Everything You Need to Know About Reactive Dogs (But Didn’t Know to Ask)

updated Mar 16, 2021
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cute small dog standing on two legs and looking away by the window searching or waiting for his owner. Pets indoors

Dogs can be a wonderful and loving addition to any family, but just like any animal (or human!), some dogs also struggle with behavioral issues. Maybe your dog experiences severe separation anxiety or barks whenever they see a car go by. Or worse, your dog has aggressive tendencies you just cannot understand — whether that’s lunging at dogs passing by or baring their teeth at strangers if they get too close.

If so, you likely have what’s called a reactive dog — and you’re definitely not alone. Understanding where all these issues stem from and managing them can be confusing, especially if you’re figuring it out alone. 

According to Paul Owens, a dog trainer of 45-plus years, people thinking about adopting a dog should strongly consider the possibility that their dog might wind up being reactive. “One of the things that I tell my clients all the time is just because you’ve had a dog that was the greatest dog in the world doesn’t mean this one’s going to be perfect, too,” he tells Apartment Therapy. He also recommends remembering that adopting a dog is a long-haul investment. “I had a client one that who was having all these problems with his dog and said, ‘I didn’t get a dog to ask for me to change my life,’ and I said, ‘Well, you shouldn’t have gotten a dog because it changes everything in your life.'”

Here’s what you need to know about reactive dogs and establishing better and healthier behaviors for both you and your dog. No matter what, you should prioritize your safety, and the safety of your family first — you can always contact your local humane society if you’re unsure about what to do.

What is a reactive dog?

“The way I put it is that there’s a difference between an excited dog, which is a normal reaction to a particular stimulus like another dog or joggers… and then there’s a reactive dog, which is an abnormal response,” Owens tells Apartment Therapy. “Not all excited dogs are reactive, not all reactive dogs are aggressive, but all aggressive dogs are reactive,” he adds. 

Lauren Novack, a dog trainer and behavior consultant, says that “reactive dogs are typically aggressive when on a leash, although other circumstances apply.” She adds that “a dog can be reactive to different stimuli, in different situations, and for a wide variety of reasons,” and reactions to different stimuli tend to be contextual. 

“A dog may only bark at skateboarders because they’re scared and barking makes the skateboarder go away,” she notes. 

According to Owens, such behavior cements a bad cycle of habits: A dog will think they scared the person away, “so then that behavior becomes cemented and a bad habit, so to speak,” he says. The best way to combat those bad behaviors is by introducing new behaviors and minimizing situations that may be triggering for your dog.

How common are reactive dogs? Why don’t more people talk about their experiences?

You can take a quick scan through the r/reactivedogs subreddit for proof that many people are struggling with undoing their dog’s learned behaviors. Community members regularly discuss their dogs’ issues, and weigh the pros and cons of harnesses, certain leashes, and muzzles; others use the space to vent about not being able to take their dog to the park for liability concerns.

Not many owners discuss their dog’s issues offline out of fear of judgment from loved ones, and possible legal repercussions due to speaking openly about stressful scenarios. This often unspoken problem furthers ignorance about the variety of dogs’ temperaments and behaviors. Owners of reactive dogs think their dog reflects poorly on them, which leads many to avoid seeking help (while others cannot afford to do so). 

What kind of toll can having a reactive dog take on humans?

According to Owens, owning a dog with behavioral problems, especially an aggressive one, is a serious point of concern and a liability. “You don’t want the dog to hurt anyone, but you certainly don’t want to get sued either, and you don’t want the dog to lose their life,” he explains.

He says people who own reactive dogs often experience “trigger stacking,” in which you’re worried about every way your dog may cause problems, like barking at strangers and tearing up the house and injuring someone else. It’s stress on stress on stress, “so it affects how you act with different people, it affects the quality of your work,” he says. “The more stressed we get, that feeds onto our dogs because they see you’re acting differently and you’re talking differently and you’re breathing differently, that stresses out the dog.” Your stress stresses out the dog, which stresses you out more. 

There’s also the matter of fearing how other people might judge your dog, given the liability they might pose. It can also be heartbreaking to give a dog up to a shelter, given doing so can create even more trauma as they try to navigate a new life in a kennel, and may result in their being put down in the long term. 

How can you train a dog to stop being so reactive?

“The first step is to do your best to stop putting your pup in situations that cause them to bark and lunge,” Novack says. Avoiding stressful situations is only one part of the puzzle, and it may not be possible in every scenario, so it’s also worth seeking help and practicing forms of enrichment.

Novack recommends owners change the time or route of walks, forgo walks outside of training sessions, and engage in more play sessions and nosework sessions for enrichment. She also recommends teaching the dog “tricks” that will help the dog disengage when encountering a trigger on a walk, such as how to switch sides and heel, or turn around and jog away from the trigger with if the owner says a special word.

You can also substitute negative behaviors with positive ones through distraction: If your dog tries to bark at strangers through the window, call them away and give them what Owens calls a “$10,000 treat” — a slice of wet meat like chicken or pork, which should incentivize your dog to listen to you every single time — and grab a toy to play with afterward.

Owens says the three steps in changing your dog’s behavior are prevention and management, counterconditioning, and substitution. This kind of work can take anywhere from two to 12 months, as that’s how long it takes for a dog to learn a new behavior. After that time period, you should be able to substitute negative reactions with positive thoughts.

It’s also crucial to set firm boundaries with people, many of whom might brush off warnings because they think “dogs love them.” In such a scenario, Owens recommends for the owner to block that person who says “No, all dogs love me,” with your body and distance yourself from them as much as possible. 

Owens also advises anyone who encounters dogs to always stay at least six feet away “because you do not know whether that dog is safe or not.”

Remember: You cannot improve your dog’s health alone

While Owens notes a support group or a subreddit like r/reactivedogs can be a helpful stress reliever, it’s no replacement for a professional dog trainer or behaviorist. 

“I always tell people to go see a professional dog trainer who knows about this stuff because the trainer will say ‘I understand what you’re going through,’ and will help solve your problem,” he says, adding that listening to a professional’s insight and game plan can also help an owner to relax, and start on the path to changing both you and your dog’s lives for the better. 

Editor’s note (3.16.2021): This story has been updated to rectify a misattribution to Lauren Novack. Apartment Therapy regrets the error.