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What is a Reactive Dog?

Reactivity can be defined as an over-the-top reaction to common stimuli. :smpullhair:

Dogs communicate their discomfort and try to send messages by using threat displays such as barking, growling. These are normal reactions to show that someone is too close, too pushy, too scary. All of these behaviors are meant to help avoid escalating a situation (i.e. into a fight). As such dogs should not be punished for these displays. You want this communication to indicate to you that your dog is uncomfortable and needs space.

However, a reactive dog resorts to these behavior displays at inappropriate times, too quickly and generally can create problems rather than help avoid them.

Typically, we think of the dog who barks and lunges when presented with something that "upsets" him. The key is that this is a more extreme reaction than normal. All dogs bark, and many bark at specific stimuli, but when that reaction is seemingly uncontrollable and extreme you have a reactive dog. Reactivity can also display in extreme shyness. This would include dogs that cower and shake when presented with stimuli.

How do dogs become reactive?

  • Medical causes (pain, poor eyesight, improper thyroid levels)
  • Fear (timid nature, prior negative experiences)
  • Arousal/Frustration (lack of exercise, leashed or fenced and unable to escape)
  • Genetics (herding instincts, resource guarding, prey drive)
  • Lack of Socialization (not enough new or positive experiences in critical periods)
  • Learned Behavior (threat displays have "worked" in the past)
  • Stress Hormones (which can stay in the body from previous episodes)
What are stressors?

Whatever in your dogs life causes him or her stress can add up. It is important to identify stressors because they add up. Imagine you are driving on the road and someone cuts you off. It is annoying. But you move on with your day.

However, what if that morning you slept through your alarm. You jump in the shower, but the hot water heater broke and you end up standing under ice cold water. You try to quickly grab some cereal, but find your kid left the milk out on the counter and it has spoiled. You get in the car and find you are almost out of gas and the check engine light is on. Now imagine that same guy cuts you off again. Now you may well be on your way to a full blown Road Rage episode.

One of the tasks we should do with our reactive dogs is to try to discover the things that stress them. Make a list. Maybe it is getting his nails trimmed, maybe it is the mailman ringing the doorbell with packages, maybe it is your own stress. Now you want to minimize them as much as possible. There are a few ways we can do this:

  • Get rid of it
    (i.e. maybe your dog hates his head halter collar--try a front clip harness instead)
  • Change the association
    (feed the dog yummy treats while you cut his toenails)
  • Teach a new incompatible behavior
    (dogs stressed by the doorbell, try teaching them to do something different when it rings)
  • Manage the dog's exposure
    (get enough distance, limit experiences with those things that cause the most stress)

Now those are just the things that stress your dog. Now consider the things that make him or her have a reactive episode. What are the "triggers"? Make a list of those triggers. Maybe your dog reacts more strongly to big dogs, black dogs, dogs with wagging tails, maybe it is running children or skateboarders, or something as simple as the jingling of a collar.

The Need for Mangagement

Once you identify those triggers it is VERY important to manage your dogs exposure to them. Every time your dog has an episode where he or she is scared or stressed by a dog the more it reinforces that bad things happen around other dogs. If your dog has been punished in the past for reacting to other dogs by barking or lunging or growling then that punishment is also reinforcing that negative things happen in the presence of other dogs.

:huh: (strange dog appears) :unsure: (your dog is unsure) :smhelp: (situation becomes stressful) :exploding: (your dog explodes)

The thing is that this becomes a conditioned pattern. In fact, the more it happens and the more stress is added to the dog (i.e. punishment for the threat displays) the more likely it is to move directly from point a-b:

:huh: (strange dog appears) :exploding: (your dog explodes)

Classical Conditioning
So the mechanism currently used by positive trainers who understand reactive behavior is similar to what we are familiar with in the Pavlov's dog experiments. It is classical conditioning.

Management and the careful use of classical conditioning breaks this cycle.
The more often we can make the senario look like this:

:huh: (strange dog appears) :unsure: (your dog is unsure) :happy dance: (your dog gets YUMMY reward) :supacool: (your dog is feeling fine)

And ultimately this:

:huh: (strange dog appears) :supacool: (your dog is feeling fine)

This is a situation where positive reinforcement is critical. Negative reinforcement can have disastrous effects and make your dog worse.

