The Local Woof is a column that’s sponsored and written by the staff of Woofs! Dog Training Center. Woofs! has full-service dog training, boarding, and daycare facilities, near Shirlington and Ballston.
A reactive dog is a dog that reacts to specific things in their environment by becoming highly aroused and in most cases, barking and lunging. These dogs can appear to be aggressive, dangerous and “out of control.”
It is a scary situation for both passers-by and owners. Some reactive dogs are also aggressive, and some are not. Since it is impossible to know on the spot, it is best to give reactive dogs a wide berth. Reactivity is a serious issue and a major challenge, but there are a lot of techniques we can use to help reactive dogs.
To begin with, the earlier you start behavior modification, the better the success in changing the behavior. Reactive behaviors usually crop up in adolescence around 6 to 18 months of age and tend to get worse as the dog reaches social maturity around 2 or 3 years of age. Your pup will not “grow out of” this behavior. Seek help as soon as you notice an issue.
Second, never punish your dog when they start to growl, bark or lunge. This can be really hard, because a crazy dog at the end of the leash can be very embarrassing and we generally want to get the dog to stop the behavior as soon as possible. Unfortunately, even if punishment seems to get the dog under control in the moment, it does nothing to teach the dog an alternate behavior and can often cause the reactions to become worse.
Most reactivity is caused by fear or anxiety and the solution is to teach the dog to feel less anxious in the presence of the triggers. We use a program of systematic desensitization and counter conditioning to help the dog feel more comfortable. This involves exposing the dog to the trigger (people, dogs, cars) in very small amounts that do not trigger a response and then teaching the dog that good things (food, play, attention) happen when the trigger is present.
This can be a slow process, but the results are definitely worth it.
The final piece of the puzzle is teaching the owner what to do. Having a reactive dog is very stressful. It is important to make sure that the dog is wearing the appropriate equipment so that the hander feels confident in physically controlling the dog. Then we need to make sure that the owner can stay as calm as possible. A deep breath and a calm tone of voice can go a long way in keeping a reactive dog calm. Just like the dog’s training, this can take a lot of practice.
The good news is that with practice and a good training plan, reactive dogs can get much better.