Lessons Learned from Reactive Dogs

When I first started my dog training career, I had never heard of the concept of reactivity in dogs.   I had never experienced a dog completely losing it at the end of their leash when another dog is near.  I had never dealt with a dog that was fearful of noises.  And I certainly never had a dog that was scared or showed aggression toward people.

But then I (inadvertently) started working with a reactive dog.  And about a year later, I (unknowingly) adopted a dog with reactivity struggles.  And nothing has been the same since!  

As my reactive dog, Rosie recently celebrated her 4th birthday (or what we guess is her birthday), I reflected on how far we’ve come and all we have learned along the way. I thought I’d share a few of the lessons learned from working and living with reactive dogs.

#1 – Reactivity has zero to do with obedience and everything to do with an emotional response.

I still remember this handsome Golden Retriever we’ll call Ty. He and his dad walked into the store where I worked as a dog trainer and wanted to sign up for classes.  Ty’s dad told me he really wanted help with leash walking when other dogs were around.  He was such a well-trained dog, but when he spotted another dog while out on a walk, he would “lose it” and lunge, bark, and snap at the other dog.  It was all his dad could do to hold on to the leash.  

So we signed them up for 6 one-hour sessions on Monday evenings.  

We focused on loose leash walking and gave a high rate of reinforcement (fancy way of saying a lot of treats for doing things we like).  I introduced as many distractions as I could inside the walls of the store (squeaky toys, sudden direction changes, treats on the ground, etc.) but Ty was solid.  This dog did amazing on the leash.  If he did ever create tension on the leash, he seemed to know how to fix it himself.

I tried to come up with a few new tricks to teach like crawl and rollover.  He picked up on new tricks very quickly (and many tricks I wanted to teach he already knew).  Ty would happily do just about anything for a little piece of jerky.

The point is, Ty was an extremely well-trained dog and his dad was very good with his own timing, mechanics, and reinforcement. 

Mondays were usually very slow in the store so it was not until session 4 that I experienced the behavior Ty’s dad described in our initial conversation.  

We were practicing loose leash walking in the back of the store and we rounded the corner into the main aisle.  We were all the way in the back, but had a clear line of sight directly to the front door of the store.  And in walked another dog.  I can’t tell you what the dog looked like because it instantly became a situation of holding on to the leash for dear life and getting Ty AWAY from that dog.

His dad took the leash and literally pulled Ty away.  I tried giving Ty a treat but it was like I was invisible.  That’s when I realized that this had nothing to do with “training” or Ty not listening or being “obedient.”  Something much more was going on.  

A reaction is the behavior that you see.  But what is actually going on is an emotional response as a result of what happens in the brain.  The limbic system, the amygdala in particular, triggers the fight/flight/freeze response.  This heightened emotional state that the dog is in can cause increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increase of cortisol and epinephrine.  

To truly treat reactivity, you must address and change the dog’s emotional response.

And that leads to my next lesson learned…

#2 – Treating reactivity is not training.

Dog training is what I did at the store when I first started in the field.  I taught group classes and private lessons.  We covered the basics and good manners. I had a few repeat clients that just loved coming to classes so I got to teach some fun tricks every once and awhile too.  The most difficult thing I had to work with was “teenage dogs” (5 months – 24 months, depending on breed) that seemed to have forgotten all previous training and were now driving their guardians a little bit nuts.

A dog training session might be teaching your dog behaviors like sit, touch, stay, or rollover.  While you may use these cues in treating reactivity, training your dog alone is not going to be enough to treat the reactive behavior.   

You must also be doing desensitization and counterconditioning.  Treating reactivity is behavior modification and it requires a more scientific, methodical, and systematic approach.  Recording and analyzing data become important.  

#3 – Reactivity stirs up big emotions for the guardians, too.

I cannot think of one single client that came into the store that was really struggling with their dog’s behavior.  Sure, there were plenty of annoyed or frustrated dog guardians (see previously mentioned teenage dogs).  But for the most part, having a dog was close to what they expected and their issues did not really impact their daily lives or well-being.

