having a reactive dog

So I recently discovered through TikTok that Joplin is considered a reactive dog. It sounds a lot scarier than it actually is, it just means that he has a tendency to overreact to certain triggers. I had a suspicion of this as Joplin often barks at other dogs on leash, animals outside the window and is just constantly on high alert when we take him out. It was honestly getting frustrating because normal leash training didn’t seem to be working for him. But I’ve been doing some research and I have learned so much! I really want him to feel understood and comfortable and safe so I thought I would compile what I learned here just in case anyone has a dog with similar traits and they are curious as to what they can do. Obviously, I am in no way a professional and you have to do what’s best for you and your puppy but here’s somethings I have learned.

Behavior: Joplin is a great dog, he is a basset hound lab mix with lots of energy and so much love. Some of his reactive triggers are men, other dogs, and large groups of people. When he is stimulated in a way he doesn’t like his hair goes up, his muscles tense and he becomes unresponsive to his call-back words and treats. He pulls hard on the leash and barks very loudly at whatever is bothering him. It’s not necessarily an angry bark, but it’s loud and often frightening to people who don’t know him. This behavior used to anger me but I came to learn that reactive dogs act that way mostly out of fear and heightened stress. Being on his leash makes him feel trapped so he feels his only way to escape the situation is to act aggressively. He will bark at the threat until either it or himself or out of range. Here is a list of some other signs of heightened anxiety

  • yawning when not tired
  • lip licking
  • sudden scratching
  • sniffing
  • panting
  • tail tucked under body
  • intense eye contact
  • growling
  • showing teeth
  • tense body

Management: There is a difference between training and management. Training is aimed at changing a dogs behavior in the long run. In regards to your reactive pup, that means counterconditioning and desensitization. Management is when you set up a dogs environment in a way that makes good behavior more likely. For example, if your dog chews on shoes you put the shoes away. That doesn’t teach the dog not to do it, but it does keep the shoes from being damaged and does stop the behavior. Management is important because it can help to keep your dog as happy and comfortable as possible which goes hand in hand with training. Some management techniques I have implemented for Joplin are scheduling his potty trips and walks during times I know there isn’t a lot of foot traffic. He can’t get reactive on leash if there’s nothing to react to.

Training: Training is a long process and it can often be awhile before you see results in behavior modifications. But consistency is key! Dog-to-dog interactions are a great way to help socialize and help your dog get more comfortable. Doggy play dates and dog parks are a great way to get regular exposure to your dog. It is important to make sure this exposure is supervised and controlled as you don’t want to do anything to elevate your dogs anxiety or go over his threshold. A type of training that was super interesting to me was long-leash training. I was taught that it was important to keep your dog close and I always assumed the proper correction on leash was a swift yank and then changing the direction. However, I learned that reactive dogs find that kind of correction more anxiety inducing and stressful. Keeping a reactive dog on a short leash can increase their stress levels because they aren’t able to use body language in the way they usually would. I really like the way Spirit Dog Training summarized it.

As we sense a potential trigger approach, we tend to wrap the leash around our wrist or hold it high up in the air, further restricting our dog’s movement and making him feel like there is only one way out of the situation: outright attack.

If you are at a distance to a trigger at which your pup is already lunging and going crazy, you are too close in any way – long line or not. Ideally, you want to always keep your dog at a distance at which he is under his threshold – meaning not stressed enough to “go wild” and not be able to listen to you or take treats anymore.

So since you want to keep a healthy distance in any case, while you are at this distance your dog might really benefit from being at a long leash that allows him to sniff and move his body naturally without restrictions.

Some other forms of training that I learned about included chewing therapy, sniff walks, mental exercises and routine building. Joplin loves to chew so I try to keep bones and chewable treats in the house for him. Chewing helps to lower anxiety and is a great way to mentally stimulate your pup. Sniff walks are also super fun. Sniffing allows your pet to feel more informed and more comfortable about his environment. Dogs take in a lot of information through their nose so giving the the opportunity to intensely explore is great for them. Take your time and be patient, I like to put on a podcast or a good playlist and just walk to really let him get in some good sniffs. Routine building was actually really interesting to learn about. Reactivity often occurs when your dog is feeling uncertain. Something that we can do as pet owners is try to make sure that even if they are in a new place or situation that always have something familiar. A routine trick is a great way to build this routine. For Joplin he is really good at sitting pretty. (sitting on his back legs with his front paws raised in the air) I have started to have him sit pretty when we are on walks and he loves to do his tricks outside. Finding a trick that your dog enjoys and can do well is great way to build that routine.

I love my animals and I love doing reasearch to enrich their life and find out ways that I can be a better pet mom. I hope this information was helpful to someone else out there! I’ll put all the links down below too, so you can do your own reading and research.

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