5 Most Common Mistakes People Make With Reactive Dogs.
Updated: Oct 8
Before we dive into the 5 most common mistakes let’s discuss what a reactive dog is. ‘Reactive’ is a term commonly used to describe a variety of dog behaviors. For our purposes here let me tell you what we consider a reactive dog to be. Oftentimes dogs can be fearful, uncomfortable, and insecure about things. Those things can be other dogs, people, bicycles, balloons, flags etc. Some dogs can be unsettled by something and brush it off. Others feel so uncomfortable that it pushes them into a fight or flight mode. Once in that mode a reactive dog may bark, lunge, growl, snarl, or even snap when presented with something that makes them uncomfortable. It’s important to understand the reason why dogs display this behavior.
It’s not to start a fight.
It’s not because they're trying to be controlling.
It’s not because they're mean and it’s not even because they’re stubborn.
It’s to seek distance between themselves and the scary thing. Yup, that’s it. It works doesn’t it? Your dog lunges and screams like a banshee at your neighbor, your neighbor leaves. “Phew! Safe this time.” Now that we know the frame of mind your reactive dog may be in when experiencing this behavior, let’s chat about ways people most commonly make mistakes when trying to help them.
Asking for too much.
I want you to think baby steps. The smallest possible goal you could see your dog doing, and break that down into 4 more steps, this is where you start. For example, if your dog lunges and barks at other dogs while on a walk, don't ask them to sit when they are 5 feet from another dog. That's like an ivy league class when you’re in kindergarten! Instead, try seeing if your dog will even take food from 50 feet away.
A key point in successful dog training is the ability to break goals down into smaller steps. Over time our dog’s will build on each success and they will work their way closer and closer to your goals.
Paying minimum wage for work that deserves overtime!
Dogs don't work for free. They aren't selfless beings who only aim to please us. They have their own motivations and for many dogs those motivations involve food. Now treats aren't a one-size-fits-all kind of standard. Your dog gets to decide what motivates a particular behavior at any given time. Most of the time I am motivated by chocolate but Jake is rarely motivated by anything that isn't a fried salty potato. Dogs are individuals and each one of them will have a varying pay scale.
In addition to that we also need to remember that the work we are asking of them is hard. Our dogs are frightened, stressed, and uneasy in the face of their triggers. They cannot just eat kibble, or something that is considered a ‘minimum wage’ type of treat. They need something that is impossible to refuse, something delicious!
Focusing on the wrong behaviors.
So many of our clients have started their reactive dog journey by teaching attention first. And that's great! However, if you only ever teach your dog to ignore their fears, instead of facing them, you're going to create a dog that is even more anxious because they are still feeling all their emotions. By teaching a dog to ignore something that stresses them out, you aren't actually changing anything. Let me give you an example.
I am terrified of spiders. There. I said it. And as someone living in a basement apartment of an old farm house you can bet that I see more than one spider a day of varying degrees of horror. If I simply ignored those spiders running across my floor, do you think my fear of them will improve? The spider isn't going anywhere, it’s still in my home. Ignoring it doesn’t change the fact that I still get the creeps knowing that it is there and it makes me want to burn the house down!
Your dog feels the same. Teaching them to only look at you can actually increase their fear and frustration. It’s not a bad foundation behavior to start with but it cannot be your end all be all. Instead, focus on changing behavior, not inhibiting it. Focus on using techniques that involve counter conditioning and desensitization such as the ‘look at that game’ where we give our dogs treats just for looking at their trigger. We recommend reaching out to your local certified professional dog trainer for guidance with this one.
Jumping right into the work, skipping foundations.
Remember what we discussed about breaking down your goals? Well, you may also need to adjust them. Getting a reactive dog to stop being reactive is the obvious goal. There are also many other behaviors that will help your dog reach that ultimate goal. If your dog is leash reactive then working on leash manners first, not around their triggers, will go a long way toward your success together. If your dog is reactive out your window, teaching them to hang out someplace other than the window first, will help improve their behavior as well. A huge part of our approach for working with reactive dogs is teaching them that fleeing is a solid option. Our dogs do not need to feel like they have to defend their space, we’ll do that for them. Teaching them to turn around and walk away from a trigger makes for one of the most important foundational skills. Not every moment will be a great training opportunity and that’s okay!
We can all agree that reactive behaviors are undesired, no one wants their dog to bark, lunge, and embarrass them. There’s an important distinction to be made though. Like we discussed earlier, reactive dogs are behaving this way to seek distance, not to do harm. They're reacting because they are frustrated or fearful, they feel unsafe. It’s perhaps the most prevalent mistake we see people making, to use aversive methods to solve this type of behavior. Any behavior that stems from fear will only be made worse though training tools that cause pain, increase frustration, and do not empower the dog. There have been many studies done on this very topic so I will reference one here for anyone interested. This particular study noted that dogs displaying aggressive type behaviors that were treated with aversive techniques actually escalated the dogs aggression posing a significant risk to the family and those around them. No one wants that! We all love our dogs and want what’s best for them. Focus on positive reward based training techniques and only take advice from certified professional dog trainers and behavior consultants.
The bottom line is we want to help our dogs to succeed! Set your goals low to begin with, find some small wins with positive training and high value treats. This will propel you forward through the foundation work and before you know it you’ll start to see some big results!