Living with a Reactive Dog: Our Story

Living with a Reactive Dog: Our Story
living with a reactive dog

The definition of a reactive dog:

Living with a ‘reactive’ dog can be stressful and distressing for both dog and owner. American Kennel Club define a reactive dog as one that ‘overreacts to a thing or a certain situation’ but don’t all dogs (and humans) react in some way to something? Their reaction can be triggered by anything the dog perceives to be a threat or cannot make sense of for example; other dogs, people, buses, cycles, cats, skateboards-  the list goes on. This can be after a bad experience, fright or just because it is stressful for them.

Our whippy:

new whippet owners

We got our boy as a rescue puppy of 14 weeks. He had a turbulent start to life and we were his third home-or fourth if you count him being returned to his breeder. He was a nervous dog and a little ‘over alert’ out of the house, sometimes barking on his lead at other dogs. It was after he was bitten by a (rather large) dog that we started to see real reactivity from him. This was towards large dogs at first but escalated to all dogs. Physically, this manifested itself as barking and almost howling when seeing dogs on walks.

Stress and dogs:

living with a reactive dog

He became really distressed when out walking if we would see another dog. After barking he was hyper-alert for the rest of the day. Did you know that stress hormones stay in a dog’s body for many hours? We realised that this meant that poor whippy was in a constant state of stress. Constantly pumped full of cortisol and adrenaline- how awful for him! Stress is unpleasant and harmful for dogs just as it is for humans.  

The pack:


Having two dogs only exasperated the situation. They made each other jump by barking and joined in with each others fears. This started making it really difficult for me to walk them both on my own and resulted in my stress levels rising when I took them out. I was waiting for the inevitable barking and disapproving glares, and profusely apologising for my dog’s behaviour. My rise in stress then further escalated their stress- a vicious cycle!

The Alpha approach:

We started seeing a trainer on a one to one basis but it was very much based on our dominance. It involved water squirting for barking and forcing the dogs to confront their fear to desensitise them. For me, this approach was much too negative and I wanted to find something more positive and reward based. So what next?

The Dog Guardian:

relaxed dog

This wasn’t intended to be an advert for The Dog Guardian but it is in a way because it has helped us so much. I stumbled upon the Dog Guardian after reading an article in the weekend newspaper. It was like a breath of fresh air! So positive, simple and sensible. So I bought the book.

cosy cave

The wonderful Nigel Reed focuses on 4 main principles:

  • The dog’s needs- what the dog needs to feel safe and secure
  • The dog’s language- what the dog is doing to try and correct this feeling of insecurity – the unwanted behaviours, for example the barking, lunging, showing poor recall or attention etc.
  •  The dogs signals- the physical warning signs that the dog is giving you when it is starting to feel stressed and the owners actions to rectify this rising anxiety- more on this in a bit!
  • Your leadership style- being a strong leader by being effective, calm, non-confrontational, and respectful of the dog’s needs. Not being a strong leader through dominance.
Living with a reactive dog

So in theory, by listening to and noticing your dog’s subtle body language signals, you can respond early enough to avoid the escalation of their unwanted behaviour. The dog then feels safe and secure, trusting that their owner understands and is in charge, so they don’t need to control the situation. The stress and the unwanted behaviour reduces, forming more positive habits.

Armed with the book (and the helpful training materials online) I felt empowered and ready to take the problem on.

Body Language:

best dog crates

First to notice the physical signs of stress. These included:

  • Changes in body posture- stiffening of the body and tail
  • Lifting one paw
  • Ears up, eyes more fixed
  • Tail wagging – this can be a sign of stress as well as happiness
  • Yawning, drooling and licking the lips
  • Pacing or shaking
  • Whining or barking
  • Panting

Once we were aware of him starting to feel stressed (his first sign is that his ears go up), we were able to act and help him reduce the fear.

Putting theory into practice:

handmade dog treats online

We use the leadership principles in the following situations:

  • Barking at dogs on the television/ passing the house– as per the dog guardians instructions, we get up and stand in front of the television/ front door/ back gate and say a calm ‘OK’ to acknowledge his worry. He then walks away. This really works! As it states in the book, it’s almost like he is saying “phew- they are dealing with that.”
  • Passing dogs out and about – we stay at a good distance from dogs and reward him if he responds to a ‘leave it’ command by looking up at us with a pat or a treat. We live in a busy town, so when we have to pass dogs, we use the same approach and it works most of the time. He still barks at times but it is a short woof, rather than a long, panicked whine or lunge. This is great progress and we are so proud of him.
  • Solo walks – We have found that walking him on his own is so valuable for his confidence. We started off small, literally a walk around the corner, and when he was relaxed enough to receive treats and respond to his name, lengthened it in baby steps. After a while, I took him to field training, where he met some lovely gentle dogs (all on leads) in a disciplined environment and with lots of physical personal space. This helped him to trust me as a leader.


dog friendly cottages in Norfolk

For us, the key to success was being calm and consistent We still have a way to go but I feel much more confident to walk both dogs on my own and enjoy it again! I feel no need to apologise for having an anxious dog and know my strategies for facing the trigger situations. Our beautiful boy is much calmer out and about so I see this as a huge success.  

