Practice Makes Perfect: Managing Your Dog’s Reactivity

Last week, we discussed what reactivity is and isn’t. This week, let’s talk about what to do if your dog displays reactive behaviors.

First, remember that practice makes perfect. This old adage applies to behaviors you train your dog to do, but have you ever considered how it applies to unwanted behavior? Simply put, the more your dog engages in any behavior, whether you approve of that behavior or not, the better your dog will get at performing that behavior.

Phil Romans

Photo by Phil Romans

This means that one of the very first things you need to do if your dog is displaying reactive behavior is to figure out how to prevent that behavior from occurring. If you spend 30 minutes a day training your dog (which is a lot more time than most people do!), but your dog spends 8 hours every day barking at people and other dogs walking past your window while you’re at work, consider which behavior your dog is polishing up more. No matter how hard you train, you’re not going to be able to make much progress, because every day your dog undoes all of your hard work.

Preventing your dog from practicing reactive behavior can be as simple as blocking access to certain rooms, having him ride in a covered crate in your car, or walking him at less busy times of day. Sometimes, though, the answer is less clear. At first, it may seem hopeless to manage all of the situations where he tends to be reactive. This is where creativity comes into play.

When Dobby started barking out the window at passers-by, I had a hard time keeping him away from my windows. I rent a small house with a very open floor plan, which meant that I couldn’t just block access to the front of the house. Closing the blinds didn’t work either, since he just pushed them aside. Covering the windows with cardboard or dark construction paper would have solved the problem, but I wasn’t keen on the idea because I like to let lots of natural light into my house. My solution? I covered the windows with waxed paper, which prevented Dobby from looking out but still let all of that wonderful sunlight in. As Dobby’s training progressed, I was slowly able to remove one sheet of waxed paper at a time.

Being creative may mean changing your dog’s exercise routine, toileting him on leash instead of letting him run out into your fenced yard, purchasing some additional management tools like ex-pens, Calming Caps, crates, or a Gentle Leader, or no longer taking him to the dog park. Regardless of what it means for your dog, the more you can prevent him from engaging in unwanted behaviors, the faster your training will go.

Management is the first step in solving reactivity, but management alone is not enough for most dogs. Next week we’ll discuss training for reactive dogs. In the meantime, which management tools and tricks have you found the most helpful for your reactive dog? Please share your tips and stories in the comments section below!

22 responses to “Practice Makes Perfect: Managing Your Dog’s Reactivity

  1. Thanks for the idea of using waxed paper on the windows! I have opaque film in the bedroom, but that was really pricy. Now I need something for the dining room because the neighbor’s cat likes to wander between our houses and you can imagine the terrier frenzy over that!

  2. You’ve given me a great idea for our deck. Loki often sits and watches (aka barks and reacts to) dogs, people, cars, etc. that are passing our house or in our neighbors yards from our deck. Blocking him from our deck isn’t feasible right now. However, I could use something on the railings to block his view. He can’t see anything from our lower yard so, that might be a win-win. Thanks for that wonderful inspiration.

    I have been curious about the Thunder Shirt. Is it really that effective? Is it worth paying for? I hadn’t heard of calming caps until this post. Is that also really worth the money?

    • Midwestern Plant Girl

      My 2 border collies are not reactive, surprisingly, but I made my own thunder shirt for the one with loud noise anxiety. Um, theory is there (swaddling) but it did not work for me. He stops his panting & crying when he gets in the bath tub. So, that’s where I let him go when he is stressed.

      • That’s great that he has found a space where he feels safer and that works out for you.

        I talked to my vet about the shirt and a trainer at the store. They both have seen success with it. I figured it is worth a try. I’m willing to try anything that is humane and positive at this point.

        I’ve heard that DAP works well too. It’s a plug in or a collar that emits calming hormones that mimic when they were nursing. I’ve tried it with a cat with success. If you try it, let me know if it worked for your boy over on my blog.

      • Midwestern Plant Girl

        Hmmm, haven’t heard of DAP, but I’m off to ‘all mighty google’ to find out about it. Otherwise, I’ve tried most anxiety tricks, aside from meds. Even when we go out in our RV, if it storms, he goes to the tub & he’s fine. I’m also off to check out your blog!

      • I hope you like both!

  3. Head collars did wonders for helping GG with his high reactivity. We are continuing to use them along with his favorite treats when we go out for walks, just in case we see another dog, squirrel, bunny, bird, or whatever else gets him all riled up. This has included snowmen and orange cones. He’s been doing great.

  4. Gentle Leader is out of the question for a pug, and I’m guessing a calming cap wouldn’t fit either… from the photos I’ve seen, it looks like a snout is required :) The only time she reacts is when we’re on a walk with a leash. I can’t always predict when I’ll see another dog, so I’m looking forward to reading your post on training!
    Amy Marie

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  8. great posts, all of the ones on reactivity that I’ve read so far! as other people commented, I am very happy with all the good advice and I’ll work hard for both of us but I’m also relieved I’m not the only one – dogding around the neighbourhood trying to avoid stressors it seems that way sometimes ;).

    I’ve been with my rescue chihuahua/pincher mix for two months now and he is the sweetest at home…and then ofcourse the loudest outside! I am sorry to say I’ve been cross with him when he yapyapyapped, and even trainers told me ‘not to let him get away with that’ but it didn’t feel helpful at all, and now I know how to act more constructively!

    I’ll stay posted to all the info here, and I’ll stick with the little tyke with more peace in my heart… thank you!!!

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  11. Sandy Atkinson

    My dog had the waxed paper shredded and off the window in about 10 minutes.

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  16. When desensitizing the dog to stimuli it’s important to have enough distance to decrease the reactivity. When you find a distance where the dog doesn’t react you reward the dog with really high value treats. The dog gets classically conditioned to associate the stimuli with positive things and gets rewarded for not reacting (operational conditioning) simultaneously.

  17. I have a German Shephard mix that’s 3 and I’m just now figuring out that she’s reactive. But we have certainly come a long way. If she gets reactive or worked up, I send her to “her room”, which is the laundry room. She actually likes it because it is her safe space. It is a nice reset for both of us. I like your idea to take notes!!! I’m type A and this is up my ally. So many wonderful helps here. Thank you for your articles!!!

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