Tame Your Own Inner Reactive Rover
Reactivity in dogs is actually normal. Dogs are animals that can hunt, chase down, and kill large or small game. They will be reactive to moving things. Most dogs were bred to chase something.
The reactivity could be mild or severe depending on the dog and the situation in which he was raised.
I am not talking about dog aggression here at all. That requires a behaviour consultant or specialist. Reactivity can happen without aggression, but it can also turn into it if it is not dealt with.
This article is about the human response to dog reactivity.
By knowing the above facts about dogs, we humans can learn to react better ourselves in the face of our dog’s reactivity and help the dog to learn a different response.
I’ll bet when a dog barks and it surprises you, you feel that adrenaline rush and a desire to run away or “bark back”.
If it is your own dog who is reacting to something there may be a “NO” or “STOP” that wants to come up from inside you. This is a normal reaction.
In the face of a strong reaction from another being, we have often a similar response.
It is easy to react to the dog’s behaviour, because sometimes it is embarassing and happens at the worst possible time, like when visitors come over. Or when you are walking your dog on a beautiful quiet fall day and your dog sees a squirrel or a cat and goes nuts.
When these situations happen there is one thing that you must do to help change the dog’s behaviour.
The most important thing you can do today to help slow and eventually stop your dog’s reactivity is:
stay completely calm and not react to the dog or what the dog is reacting to, yourself.
Yes, I know this can be extremely difficult but it is totally necessary. Let me explain.
The second you pay attention to a reactive dog, you are validating that dog’s reaction (this applies to humans too but we won’t get into that here).
Have you ever seen a cat who, when provoked by another animal will stand completely still. Or small rodents who play dead when picked up by a cat only to wait patiently for a chance to take off when the cat is distracted?
This is what you need to do when dealing with a reactive dog.
You need to control your emotions and actions.
When you react to the things you don’t want, you’ll get more of it. This is especially true with dogs.
Instead of yelling back at the dog or repeatedly choking the dog with the leash and collar to get him to stop, teach yourself a different response to reactivity in your dog.
When your dog starts barking at something, have a habitual response ready that you have practiced so that it is second nature.
To put it bluntly, keep your mouth shut.
This means no yelling, no “commanding” the dog, no speaking at all. Even laughing can be rewarding to dogs. Just stay quiet.
This will be the first part of your habitual response. The second part is to have an action that both you and the dog do. I will have to leave discussion of this until another article.
To teach yourself to be quiet in the face of stress takes work. The way I taught myself was the following:
Practice creating a routine for yourself and your dog.
One: Commit to making a change to help your dog. I struggled with this one at first because it is difficult to do when you can’t see immediate results and are unsure of the potential benefit i.e. will it work?
Two: State to yourself and possibly others in your household or friends that you are working on something important with your dog. Tell them what it is.
Three: Have ready at all times a bag of food rewards that are very appealing to your dog. This is part of your own training ritual that I discussed how to do in another article.
Four: When your dog is doing the behaviour that you don’t want SAY NOTHING to the dog.
You will need to practice doing this.
You will have to remind your self continuously to keep quiet. It has to become a habit, just like making sure your dog is fed every morning and has his water dish filled, dressing yourself or making breakfast.
Again, when your dog becomes reactive to something say nothing to your dog.
This is only the first step, but what I believe to be the most important. If you can’t stay quiet you will simply be rewarding/validating your dog for his action, even if you are yelling at him.
Learning to stay calm can help, but what you first need to do is learn to not speak to your dog when an upsetting behaviour is happening. Once you do this and make it a habit, you will eventually begin to feel more calm.
At this point don’t worry too much about what to do next. We’ll talk more about the dog training part of this in another article.
If you can make “not speaking” a habit with your dog let me know. I’d like to hear about it in the comments.
For more dog training info you can check out my website at alldogsaresmart.com I don’t have a newsletter.