Dealing with anxious or reactive dogs 

A reactive dog can cause both embarrassment to the owner and also danger to their surroundings. Reactive can mean that your dog may start lunging towards whatever they feel threatened by, they may snap, bite, bark or growl. It is important to ensure that your dog is comfortable, calm and happy in public spaces for their own wellbeing and that their behaviour does not cause anxiety to others. 

Reactivity in dogs is often caused by anxiety resulting from trauma. Most reactive dogs will have certain triggers, such as being touched on the head, men’s boots, feeling ‘crowded’ or simply seeing another dog not on the lead. Other forms of reactivity are a sort of hypervigilance and dogs can be set off by too many visual stimuli, through windows for instance, or simply frustration at being on a lead. Some tips to mitigate your dog’s anxious reactivity are below.

Reactivity also comes from a lack of engagement with the handler/owner. If your dog does not find you interesting, that is when they will look at the outside world. When you first buy a puppy, you should be exposing them to a variety of different environments and sounds. This will allow them to become desensitized to that environment, fireworks being a good example.

Keeping focused is key: Always look at what your dog is doing. Keep some loose dog kibble in your pocket for rewards, so you can ensure that good behaviour is encouraged. 

If a dog finds their handler to be the best thing in the world, then they will not be bothered about other people, other dogs or random noises when out in public, as they will only be focused on one thing: You, the handler. 

Remove the source of the stress

Keep your dog shielded from their triggers. Allow them the opportunity to purge the stress from their system and return to a state of peace. 

Be proactive

When walking your dog, always keep your wits about you. Know what is ahead and behind, and act before it is too late. Be engaging with your dog all the way, and do not wait until it has become too late to act.

Understand your dog’s body language signals

Educate yourself on your dog’s modes of physical communication. Observe them while they are relaxed, playing and anxious and become fluent in what they are trying to say.  

Soothe your dog and make them feel safe

Be a source of safety and comfort to your dog. Let them feel heard and speak to them and engage with them constantly as you sense them approaching their trigger threshold. Allow friends to give your dog a bit of tasty dog kibble to get them at ease around them. 

NEVER chance anything

If you are not certain that your dog will be calm about meeting a new person, then wait until you are sure to introduce them. If you are introducing them to new people, don’t let strangers fuss over or pet the dog, until the dog is perfectly calm and is behaving with restraint. It is important your dog understands that no barking and lunging means that they are a good dog, which means they receive fuss and treats. 

Gradually desensitise them to their triggers

Once you have understood what triggers your dog, compile a list of them, with the most severe ones prioritised over the less severe ones. Work through that list, gradually and expose them in a controlled manner to each trigger, soothing and praising, and then positively reinforcing, by offering the dog their favourite treat or dog kibble. Whatever your dog loves the most, combine it with a trigger. Eventually, they will begin to associate the trigger with a positive, and will not be as stressed by it. 

Be empathetic towards your dog

Remember your dog is not choosing to act in this way: they are simply responding to stress hormones and sensory overstimulation. Do not punish your dog for being anxious or reactive, but instead learn their signals and keep them under their trigger threshold, and ensure that they do not associate an already traumatic experience with more trauma, such as being shouted at or hit. This will only cause your dog to shut down and become miserable and aggressive. 

The dog must look to you always

If you teach your dog that they can trust you and to look at you for reassurance, when confronted by a trigger, you will prevent their immediate knee-jerk reactions from kicking in. You should teach your dog to look at you from an early age. The constant engagement will help prevent reactivity. 

We hope this guide is helpful to you. Having a dog that is reactive is challenging, and it is important that owners of these dogs really put in the time and dedication to ensuring they have the best possible quality of life. It can be so rewarding to see dogs growing out of their shells and becoming more open. Always consult a trainer or a vet if you have further concerns.