Rehabilitate Your Reactive Dog

By Darcy Lockman

Rehabilitate Your Reactive Dog

When 27-year-old Jodi Carp of Royal Oak, Mich., moved in with a friend and his German shepherd, she was happy to help out by walking the big boy. Her roommate, however, told her that his dog, Guinness, tended to be overprotective of women walkers. “Just hold his leash tight when men are walking toward you on the street,” her new roommate instructed. No problem, she thought.

Following this directive, Carp pulled the leash as men walked toward them on the sidewalks of her neighborhood and Guinness summarily lunged, barked and pulled with each approach, his behavior ratcheting up a notch if another dog was in the vicinity. Over time, Jodi herself became increasingly tense on these walks and was horrified -- though not altogether surprised -- when Guinness finally went at someone with his teeth, nipping their 82-year-old neighbor’s wrist with his sharp fangs. At this point, Carp decided her dog-walking days were done. She remembers, “I felt awful about the incident, and I didn’t want to risk something even worse happening while I was out with Guinness.”

According to Sandy Case, a certified pet dog trainer and co-owner and training director of Positively Canine in Oklahoma City, Carp and her roommate simply needed some training on how to care for their reactive dog. “They were basically doing everything wrong, and with a little instruction, they could have prevented a lot of their difficulties,” says Case.

What Is a Reactive Dog?
Reactive dogs aren’t hard to spot. Outdoors, such canines will lunge at people or dogs that get too close. They usually also bark loudly, growl forebodingly and may even bite anyone foolish enough to get close. In the home, the reactive dog can appear threatening to visitors as it jumps, barks and stares. Reactive dogs tend to stress out their owners as they try to keep visitors and passersby safe from their intimidating, if loveable, best friend.

Some breeds are more prone to reactivity. Terriers tend to respond excitedly to other dogs, for example, while herding dogs, like shepherds, are innately reactive toward movement, such as joggers. Any dog, though, can become reactive if it feels its safety and security are threatened. “The majority of reactive behavior is fear-based,” explains Case. “If a dog is confident, it doesn’t need to do these things.”

Understanding the Reactive Dog
Human misunderstanding of canine social norms is responsible for a large percentage of reactive behavior. Case says, “Dogs have greeting rituals, and they don’t involve walking up to another dog. For dogs, that isn’t polite. Once we’ve got them on their leash and are dragging them toward another dog to say hello, we’re setting them up for what might be a bad reaction.”

Canine caretakers also fail to identify their dog’s own pre-reactive behaviors. “Dogs are peaceful animals,” says Case. “They don’t want conflict. When they begin to feel tense, such as when they’re around another dog, they engage in self-soothing behaviors like looking away, sniffing and yawning, to let themselves and the other dog know things are okay.”

If these initial calming behaviors fail, the dog may stare or growl. While owners tend to tense up and correct dogs for growling, they should really only take the growl as a signal that it’s time to soothe their pooch. “Growling is communication,” says Case. “Make your dog comfortable rather than punishing it for expressing itself. You can do this by simply staying calm yourself and walking it away from the situation.”

Staying calm yourself is key: Tightening the leash and tensing up is one of the most frequent mistakes made by dog companions like Carp. Explains Case: “Dogs should be confident that we will handle things for them. They react because they feel they’re out there on their own. If they see their person is confident and proactive instead of reactive, they’ll feel a lot better. Its person needs to be a good leader.”

How to Manage a Reactive Dog
If your dog is reactive, Case recommends the following five steps:

1. Buy a harness Any tightening of a leash is restrictive to a dog’s airway, which will only heighten its anxiety. A harness removes the possibility of pressure on the neck, and also helps to rebalance a dog that’s lunging forward.

2. Have a plan Knowing what you will do (e.g., turn and walk away, keeping the dog moving) when your furry friend responds to perceived threats will allow you to remain calm. Part of the plan should involve reminding yourself to relax.

3. Be familiar with the signals When dogs begin to become uncomfortable, they may lick, yawn and sniff. As they get tense, they may exhibit changes in posture, such as becoming more upright, tucking their lower body backward or stiffening up. Staring is usually the last move before a more intense reaction. If you can get your dog out of a situation before the stare, you will nip the problem in the bud.

4. Retrain your dog Walk away from the tense situation to a comfortable distance, keeping the object of the dog’s discomfort in sight. Get your dog to glance at the other dog or person before it gets to the point of staring, and then give it a treat. Soon the dog will begin checking back with you when it sees things that make it tense. 

