The most important and helpful thing you can do for your reactive dog (besides training him throughout his life), is training yourself to do this one thing when reactivity happens. Control your emotions.
This is difficult for us humans. Emotions are contagious and quick to arise. When you see someone arguing or fighting, you most often either want to hide or feel like joining in the fight. The adrenaline rush can be almost overpowering.
This may be something like what your dog experiences when he sees something that stimulates him to react. His body chemistry changes immediately and is likely impossible to stop once started. If you get upset at your dog for acting out this way you are making it worse. By getting upset yourself, you are changing your own body chemistry and then reacting to your dog. This make him even more stressed which can increase his reactivity and possibly, eventually, change into aggression.
This article is about learning to control your own emotions while teaching your dog how to change his. The following are the things that you will need to do to make the changes in yourself to help your dog.
What To Do When Your Dog Is Reactive
There will be times, even during the training process, that you will accidentally come in contact with something that your dog reacts excessively to. It is important that when your dog is out of control, you stay IN control. This means saying NOTHING to your dog.
Keep your mouth shut, your lips zipped.
Don’t try to stop him from barking or physically manhandle him in anyway. You simply leave or remove the dog from the situation as quickly as possible. This is why it’s important that your dog be on leash while training, so that you can get him out of the situation fast without putting your hands on your dog.
If you think there is a chance that your dog will bite you in misdirected aggression, or you know your dog to have aggression issues towards people, then you need to be seeing a professional dog training instructor that does not use corrections to teach dogs. I won’t go into why there needs to be no corrections but you can read about it HERE.
If your dog is not normally aggressive and is just reacting to something (and you have already determined that he is not actually showing aggression, by the way), then make sure you don’t grab you dog by the collar. When you do this, you put your hand right next to the dogs head, which is where his mouth and teeth are. You want to avoid that at all cost, in order to prevent any escalation of the reactivity and costly, completely preventable injury to yourself.
A better tactic is to use the LEASH that you already have your dog on, turn and leave the area. If you are in your fenced in yard or inside your home and your dog is reactive, don’t chase him or yell at him. Simply WAIT until the trigger to his reactivity is gone and then never let it happen again. I prevent this by always having my untrained dogs on a line or in an area in which I can, if I need to, move the dog into the house. If your dog is off leash or in an unrestricted area (large yard) that makes it difficult to stop him from reacting, you will essentially be letting the dog practice the behaviour you don’t want (i.e. training him to react).
Watch the video below to see an example of an area that is appropriate for a reactive dog to be off leash and how reactivity can be handled calmly:
I consider a reactive dog untrained because there is something that was missed in the early training or something that happened over that time in which the dog became reactive. In my case, Ira my Kuvasz is noted for being reactive for work purposes. He is a livestock guardian breed. So, even if you do all the things you need to or think you should with early training, there is no guarantee that it will prevent reactivity, or any other behaviour issue for that matter. It will only reduce the chances.
As a puppy, Ira was not reactive to anything. He was focused on being a puppy. That’s mostly why puppies are easy to train – because they love to be with you. At about 5 or 6 months of age, he started to alert at the neighbours when they were out in the yard. I did quite a bit of training for this and now he only growls or does one or two woofs and stops. But when there are other dogs in the picture, he is aggressively reactive. This is due to the fact that he has seen few other dogs when out in the yard, and thus there were few opportunities to train.
BUT, when we go to dog shows where there are dozens of other dogs around, he doesn’t react at all.
All this means is you need to know your dog and what his triggers are, what he can tolerate and where you are in the training. This is why it is essential that you stay calm when training, so that you can THINK what it is that you need to do for training without letting your emotions get in the way.
How do I stay calm?
The only way you can really do this well is like anything else you want to learn, or in this case unlearn – PRACTICE. Yes, it takes time and effort. You start by simply practicing saying nothing to your dog in stressful, non-reactive situations or training sessions in which your dog is doing something wrong or is “misbehaving” in the house.
The reason your dog is misbehaving is because of something YOU did or didn’t do so you cannot rightly be angry at him. Instead, realize that it is your fault and say nothing to reprimand your dog. Don’t say “no”, yell at him or berate him in any way. This “staying quiet practice”, after many weeks of work, will become second nature to you. Then, when you are in a situation in which your dog becomes reactive, you have already learned to stay calm by saying nothing. You will have altered your own reactions and likely body chemistry to a degree that will make it easier for you to not get upset.
How do I teach my dog to stay calm?
Here is a video playlist with lots of information on how to work with reactive dogs.