I field a lot of calls for reactive dogs; one of my favorite issues to work on. I really love to watch dogs relax, build confidence, and gain more public access as their reactive behavior subsides. Very often, a reactive dog’s life gets smaller and smaller, depending on what is causing the reactivity, and how long it’s been rehearsing the behavior.
It’s a real source of frustration and embarrassment for guardians, many of whom have tried a variety of remedies before, with little success. No one wants to walk a dog that looks like Cujo at the end of the leash. For some folks, just hanging on to the leash takes great effort.
Since Covid, I have seen an increase in reactivity cases, in part because we all holed up, got dogs, and then avoided our neighbors and society for 2 years. While there are number of reasons dogs become reactive, fear and anxiety are at the top of the list. Your dog could be an obnoxious adolescent struggling with crazy hormones, a frustrated greeter, or a breed with a genetic predisposition for it. Regardless of the reason, it is addressed through positive reinforcement, and specific behavior protocols. This is not the place to use punishment as the risk of fallout is high.
If your dog has a suddenly become reactive, and you cannot identify any potential triggers, please check with your veterinarian as illness and injury can account for new behavioral issues. New triggers can be virtually anything from new neighbors moving in, a high-pitched noise in your neighborhood, a specific dog that walks by your house every day, or being startled while out on a walk, etc. What seems mild to you, may be a big deal to your dog.
While it is not difficult to work with your reactive dog, it does take loads of consistency. In many cases of reactivity, guardians are so frustrated with their dog that they lose the motivation to work on reactivity. I get it, I have had my own, and worked with many reactive dogs. It can be maddening when you are just trying to get a daily walk and some exercise in.
This much I do know, fear free, positive reinforcement protocols work. You may have to be consistent for longer than you anticipated, and/or your dog may need a medication evaluation, especially if fear and anxiety are at the core of your dog’s reactivity, but at the very least, you can make both you and your dog’s lives significantly better.