My pet is a jerk! Reactive Dog edition
Owning a reactive dog can be challenging, especially when it comes to managing your reactive dog in public. While it can be tempting to refer to reactive behaviours as your dog being a ‘jerk’, reactivity is more complex.
Think for a moment about all of the people in your life. Some of them may be social butterflies, able to get along with just about anyone while others may be more selective in their friendships. Just like humans, dogs have individual preferences when it comes to interacting with other canines. These preferences are shaped by the dog’s breed, early life experiences, socialization and living conditions. Some dogs might thrive at the dog park, eager to meet any fellow canine while other dogs may prefer the company of humans and wish to avoid other dogs altogether. Unfortunately, we often forget these individual differences in canine personalities and expect that all dogs should get along at all times.
Reactivity is a complex behaviour and requires more information than we can provide in a blog post, but below we are including some tips on reactivity in dogs. If you are concerned about your dog’s reactivity, please call our FREE behaviour helpline to talk about what training options are available for your dog.
Set them up for success by staying under threshold!
When a dog with a shorter fuse is put into situations beyond what they are able to handle, behaviours like reactivity can start to appear. Reactive behaviours happen when a dog gets “over their threshold”. These behaviours can also happen in humans – if you have ever snapped at someone or said something you didn’t mean during a stressful situation you have shown reactivity. Keeping a dog under their threshold means avoiding the situations your dog finds most stressful. Walking your dog in less populated areas, providing your dog with a safe space away from the crowds when company comes over and putting a sign up asking people not to ring the doorbell are all examples of ways you can set your dog’s environment up for success.
Don’t correct for growling.
It can be frightening or even embarrassing when your dog growls, but growling is an important form of communication! A growl is a signal that dogs use to alert others that they are uncomfortable with a given situation. While it can be tempting to correct a growl, stopping the sound does not help the root of the problem. The dog is still very uncomfortable but now does not have an effective way to express their distress. As the dog becomes more distressed they may escalate their reactive behaviours or even resort to biting. If your dog growls, remove them from the situation into a safe space where they can feel calm again. Remember: This is not to punish your dog so keep your interactions positive when you move to the new space. Reward your dog for showing signs of calm behaviours. When it comes to growling, the goal is to correct the environment or situation that led to the growl, not the noise.
Pay attention to body language!
While growling is important, the best case scenario is one where the dog does not feel the need to growl. Learning and paying close attention to your dog’s body language will allow you to remove your dog from a situation at the first sign of stress. Facial tension, yawning, lip licking, leaning away and freezing are all signs of stress in canines. Canine body language is complex, but we have some great resources on our website to get you started!
Stay out of dog parks.
One of the common statements our behaviour team hears from owners of reactive dogs is a concern that their dogs are missing out on fun at the dog park. Rest assured though, for a reactive dog a crowded dog park is not much fun. Alternatives to public dog parks your reactive dog might prefer include hiking (on a less busy trail), spending time in a private fenced area (renting time in a private dog park, for instance) or spending time in the back yard with a select few dog friends (if they get along with a few select dogs).
Get help from a professional.
Reactivity occurs on a spectrum, but it can escalate into dangerous situations. If your dog is struggling with reactivity there are many training options that can help to enhance your dog’s coping skills and give you strategies to manage the situations that cause your dog stress. At Calgary Humane Society our skilled behaviour counselors offer both group classes and private consultations for reactivity. If you would like to speak to someone about what training options are best for your pet, call 403-723-6019 for our FREE behaviour helpline.