  • Punishment adds to stress
  • Punishment makes learning more difficult
  • Punishment in the form of aggression can cause aggression
  • Punishment can take away warning signs (threat displays) but may move them to sudden aggression

Much of the above information comes from a course packet handed out by my instructor at my Canine Social Skills class at Canine Character with trainer Kim Yocklin.

In addition, I have also added information I learned through Pat Miller's Reactive Rover Workshop at PeacablePaws.


I created this post because I went through some old threads on this forum with folks who have said they were at their wits end due to their dogs barking, lunging, and general inappropriate behaviors that could all be labeled reactive. I hope this thread can be a resource for us. If you have a reactive dog, it can help others understand that they are not alone in dealing with this issue, so please post your thoughts and your experiences here.
 

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Thanks, very interesting. I pet-sat for a couple of reactive dogs and they were a handful.

I would also have to add that vaccinations sometimes can cause a non-reactive dog to be reactive. Even Patricia McConnell seems to think so.
 

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This was very interesting - and makes a lot of sense. So when I'm outside and faced with large dogs coming towards me and I hear him starting to growl, that's when I should make him sit and reward him with a treat. If he doesn't sit, I guess I lead him away from the dog?

I'm guessing the same applies to someone knocking at the door - but that's a bit tougher b/c you can't prepare for the "explosion" in the same way. I saw in a previous old post, someone suggested doing the same (make a loud noise, sit then reward w/ treat) while someone else ignored him, then called out at word and used a 5-min time out. I'm guessing either one works? This may prove challenging as I have 2 that go nuts w/ the door knocker.
 

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Discussion Starter #4
Honestly, he probably won't be able to focus on the command to sit. I would not ask it of him.

Classical conditioning does not require him to perform a behavior. In classical conditioning the treat is not a reward for the behavior performed it is meant to create a new emotional reaction to the stimuli. Idealy, you want to begin classical conditioning in a somewhat controlled setup. If you cannot get assistants to help you do this, you might want to at least find a comfortable spot with sufficient distance where you can watch dogs pass by. For example, go to PetSmart, but sit a fair distance away from the door. Every time he sees another dog you treat him. The goal is for him to begin to recognize that the sight of another dog will give him rewards.

If you think that he is going to go over the edge, then get him out of dodge as soon as you can. This is where some operant conditioning training can come in handy. Work on U-turns with your dog, excited happy u-turns. That way when you see something ahead that you know is going to cause him trouble you have a command you can use to get him out of dodge before he has the reaction.

As for the door, just like the U-turns, you want to practice the behaviors before the real-life situation occurs. You teach the dog what you want before the doorbell rings. Get someone in your family to be the doorbell ringer, so that when the doorbell does ring you have practiced several times the expected behavior.
 

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GREAT info Carina!!!!!!!! I'm gonna print this one out and keep reading it and working w/Benny.

I'm off to read your other thread right now!
 

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Honestly, he probably won't be able to focus on the command to sit. I would not ask it of him.

Classical conditioning does not require him to perform a behavior. In classical conditioning the treat is not a reward for the behavior performed it is meant to create a new emotional reaction to the stimuli. Idealy, you want to begin classical conditioning in a somewhat controlled setup. If you cannot get assistants to help you do this, you might want to at least find a comfortable spot with sufficient distance where you can watch dogs pass by. For example, go to PetSmart, but sit a fair distance away from the door. Every time he sees another dog you treat him. The goal is for him to begin to recognize that the sight of another dog will give him rewards.

If you think that he is going to go over the edge, then get him out of dodge as soon as you can. This is where some operant conditioning training can come in handy. Work on U-turns with your dog, excited happy u-turns. That way when you see something ahead that you know is going to cause him trouble you have a command you can use to get him out of dodge before he has the reaction.

As for the door, just like the U-turns, you want to practice the behaviors before the real-life situation occurs. You teach the dog what you want before the doorbell rings. Get someone in your family to be the doorbell ringer, so that when the doorbell does ring you have practiced several times the expected behavior.

Thank you!
Yes great info. I've been getting Jodi to sit and reward with a treat when he sees a dog...and it's working, it's a big improvement. But what an eye opener to know that the sit is not necessary.

it is a little frustrating if I am with someone who says...you just rewarded him for barking....I think the goal is to treat before he gets to the barking stage. So if he starts to bark just do a U turn and get out of there? has the opportunity passed by then? ie don't bother to try and give a treat at all until there is another opportunity and he sees another dog?
 

