworried, there’s some things you can do to help.
You’re showing them how to calmly hang out and have fun with you, so they recognise the world around them isn’t a bad place. They feel they can cope emotionally and become desensitised to triggers or environments they’re less sure about.
Keep in mind that these things can only be done if your dog’s reactivity is very mild. Always create enough distance so you’re not pushing your pup over their threshold.
Before you begin supporting a dog showing early signs of reactivity, it’s important to manage your expectations. Take the time to understand your dog and their personality.
Is your dog showing negative behaviour, or are they simply reacting in a normal way to an overwhelming situation? Also, some dogs are natural introverts and don’t like being out in crowded and noisy public places.
When your dog starts to show early signs of reactivity, equipment is key.
Teaching a quick 180-degree turnaround or ‘let’s go’ can be a very useful cue for a pup in the early stages of reactivity.
Don’t struggle on with your dog’s reactivity. You may end up making things worse for your pup if things aren’t handled correctly.
If teaching them to hang out with you doesn’t work and they move from mild reactivity to escalated behaviour, call a professional.
A dog behaviourist has lots of different techniques to help overcome their reactivity. They’ll choose the right ones for your pup based on their individual needs. This includes desensitisation, counter conditioning, and behavioural adjustment therapy, to name but a few.
A reactive dog can absolutely get better – just remember to put their best interests first.
This means using professional help to give your pup the best chance possible. Some dogs may need medication and you might also have to adjust your lifestyle.
If your dog is reactive to other dogs, it’s better to get drop-in home enrichment visits from a professional dog walker. You could also arrange solo outings with a dog walker who gives one on one sessions.
If your pup is comfortable with other dogs but a little unsure of people, you may be able to use daycare or boarding. But you’ll want to be careful about who you pick. Look for someone who can bring out your pup’s confidence and can build a good relationship with them.
Any good daycare or boarding house should be able to have open and honest discussions with you about your dog’s needs.
You’ll need a professional to assess whether your reactive dog can live with another dog. It depends on the severity of the reactivity and each dog’s personality.
Another dog can be brought into the household but this needs to be handled carefully and correctly. This includes managing instinctive triggers (food, toys, affection) and having the right mix of breed and personality types.
You may be able to claim for behavioural sessions through your pet insurance. Check your policy wording carefully to see what’s covered.
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