The things that really helped us:

  • Lots of praise and rewards and distractions using a cheery positive voice.
  • Us keeping calm. As discussed above, If we think a situation is going to be a challenge then we approach it with confidence- even if it’s faking it! Knowing that we are doing the right thing for him really helps with this. No apologies and flustering for a bark if it occurs- it’s what dogs do.
  • Slow and steady building of confidence.
  • Time one to one with him to build and reinforce new and more positive habits.
  • Only put him in situations that are comfortable for him. Why force passing a dog if you don’t have to? Now we just turn in a different direction, cross the road as much as we can to give him space.
  • We try to give him personal space at home. Our older dog loves to be kissed and cuddled, but our younger with much more caution and with warning- so we respect this.
  • Wear yellow! A yellow harness tells other dog owners that he needs space. It doesn’t have any lettering or wording on- just nice and bright. We also tell other owners who have their dog off-lead that we need space politely but firmly.
  • We give him the chance to remove himself from stressful situations to a safe space. For example, when we vacuum the house. We tell him ‘upstairs’ and he will go and watch from the top of the stairs. He then swaps to his bed downstairs when we take the vacuum up- a much nicer experience for him!
  • We give him rest days. Sometimes he just chills out in the house and plays games with us, having small, peaceful walks in remote places for some fresh air.

Living with a reactive dog:

equafleece dog jumper

A happy and sociable dogs when he knows he is safe, our job is to introduce him to new dogs carefully and gradually. My next step is to try the training videos and continue and maintain his good work.

For more interesting reading on living with a reactive dog.

Check out more of our posts about daily dog life.

19 thoughts on “Living with a Reactive Dog: Our Story”

  • I have a few friends with reactive pups and honestly it is amazing how much extra care and attention they can require but also wonderful to see how they grow as they get the care they need. Finn is super handsome for sure and sounds like everything is going in the right direction!

  • You made me smile with this! So glad that Finn is doing better and less reactive. I’m considering getting the book and seeing if it will help with Milo and his fear reactive behavior. Well, and Luke too because he gets so excited on walks when he sees other dogs.
    I definitely agree it takes time and effort. Seems like it is always a work in progress.

    • I hope that it helps Milo and Luke. I think it is much harder to manage their reactivity when you have multi dog behaviours going on isn’t it? I find it a challenge! Thanks for reading.

  • Very Nice Post, I appreciate this post about reactive dogs. It is a term I’m just starting to get familiar with, you have a nice explanation. I didn’t know that stress hormones stay in a dog’s body for many hours. That must be very hard on their bodies. I didn’t know about the yellow harness, thanks for the info. The dog guardian site looks interesting to check out. (From Dachshund Station)

  • Great information! We used to have a dog that was reactive with other dogs. This started to happen after she was bitten by a friends dog. I wish I had this information years ago. I think it cuold have helped her.

  • This was a great post! I’m glad to hear that Finn has made such great progress so far. I wouldn’t really consider either of my dogs reactive, but when I first rescued them, there were definitely things that scared them and stressed them out easier. With plenty of time and patience, they adjusted to their new homes just fine.

  • I’ve always been a cat person so this is out of my area of expertise but it must be tough to handle this every day, especially for Finn. I always wondered why some dogs seemed angrier than others or barked at what seemed like nothing in the past however, I now know that this is a thing! X

  • I swear we live with a reactive cat. But in all seriousness, I commend you for taking this doggo in. God love the wee pet. You’ve given some excellent insight here!

  • I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and gaining some advice as I have a lovely lurcher but he can be a bit challenging. Thank you for going into detail and recommending the book, I will give it a read. Thank you again for sharing. Emma from ECBC x

  • This is a wonderful read. Although I’m a cat owner, I love dogs and hate seeing them distressed when they are out. The book you found was obviously a blessing! And I’m so happy you and Finn are seeing improvements everyday. Finn is a lucky boy to have an understanding and caring home and family. And he’s gorgeous! ☺️

  • Thank you! My boy has become reactive over the last few months and there are a new if incidents that have led to this.
    It’s such a stressful situation when out walking with him and my other whippet who is 1 year younger and doesn’t have the same issues. This has made me feel not alone with this issue and the advice is so helpful!
    Thank you!

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