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Discussion Starter #7
Asking for an incompatible behavior like sitting or lying down isn't exactly wrong but it is turning the moment into operant conditioning rather than classical conditioning and as such you are teaching the dog the command, but you may be in fact distracting the dog from the ultimate goal of:

:huh: see the dog :supacool: be fine with the dog

I don't know about your dogs...but if Cadeau is in full blown reactive mode he is not ready to take treats anyway. If he can take treats then he is not lost yet. You need to understand the degree to which your dog is agitated. If they have gone over threshold then you have contributed to the dog going from:

:huh: to :smhelp: to :exploding:

When working with the dogs, Pat told us to continue feeding even if they were barking. There was little MinPin in the group who was highly food motivated. She would bark, little barks every time she saw the dog, but not barking and lunging. Pat told her to continue to feed. She was able to point out to the group that the dog's barking was not increasing as she saw the dog approach, if it was then we would know we were rewarding the barking, but in fact as she grew more comfortable the barking faded.

I know exactly what you mean about how others say that you are rewarding your dog for bad behavior when they are like this. I had trainers at the club I was at tell me that, too. So here I am reading this info, but being told by "more experienced" trainers that I am doing it wrong. Faced with that, I lacked the confidence to know what was right.
 

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Carina. Can you help me what to do with Tinker? As you know he grew up in a puppy mill with zero socialization. I've had him 3 1/2 years and he is still scared to death of EVERYONE except me.

He has become very protective of our home. Whenever anyone enters the house, he bites them :smilie_tischkante: :smilie_tischkante: :smilie_tischkante: :smilie_tischkante:

if he has a toy in his mouth, it helps relieve the stress and he'll run around the sofa with the toy in his mouth. He'll look at the person entering ..take his toy and shake it fiercely, almost as if to say...this is what I'd like to do to you!!!!!

He is not food motivated at all. and I find my self usually yelling and chasing him around saying "get a toy"...."gat a toy, hurry up!"

He doesn't bite to drawl blood, he just runs up and tries to grab pant legs or shoes.

I HATE this behavior. But, alas, Tink isn't a normal boy. :blink:

HELP!!!!!!!!!!!

And it's funny that he does this because if you walked in and tried to pet him, he'd run in the other direction.
 

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Discussion Starter #9
Carina. Can you help me what to do with Tinker? As you know he grew up in a puppy mill with zero socialization. I've had him 3 1/2 years and he is still scared to death of EVERYONE except me.

He has become very protective of our home. Whenever anyone enters the house, he bites them :smilie_tischkante: :smilie_tischkante: :smilie_tischkante: :smilie_tischkante:

if he has a toy in his mouth, it helps relieve the stress and he'll run around the sofa with the toy in his mouth. He'll look at the person entering ..take his toy and shake it fiercely, almost as if to say...this is what I'd like to do to you!!!!!

He is not food motivated at all. and I find my self usually yelling and chasing him around saying "get a toy"...."gat a toy, hurry up!"

He doesn't bite to drawl blood, he just runs up and tries to grab pant legs or shoes.

I HATE this behavior. But, alas, Tink isn't a normal boy. :blink:

HELP!!!!!!!!!!!

And it's funny that he does this because if you walked in and tried to pet him, he'd run in the other direction.
Pat,

Lack of food motivation is a tough one. The procedure Pat demonstrated at Camp was the classical conditioning and requires food motivation. Cadeau was not food motivated at all this weekend (Cadie was in heat), but I feel like I can do the procedures when his brain and his appetite come back because the should once Cadie comes out of heat.

Pat did share with us an article (and I bought a video) of another technique that is a little more controversial (still positive) that uses operant conditioning. It was called the CAT procedure. She wrote an article about it in the Whole Dog Journal May 2008. It is not based on treats, but on keeping the dogs in the presence of the stimuli.

Honestly, if I had a dog like Tink, I would keep a seabreeze pen handy and plop him into it with his toy when people arrive at the door. So he has a safe place to go when they first come in. How does he do once they have been there a while?
 

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Thank you so much, Carina. I have had the same experience with the trainers at my club. Most of them work with big dogs, and I don't think they understand the little dog mind at all. The information you provided is very helpful, and I'm going to try some of the suggestions.
 

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This is a great thread with wonderful information.

While working with Jax we have gradually gone through many stages when working around other dogs. And sometimes have to go back a couple stages in more difficult situations. (This is my experience and what has worked with Jax).

