It’s Hard Being Reactive

being reactive

Everyone has probably seen a dog being reactive before. A dog that is straining at the end of the leash, explosively barking, lunging, maybe even growling. Or maybe it’s a dog who is so over excited they just can’t contain themselves and are barking and jumping all over the place in their fervent need to be everyone’s friend. 

In short being reactive is being a mess and over reacting to otherwise normal and everyday situations, and you don’t have to be an expert to see that something isn’t right.

Misconceptions About Dogs Being Reactive

There are several damaging misconceptions about reactivity and dogs being reactive that are very common and that I hear a lot. Some of them have been popularized by movies, and TV shows; mainly the idea of pack leaders or “Alphas” much to the detriment of our dogs.

There is this idea that dogs who are being reactive are misbehaving, that they are being reactive out of spite or wanting to make things harder on their human. Or maybe they’re being reactive because they’re trying to show their human who is boss. There are all sorts of variations on this theme and they share a common thread. That the dog is making a choice when being reactive and they are choosing to do so on purpose. They’re choosing to act out and being stubborn.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth. 

Sadly the majority of owners who come to me currently with reactive dogs have gaps in their knowledge when it comes to reactivity or why their dog is being reactive. Some really believe that their dog is acting out of spite or is being stubborn or has some sort of issue like that. They truly think that their dog is choosing to act this way, and this often causes resentment and negativity when it comes to their dog and how their dog behaves.

I want to make one thing very clear. Being reactive is not a choice.  

No dog is choosing to act that way. They are not enjoying the stress that they feel when they’re reacting. They’re not enjoying being in those situations, even if they are reactive due to overexcitement.

Why is my Dog Being Reactive?

Reactivity at its core is an over reaction to what should be a normal situation for a dog. Very commonly this is happening from a place of fear, discomfort, or frustration. It is an emotional response that is out of proportion with what is happening. The triggers for reactive dogs cause an emotional response that creates an involuntary (and often negative) reaction from the dog. It is not something they choose to do. 

Most commonly a dog is being reactive out of a fight or flight response. The trigger they react to is making them feel threatened and if they are on leash they can’t flee, so they feel the need to try to threaten their way out of the situation. It is coming from a defensive place where the dog is shouting “I’m warning you, don’t come any closer!!” 

Whether or not a dog will make good on this threat depends on the dog. Some will get riled up enough in their threat display that they are dangerous if the leash is dropped or barriers removed. Others if given the choice would choose not to fight. 

A second very common form of reactivity is that of the over excited dog. These dogs think that everyone in the world is someone they must greet, meet, and interact with. Being unable to do so because of a leash is very frustrating for these dogs, and just like the former group will lead to stress. This kind of reactivity can absolutely morph into threat displays because of the levels of high stress these dogs go through and amount of frustration they can feel. 

There are many reasons why a dog might grow to be reactive, but there are very clear factors. Dog parks and doggy daycares often play a role, as well as how a dog has been socialized (most people unintentionally get this wrong!!). There is also confusion sometimes even from trusted sources like vets on when to start socialization (hint: it’s before shots are through!).

These are only some of the factors within our control that contribute to whether a dog will grow up to be reactive or not, and there are plenty that are out of our control, such as genetics, random events, or even what happened to the pups while they were in the womb. All these factors and more will contribute to whether or not a dog will be reactive and not able to cope with a given situation.

Reactivity is an involuntary emotional response. A clear sign of stress and inability to cope with a scenario. It is not something a dog is choosing or wanting to do. They may feel driven to do it, but it is the same drive that one would feel to defend oneself if cornered, or to run away when being chased by a predator.

Reactivity is an Outpouring of Stress

Imagine a young child who is afraid of nighttime thunderstorms. The weather outside is a gale and you know that the night will be chaos full of howling wind, rain pounding, with twigs, branches and even trees coming down and flying around out there. Plus the endlessly booming thunder that will feel like it shakes the house to the foundation, nearly rattling the windows to pieces in their frames. 

To many young children every flash of lightning is a herald of doom and terror. If a child begins to cry out of fear, or goes to a parent to seek out comfort because the stress is too much, we consider this normal. A good parent will do all they can to comfort their child, to ease their stress and make them feel better. A good parent supports and helps teach their child. 

Now imagine a dog who feels threatened by the mere sight of their triggers out in the world. A dog who is stressed to the point they can’t contain themselves and must do something to try to cope with the stress. Now imagine this happening regularly, not sporadically like a storm. Some dogs see and react explosively to their triggers each day, 365. It’s not an easy way to live!

As good caretakers and handlers of our dogs it is our responsibility to recognize stress in our dogs and Help them. Reactivity is stress. A dog being reactive is stressed out. They need help in that moment. 

Every owner with a reactive dog is capable of learning how to help their dog through such episodes and making the situation better. Reactivity has a very high rehabilitation chance and often it doesn’t take too much change to start seeing change. 

I specialize in reactive dogs and helping owners and dogs grow together in their confidence and watching those relationships bloom is one of my favorite parts of my job. Help isn’t out of reach and it is absolutely possible to make things better. If you’d like to learn how, you can start your journey by sending me a message. I would be happy to help. 

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