What is reactivity?

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.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

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?

71 responses to “What is reactivity?

  1. My 11-12 week old pup has had a few times of going mad crying like she is hurt and scared. Once at my dad when he came on and another to my nephew when was going to sat goodbye after being with her all evening.
    The only thing I can think is the connection with coats they had on maybe but wasn’t like it with my niece or sister. And never done this b4 my dad a few days ago.
    It’s scarey and upset my nephew also us as it’s almost like she is being killed. :( worrying

  2. I have an 11 yr. old mini Australian shepherd that goes crazy when out walking when she sees another dog and even sometimes when she sees people. she barks and lunges and that starts our sheltie barking which just makes it worse. We used to have a big fenced yard but have moved into an apartment where there is alot of other dogs. It seems to be getting worse the longer we live here. Help!

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  4. Natasha Marshall

    I have a 2 and a half year old reactive sheep dog mix who I adopted about a year ago. She is reactive to men and sometimes other dogs. When a male friend comes round our house we have to make sure that she enters the room after the visitor, otherwise she reacts to the sight of the ‘scary man’ walking into the room. I then put her in her crate and she settles down, but she will react if she hears the man walking around the room, especially if they go upstairs to the loo. She has unfortunately nipped a few times (always men) at the beginning, which was always our fault because there wasn’t enough control and she was cornered. She is usually okay on walks with strangers but every so often she will react to a particular man walking towards us on the pavement or across the park. They are usually manly men wearing big jackets and walking slowly. We have noticed that she seems to sometimes confuse aggression with excitement. With other dogs she plays very boisterously. She lip curls and stiffens up when she first meets another dog which looks scary, but then she’ll just start playing with them. She is very dominant with other dogs and tends to be a bit of a bully. She hasn’t really harmed another dog, she mainly just tells them off by growling or snapping but then sometimes even after this she will start playing with the dog.

    It’s really hard living with a dog like this, I’m only 25 and still sorting out my career but it is rewarding to see how far she has come already. But unfortunately I think I will always have to carefully manage her and keep her on a lead. I do sometimes wonder whether she might have an underlying illness that’s causing the aggression, because generally she is a very placid and laid back dog. Although I don’t know her history and she showed signs of aggression from the beginning, I can’t help but feel that the aggression is out of character for her and that her natural instinct should be flight rather than fight.

    Any suggestions welcome! I have worked with a behaviourist but no luck.

  5. Our 1 your old pit is now reacting in fear to people outside of his home and the local dog park. He is aggressively reacting. Running or backing away in fear . Growling. Nipping. He was so friendly as a puppy !?

    • RACHEL P GUMINA

      I have found that the dog park is too overwhelming for many dogs. A young pit is full of so much energy and sometimes too much. Other dogs are not always ready for that. Try to make his world s little smaller and avoid the dog park. I can guess that he had gotten into some fights and he is genuinely scared. This is so common for this age. Also I can’t tell you how many times people say their dogs used to be so friendly and then out of the blue they start to become aggressive. Please ask a trainer to help you work this out before it gets worse. The important thing to realize is this did not happen over night. It’s been happening slowly and a professional can help you recognize the body language and other signals to help your dog stay secure and calm. Keep playing with and socializing with dogs your dog knows and feels comfortable with.

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  7. My rescue dog from Puerto Rico loves going to the dog park and plays very rough with dogs he knows. But if dogs hes never met try to join in when hes playing intensely with a friend, he lunges growls and grabs at their necks. Hes very vocal when playing as it is and has bore inhibition but when he does this he looks like a maniac and the other owners get scared. But as soon as hes not playing with his friend he’ll be friendly and calm with the new dog. Is he being reactive and what can I do to prevent it? I dont think hes trying to fight, I think hes just warning them off but it looks scary.

  8. We just adopted a cutie rat terrier mix girl – About 6 years old we are told. Every time she sees another dog she barks, lunges and tries to reach them – the whole time her tail is wagging – we don’t know if this is aggressive I wanna eat them stuff or I wanna get to know them behavior…. We do have another dog and currently they are being kept apart of course…. She does this same behavior with our first dog but seems to be getting much better.

  9. My 11 year old was reactive to dogs, especially those larger than him, when I started training with him. He was 2 years old then.

    When I brought him home at 5 weeks old, my female scared him big time and I think that was a major factor in the development of his fear reactivity.

    For him, redirecting his attention to me when he would see a dog and then rewarding him with a treat for him focusing on me.

    We have gotten him to the point that he has been able to get 12 AKC Obedience, Rally, Trick and CGC titles. He is also a registered therapy dog.

    My almost 2 year old started becoming reactive at about 10 months old. He reacts to dogs and people when he gets over excited.

    For him, rewarding him when he would see another dog or person really did no good because he already thought the other dogs or people were pretty awesome to begin with. We really didn’t need him to think of them as any more fun.

    So for him, I taught a really solid “leave it” command and then worked a lot on a “with me” cue. Then, when he knew that really, really well, I started using it around his triggers. So every time he saw a dog, I would cue a “with me”. So eventually, him seeing another dog became a cue for the “with me”.

    We are still working to get his reactivity under control, but he is getting much better.

  10. My bull mastiff x boxer became reactive after getting into a fight with my daughter’s dog we were babysitting. One girl had recently come off heat the other was close to going on. There was a small scrap of old overlooked bone close by. Previous to the altercation they had been great friends. This happened almost 4yrs ago and I have had to keep.her away from other dogs as she immediately reacts as soon as she sees another dog!☹️ I have considered having her sterilize d but at this point in time I can’t afford to.

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