Stage 1: Treat Bar - Reward when another dog is nearby, passing, etc... No behavior required, simply reward. With Jax I sometimes had to have a large treat that he would chew on as the dog passed. I would hold one end of the treat and he would chew on the other.

Stage 2: Calm Behavior - Reward for calm behavior. No barking, lunging, etc...

Stage 3: Incompatible Behavior - Reward for another behavior. First simply for attention. Then move to something else, like a sit or my personal favorite - a touch. Still with attention/focus on me.

Stage 4: Looking at the other dog - Reward for looking at the dog and not reacting. I put this on a cue - "What is it?!!" He looks click/treat for looking.

Stage 5: Combine them.

While doing this I know the distance my dog is comfortable with other dogs. Just for a reference, Jax's comfort zone was the moment he could see the dog - even if it was 100 feet away or the jingle of a collar. I work from there and will slowly decrease the distance between them. If he gets too close and loses focus or is stressing I will back up and go where he can and will be successful.

I have been working with Jax for almost two years now on his reactive behavior and he has come a very long way. We can go to Rally shows and just last night he was doing a sit and down stay in a group of dogs for a picture. There were around 5 other dogs (Aussie, Bernese, Lab, Dobie and a Chihuahua mix) for the picture and we were all side by side. He had never seen any of these dogs before and did not react. At one point the lab came over and smelled him and he was calm with his attention on me.

I never expect Jax to be a dog who wants to hang out with other dogs or play with them at the park. I do expect him to not be reactive and behave appropriately, but I know his limitations and I accept those.
 

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Thank you for this Carina. As you know, I have a little devil in Aolani sometimes. And you’re absolutely right, if I don’t catch the behavior right away and try to get his attention forget it, it’s over. I will definitely follow the recommendations that were posted. We’re taking baby steps and I do see slight improvements in him and I know it all depends on me.
 

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Discussion Starter #13
This is a great thread with wonderful information.

While working with Jax we have gradually gone through many stages when working around other dogs. And sometimes have to go back a couple stages in more difficult situations. (This is my experience and what has worked with Jax).

Stage 1: Treat Bar - Reward when another dog is nearby, passing, etc... No behavior required, simply reward. With Jax I sometimes had to have a large treat that he would chew on as the dog passed. I would hold one end of the treat and he would chew on the other.

Stage 2: Calm Behavior - Reward for calm behavior. No barking, lunging, etc...

Stage 3: Incompatible Behavior - Reward for another behavior. First simply for attention. Then move to something else, like a sit or my personal favorite - a touch. Still with attention/focus on me.

Stage 4: Looking at the other dog - Reward for looking at the dog and not reacting. I put this on a cue - "What is it?!!" He looks click/treat for looking.

Stage 5: Combine them.

While doing this I know the distance my dog is comfortable with other dogs. Just for a reference, Jax's comfort zone was the moment he could see the dog - even if it was 100 feet away or the jingle of a collar. I work from there and will slowly decrease the distance between them. If he gets too close and loses focus or is stressing I will back up and go where he can and will be successful.

I have been working with Jax for almost two years now on his reactive behavior and he has come a very long way. We can go to Rally shows and just last night he was doing a sit and down stay in a group of dogs for a picture. There were around 5 other dogs (Aussie, Bernese, Lab, Dobie and a Chihuahua mix) for the picture and we were all side by side. He had never seen any of these dogs before and did not react. At one point the lab came over and smelled him and he was calm with his attention on me.

I never expect Jax to be a dog who wants to hang out with other dogs or play with them at the park. I do expect him to not be reactive and behave appropriately, but I know his limitations and I accept those.
Mandy,

Thank you so much for sharing your experience with Jax here. You give the rest of us hope.

This camp and our class with Kim has really opened up my eyes to help me to see where I have pushed Cadeau too far in the past. I believed that eventually repeated exposure and more training would get him over it, but I have inadvertently escalated the behavior by not minimizing his reactive episodes. This was a huge "lightbulb" moment for us.

I have listened to the advice before about having the "treat bar" open (or as some people call it--"stuff-a-dog") but I have done those things in less controlled environments: out for walks, at class and frankly I was not keeping him below threshold well enough.
 

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thanks for this info , my problem is the dorrbell , that is his stressor, he doesnt get stressed at the ppl that come in or when we come in w keys , just the intercom buzzer n the doorbell he goes berserk... i try to carry him everytime it rings to shut him up , have tried treats as soon as he stops barking but he will just eat the treat n keep on barking, its getting uncontrolable , n he does this even if he is in another room .. he hears bell n wont stop barking til the person is inside the house ..
 