5. Enlist help If you can’t handle the problem on your own, find a good trainer or behaviorist to work with. “A professional can observe your dog and possibly see a lot more about what it’s doing,” says Case.

With some time, effort and training, you can turn your reactive dog into a companion that any roommate would feel comfortable taking for a stroll around the block.

Darcy Lockman is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Dog Daily. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and Rolling Stone. She lives in Brooklyn with the prettiest pug dog in the five boroughs.

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Posted on October 6, 2009

Heather says: Where can I find a good trainer? Someplace in Pennsylvania or Ohio?

Posted on November 1, 2009

mary cunningham says: Where can I find a trainer that specializes in reactive gog training in the Cincinnati/Dayton area?

Posted on December 3, 2008

Leslie says: Pinch collars are completely unnecessary and the majority of time are fitted incorrectly by untrained individuals and this improper fit can result in serious injury to your dog. Personally, I have a 106lb Malamute and I walk her with a Gentle Leader when I know she will want to pull. I am training her to walk on a buckle collar only, but until her loose-leash walk is polished, I'll choose the gentle leader. I grew up with horses and know that if you can control a large animal by controlling the direction of their head that the same priciple certainly applies to a dog. I have never seen anything more tragically ridiculous that a pinch collar on a pulling dog. Come on people! A malamute is designed to pull the heaviest loads, they are super powerful, and yet if they are taught how to walk with their guardian they will do it reliably and beautifully. By the way, my previous dog was a 130lb White GSD and he also learned to walk without dragging me behind him like luggage and I never needed to put a pinch collar on him. I recommend that the lady that posted the pinch collar story above, seek out a qualified trainer that can teach her dog to ignore distractions on the walk and stay focused on her without the use of compulsion. People that advocate pinch collars ought to wear them around for a few days and have a friend pull on it any time they want to change directions instead of just asking them politely, and see how they feel about that friend and the whole prospect of walking after a few days. I would much rather have a dog that did what I asked them to do because they understood the benefit of doing it, rather than have a dog that only followed my lead because they had no other choice.

Posted on September 22, 2008

Daphne Robert-Hamilton, CPDT says: I don't endorse or agree with Sue D's comment about using corrective techniques on a reactive dog. And so the can of worms open. Yes, there are many approaches to "changing behavior" BUT some of her comments are not supported by any credible sources but more myth based. If you have a reactive dog chances are that negative emotions are in play. If you want the "aggressive behaviors" to go away, then you have to learn how to switch your dog's emotional learning. You have to teach your dog how to feel safe and comfortable with current triggers through desensitization and counter-conditioning techniques and not with compulsion, discomfort, pain, coercion. If you seek proper professional help from a certified pet dog trainer, certified applied animal behaviorist or such - people formally educated in learning and behavioral psychology - they would never recommend pinch collars to fix a problem nor corrective technqiues. Recommended books: The Dog Aggression Workbook by James O'Heare Fiesty Fido by Patricia McConnell How To Right A Dog Gone Wrong by Pamerla Dennison I specialize in dog aggresion.

Posted on September 10, 2008

Sue D says: Some good advice, however, some owners may not get the desired results with treats. My gsd ignored them until she was done barking at the other dog. I finally gave in and started using a pinch collar - and learned to use it correctly. It worked beautifully, and very quickly - much better and faster than the treats method. Now we can walk past other dogs with no problem. Dogs correct each other using scruff bites - it makes sense to them, and isn't considered *cruel.* The pinch collar emulates that effect. Your dog won't take offense, s/he will actually be more confident now that s/he knows a real leader is in charge! The pinch collar (properly used) has made leash walks pleasant for my dog and me for the first time.

Posted on August 16, 2008

mary-louise sacks says: your article is right on. my new baby boy, all dressed in black, 4 months old got along with his big sisters right away because of patience and kindness. just as you would treat a new born baby. it works every time. nice to know that there is some one out there(hopefully many)smile--that agree. they are family!! my best ,--mary-louise, new york city

Posted on July 26, 2008

Carol Bauman says: I've found that a great way to deal with a reactive dog is to always have high value treats with you. By that I mean something the dog really, really likes, like pieces of chicken. When the stimuli appears that normally causes your dog to react, you start feeding the treats. Your dog stays focused on you and not on the perceived threat. After a while, when encountering the stimuli the dog looks at you for his chicken. Oh boy, scary people make chicken appear! And, no you don't have to always carry around chicken. Dogs have great memories for the things they like. If you offer the treat just occasionally after your dog is no longer reactive, you're fine.

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