Dog reactivity – what is it?
NBN, Solutions

Dog reactivity – what is it?


All dogs are reactive. They all react to situations around them. It’s HOW they react that counts. And when that reaction is excessive, or it’s not seen as ‘acceptable’ behaviour to us humans, dogs are labelled as reactive.

The problem with the label of dog reactivity

The problem with the label of reactivity is that we’ve found a lot of owners that come through us have been told their dog is reactive for many years and so that label sticks. They are even told by other trainers that their dog will be reactive for the rest of their lives and the only hope they have is to manage that reactivity.

Does that sound sad to you? Because we think it does! We’ve owned dogs that react excessively to things in their environment (dogs, people, cars etc) and we can tell you and ASSURE you that your dog’s brain is mouldable. It’s called neuroplasticity. It’s the same in humans. We can reshape the brain to think differently and react differently. For some dogs that journey is a little longer than others. And the training does have to be very specific

Just because your dog reacted to something doesn’t mean they will become reactive to everything!

We also have a lot of owners come to us who have had reactive dogs in the past, and the moment their new dog reacts to something they go into panic mode:

“Oh no! My dog’s reactive!” 

“Why is this happening again, is it me?” 

“Am I the cause of the reactivity?”

“They would be better off without me!”

“I can’t cope with this again!”

Just stop right there – dogs having reactions is normal. Even the most placid well-behaved dog can have an excessive reaction if the environment and circumstances fit. We must remember that our dogs are not robots, and we can’t expect them to behave like one.

But what we CAN do is set our dogs up for success by building on those skills that help with reactivity. So that’s ALL dogs. WE don’t wait for a situation to occur where our dogs overreact before we start to focus on those important skills. 

Sorry, my dog has never reacted like that before!

Have you ever heard this from someone else? Or maybe you’ve had to say it to another owner. Your dog lunged and snapped at another dog. Or a stranger went near them and they growled. 

There are a number of reasons why your dog might suddenly react out of the blue including the following situations:

  • Feeling threatened
  • The owner missing all the previous signs (this is very common)
  • A dog not feeling well/in pain
  • A dog that’s startled
  • A dog that’s overstimulated and had too much

If your dog reacts out of the blue, don’t panic – instead, ask yourself if the reason falls into one of the categories. 

It’s important to note that when your dog has an episode like this, their stress hormones spike and it’s likely they will find other situations they normally breeze through, tricky, for the next 72 hours. So give them a bit of time to decompress, lots of chews, tasty frozen treats, and calmness so that those hormones can dissipate and put them back in their ‘normal’ state to avoid it happening again.

Learn from it, put in place some extra training, and just be a bit more aware of those signs above. Don’t panic. 

Why do dogs react?

It’s a really good question – and we can’t ask our dogs because they don’t speak human, and we don’t speak dog. But after lots of studies, professional opinion is that on the whole, when a dog is outwardly reacting to a human or other dog, it’s not because they are being ‘aggressive’ and want to show the world who is boss, it’s because they are scared. They are trying to tell the other thing to go away. 

Some dogs react outwardly when scared

Some dogs withdraw when scared (think of the dog that sits under the table during fireworks for example)

So we’d really urge you to try not to think of your dog as being aggressive. Instead, they are scared and fearful. When we look at it this way, it also gives us a greater understanding of our dog's needs. And instead of getting cross and telling them off (which we know doesn’t work), we can be empathetic and remain far calmer, which in turn will affect our dogs in a much more positive way.

Is it my energy that my dog is reacting to?

Yes and no!

If you are out walking your dog, and you see another dog in the distance that you just KNOW your dog is going to react to, stop and pay attention to what you are doing. You might notice that your body tenses up. You’ve pulled the lead a bit tighter. Your heart is racing as you try to think of the escape routes. These are all things your dog will feel, so they could become a trigger to them that something is about to happen, something they need to worry about. 

Take a breath and let yourself relax.

But relaxing anytime a potential situation is about to occur is not enough to stop the reactivity altogether. The pathways your dog has built still need to be overcome with training. So don’t believe anyone that tells you it’s your fault your dog is reacting because they pick up on your signals. It’s only a very small part of a much bigger picture.

Do you want some help to overcome your dog’s reactivity?

Check out our selection of courses that we’d recommend below. You can also grab our free eBook which goes into some tools you can start to use and help your dog with their reactivity.

Unpredictable Dog Playbook

Absolute Confidence

Naughty But Nice Core Programme