Living with a Reactive Dog: Finn’s Story
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.
We got Finn 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:
Finn’s became really distressing 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 Finn was in a constant state of stress. Constantly pumped full of cortisol and adrenaline- how awful for him! Stress is harmful for dogs just as it is for humans.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Finn’s Body Language:
First to notice Finns 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
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:
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 Finn’s 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 Finn 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 Finn 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.
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. Finn 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 Finn 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 for Finn.
- Time one to one with Finn 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. Jarvis loves to be kissed and cuddled, as does Finn but with much more caution and with warning- so we respect this.
- Wear yellow! Finn’s 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 Finn 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 Finn 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:
Finn is a happy and sociable dogs when he knows he is safe, so our job is to introduce him to new dogs carefully and gradually. My next step is to try the training videos and continue Finn’s good work.
For more interesting reading on living with a reactive dog.
Check out more of our posts about daily dog life.