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  • Writer's pictureHanna Juel

Your Reactive Dog is Still a Good Boy

Many see reactive dogs as a terrible, scary thing, but is it really as bad as we make it out to be? Reactivity, in short, simply means when your dog reacts to another dog, person, or environmental stimulation. Something has caused your dog a form of stress to make them growl, bark or even lunge.

But that does not make your dog a bad dog, they are still good dogs!

What Can Cause a Reaction?

Reactivity can come from many things, uncertainty in their environment, a lack of trust in the handler, over excitement, frustration, or even just from being startled from something unexpected.

Have you ever been startled? How did you handle the situation? I remember watching this video of a man dressed as a scarecrow and as people would pass by he would scare them, for the most part people would jump and scream a little before continuing on. Continuing on and after laughing at the people getting startled, I watched another man walk by and when the scarecrow jumped at him, this time not only did the man jump, but he punched the scarecrow. He wasn’t at fault, he was just reacting to something that startled him.

That same thing can happen in dogs as well. Here is a scenario where two dogs were walking down the street and upon turning a corner accidentally went nose to nose with one another, at that moment both were caught off guard. They might both normally be very friendly dogs, but because they were startled they just did whatever they felt was right in that moment. Maybe it’s as simple as one or both just bark and move away and continue their walk. However, maybe one gets overly excited and tries to jump on the other dog catching it off guard and causing the dog to nip at it. Now there is a conflict between both dogs. That doesn’t immediately label the nippy dog as aggressive, they just reacted to the situation they were given.

Living With a Fear Reactive Dog

Let me start off by saying I have a fear reactive dog and I am a dog trainer. Momo is her name and she is the best dog ever, and even with all the training I have put into her she is still unsure of strangers at times and that is OK!

Your dog is always communicating to you, are you listening? It is very important to observe your dog and learn how they interact, react and communicate with their surrounding environments and stimulations. Once you know what they enjoy and what they are nervous about it makes living with them that much easier and fun!

Reacting is a natural part of this world, it's how we survive and learn, and when we discover that something works we tend to stick to it. So for a fearful dog, when they get pushed to the point of reacting (ex: growling, barking, lunging, nipping) and the behavior they presented works by making whatever it is they were reacting at go away, they have just learned that what they did stops the uncomfortable pressure and you are likely going to see the behavior occur a lot more frequently.

Don’t Compare Dogs

It’s not fair to you or your dog to look at others and wish your dog was more like theirs or think back onto your past dogs, that’ll only ever set false expectations and a bad relationship between you and your dog.

Growing up I always had dogs and they were all extremely friendly towards other people and dogs. They were great family pets, but even now I couldn’t have asked for a better dog! Even though Momo is fearful, I wouldn’t trade her for the world, and that is because she is perfect in her own way. I’m not going to lie, it took time, we struggled for a long time with each other trying to figure out how to get her to be more comfortable with this big scary world. I admit to getting frustrated in the beginning, but it was because I didn’t know what to do. I had never dealt with reactivity before, but I didn’t let her fear stop me from trying to do what was right by her. But now, through trial and error, she is a dog that can walk in a heavy crowd of people and stay calm, knowing that I won’t let anything bad happen to her. She’s not perfect, but honestly who is?

You Can’t Control Everything

Life happens, things go wrong and sometimes timing just isn’t right in some situations. You can’t control what happens in your environment, you can’t control your annoying neighbor that is always letting their dog off leash in their front yard because their dog is “very friendly and just wants to say hello”. When you have a reactive dog you live in a small world at times. You learn what times you can walk your dog and what side of the road to walk on, you go to the same places because you know they’re ‘safer’ and a bit more ‘predictable’ and you do your best to control your canine companions environment at all times so you and your dog stay calm, but sometimes life happens.

Although you are trying your best to keep your dog comfortable and from becoming stressed, sometimes you can’t prevent the unpredictable from happening. But that's ok and don’t blame yourself. We can’t control everything, and sometimes other people are just irresponsible or honestly unaware. When your dog reacts to something you didn’t plan for, the most important thing is to try not to get too discouraged or over react to their reaction. It’s tough I know, but bad stuff is going to happen no matter how much you plan ahead. Nothing is perfect.

For me and my dog, Momo, what helps the most is knowing when she is feeling uncomfortable in a situation and being able to step in and help. By showing her that I will always be there to advocate for her, it has truly helped in so many ways to build up her trust in me and build our bond together. But even now, there are times where she will let out a bark at strangers when I’m not paying enough attention. In those instances I stay calm, evaluate the situation and act accordingly. By having a game plan, it will help set you up for success in those moments you cannot control.

Do you have a game plan? If not and if you need help, I recommend seeking out your local trainer for help!

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