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I have a little brag about Aolani. This evening we took our evening hour walk but in another part of town and came across a nice lady that really wanted to pet Aolani, but I told her that I was sorry because he can be very reactive. I stayed and talked to her for a little bit - she was about 15 feet away and AOlani seemed pretty calm. So I asked if she wanted to give him some treats and she said yes and guess what, Aolani even did a sit, down and high five for her!!! He let her pet him and everything - I was so proud of him until we got to the corner of that long block and saw two men coming around the corner and same old Aolani came back. I told him "leave it" and pulled him away from the situation. He wanted to lunge and them but couldn't cause I pulled him away. Like I said, baby steps.
 

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Sounds good. But....Tink cannot stand being confined in a small space.....he can't even ride in the stroller :blink:. Our home is open and everyone just comes in....a lot of the time I am out back on the deck. There's no way I can moniter who's about to come in the house!!! Not good.

I need to figure out a way to stop this without treat and without a pen....I'm at my wits end. I'm about to give up.

Pat,

Lack of food motivation is a tough one. The procedure Pat demonstrated at Camp was the classical conditioning and requires food motivation. Cadeau was not food motivated at all this weekend (Cadie was in heat), but I feel like I can do the procedures when his brain and his appetite come back because the should once Cadie comes out of heat.

Pat did share with us an article (and I bought a video) of another technique that is a little more controversial (still positive) that uses operant conditioning. It was called the CAT procedure. She wrote an article about it in the Whole Dog Journal May 2008. It is not based on treats, but on keeping the dogs in the presence of the stimuli.

Honestly, if I had a dog like Tink, I would keep a seabreeze pen handy and plop him into it with his toy when people arrive at the door. So he has a safe place to go when they first come in. How does he do once they have been there a while?
 

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Does he put up with going behind a baby gate? Is he a jumper? I took an idea from a friend of mine that uses closet maid shelves (the white wire) as baby gates. Those are really easy to step over. One thing I like about the seabreeze is that it is pretty roomy--not like being tossed in the crate. Another type of configuration you might consider would be the soft-sided pen Folding Soft Sided Dog Exercise Pen

Truly if he is biting people as they enter (even if it is just heel nips) it would be ideal to give him a way to be in his own space. You said he runs behind the sofa, perhaps you could set something up that would close him up next to/behind there temporarily when people first come in.
 

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Does he put up with going behind a baby gate? Is he a jumper? I took an idea from a friend of mine that uses closet maid shelves (the white wire) as baby gates. Those are really easy to step over. One thing I like about the seabreeze is that it is pretty roomy--not like being tossed in the crate. Another type of configuration you might consider would be the soft-sided pen Folding Soft Sided Dog Exercise Pen

Truly if he is biting people as they enter (even if it is just heel nips) it would be ideal to give him a way to be in his own space. You said he runs behind the sofa, perhaps you could set something up that would close him up next to/behind there temporarily when people first come in.

I'll have to think on this one. Our house is pretty open, the sofa is sort of in the middle of an open space. Another problem is I never know when someone is going to walk in. A lot of the time, I'm either out back or up stairs. He has his "own" chair in the living room - he spends a lot of time on that chair watching out the window, he'd be lost without the ability to run from the living room, through the kitchen and out back to watch for trouble brewing out there :blink:. Hey, I've got an idea.....do you make house calls??? :p Oh, and I have to be careful with small gates (which I do have)...Stan is older and doesn't have good balance. :smilie_tischkante:
 

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Thanks Carina! This is great info. I've been working with Alvar on his reactive behavior for awhile and we have been able to get to Stage #3 in the stages Mandy described.

In Alvar's case his "triggor" is larger dogs when we're out for walks. Our big problem is the setbacks that happen when we get a surprise encounter with an off-leash dog, which happens far too often (especially for a city - what are people thinking?). I've had to pick him up and RUN more times than I can count now, he senses my stress and that increases his stress. I try to give him a treat as I scoop, but that doesn't seem to help much.

We've also had a problem with people who see me bring Alvar off to the side of a path and start working with him to get his attention and decide to bring their dog over to us :blink: Usually I can loudly tell them that my dog does NOT want to say "hello":blink:, but having to take my attention off of him to do that can let him go out of control.
 
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