As a young dog, Layla would frequently erupt in frenzied barking on walks. The target of her barking varied: other dogs, children, creepy gnome statues in yards, or an unexpected noise could all trigger her noisy reaction. Once she started barking, it was difficult to calm her. She had a hard time focusing and responded reluctantly to redirection. Sometimes I would just have to drag her away, still barking for all she was worth and lunging at the end of her leash.
While it comes in many different forms, reactivity is a common behavior problem that many people encounter at some point in their dogs’ lives. Simply put, reactivity can be defined as an overreaction to external stimuli. Dogs may be reactive to people, dogs, other animals, noises, motion, or any combination of the above. Some dogs are very specifically reactive, only responding to certain things (men with baseball caps; large, black dogs; skateboards) while some seem to react to anything. This overreaction can manifest as hyperexcitability, barking, whining, lunging, mouthing, pacing, panting, difficulty responding to well-known cues, difficulty calming down, hypervigilance, or any combination of the above.
Many of the behaviors that mark reactivity are also normal canine behaviors in certain contexts. The defining factor is whether the dog’s behavior is warranted in that situation or whether the dog is overreacting. It’s normal behavior for a dog to bark once or twice if they are startled by a loud and unusual noise. It’s abnormal for that same dog to bark frantically for ten minutes at a stretch every time the wind causes a tree branch to brush up against the house. It’s normal for your adolescent dog to get a little wiggly and excited when he spies a new dog while out walking. It’s abnormal for him to scream and lunge at the end of his leash every time he sees a new dog.
If you’re not sure whether your dog’s behavior is reactive or not, it’s worthwhile to consult with a professional. Reactivity can be motivated by overexcitement, frustration, anxiety, fear, protectiveness, defensiveness, or neurochemical imbalances. Regardless of its motivation, reactive behavior is treated with similar methods (barring a neurochemical imbalance, which requires medication alongside training). It’s important not to punish your dog for reactivity, as this will only increase your dog’s emotional arousal and ultimately may make the problem worse. Instead, work with your dog to teach him new ways to communicate his excitement, frustration, or anxiety, and help him learn how to control himself in the face of triggers.
Next week we will discuss how to work with most reactive dogs. In the meantime, please share your dog’s story in the comments below. Is your dog reactive? When did this behavior develop, and why do you think it happened? What have you found the most helpful to resolve your dog’s reactivity?