Guardians of reactivity dogs, on the other hand, often tell me they are exhausted by their dog’s behavior.  They feel ashamed.  They feel isolated.  They feel misunderstood, often by family and friends (I could write a whole post about societal expectations for dogs based on inaccurate, out-of-date info).  

Many guardians of reactive dogs have gotten emotional in my presence.  They always apologize, but it is not necessary.  Because what they feel is real. It is valid. 

They got this dog and expected this wonderful, loving relationship. But then, after living with the dog for some time, they learn their dog has some very real, very concerning behavior issues.

They can’t take their dog for a walk.  They can’t have people over to their home anymore.  They can’t take their dog places like they hoped.  

Reactivity impacts their lives almost if not daily.  However, we also need to remember my next lesson learned…

#4 – Reactivity is NOT the dog’s whole personality.  

One of my favorite questions to ask potential and new clients is “tell me about your dog’s personality.”  They almost never mention their dog’s behavior problems.  But rather, they often describe all the cool things about their dog.  How they greet them with a full body wiggle after a long day at work, or the silly way they sleep with their legs in the air, or the amazing agility and tricks they can do.  

Rosie, my own dog, is leash reactive and a frustrated greeter when it comes to people.  I feel bad when people see this side of her.  Because the remaining 99% of the time, she’s fun, goofy, smart, curious, cuddly, and sweet.  She loves learning new things and really enjoys a good bully stick.  She sleeps on my feet as I type this blog post.

I encourage you to do this too. Remember all the cool things about your dog. Maybe even write them down to read on the more challenging days. Your dog is so much more than their behavior problems. 

#5 – Body language is so powerful. 

Canine body language is SO fascinating to me, but it wasn’t always like that.  I remember my first dog training mentor educating me and the other mentees about canine body language.  It was discussed in the context of “puppy playtime,” a 30-minute session twice a week where puppies under 5 months old who were up-to-date on vaccinations could come and play with other puppies.  

A trainer (myself or the other trainer at the store) would supervise.  We were to look out for play that got too rough and separate when needed.  It wasn’t too hard to spot when things were ramping up a bit too much.

But to get really good at reading dog body language takes practice.  Three tips: 

1. Definitely record training sessions and interactions with your dog and re-watch them. This is invaluable to becoming a better dog communicator.

2. Context is important.  Look for behavior that is repeated in similar contexts. For example, if your dog trembles and their head is on a swivel, scanning all around as soon as they go outside. If this is normal behavior, your dog could be overwhelmed and fearful. But if the behavior isn’t always occurring, it could be something in the environment, like wind or changes in barometric pressure, that has your dog on edge.

3. Learn your dog’s more subtle signs of stress.  Sure, most guardians know what a reaction looks like for their dog.  But what does it look like when your dog is only mildly stressed?  What behaviors does your dog display before a reaction occurs? What about after a reaction, how does your dog calm themselves?

A warning about learning your dog’s more subtle body language – you can’t unsee it!  I had a habit of approaching Tres, my mini-Schnauzer mix, head on to give him kisses and face scratches. But then I noticed he would turn his head away and lick his nose as I walked toward him – even if I was bringing him a piece of yummy food for him.  The act of me walking directly to him making eye contact was a bit much for him.   So now, I approach in an arc and avoid eye contact.  It’s much less pressure on him.

What about you? What lessons have your reactive dog taught you? Tell me in the comments!

2 responses to “Lessons Learned from Reactive Dogs”

  1. Michelle Rundio Avatar
    Michelle Rundio

    well firstly, this is one of the best things that I* have ever read. You bring so much love, value, and knowledge to those of us in this space. Beau has taught me that needing something DIFFERENT than what we expect, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. He also reminds me that I would never let someone touch my face our first meeting…so…why should he? 😉 Love you friend. This is amazing work.


    1. Thank you so much, my friend! I love that…needing something different than expected does not mean it is wrong. Beautifully said!


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