How To Socialize A Reactive Dog

It is important for your dog to be able to explore his world calmly and learn how to interact and be comfortable with the various stimuli in his life (such as interacting with other dogs and humans).

In light of this, making sure your reactive dog learns how to socialize is clearly one of your top priorities.

A reactive dog can be trained to socialize through finding out his triggers, preventing trigger stacking and using positive reinforcement to reward his good behavior. Also, make use of some highly valuable treats to get his attention during the training.

To start with,

Get To Know The Triggers

Learn what sets your dog to react aggressively. Bringing your dog to a dog park will give you a good idea of how he reacts to various stimuli in the environment. 

You would certainly have to put him on a leash, move away from the crowd and maintain a safe distance during the walk.

Keep each walking session to only 30 minutes as you do not want to over stress your dog. Look out for what is causing his anxiety.

Is your dog reactive to dogs of all breeds or only a specific breed?  Does he bark at strangers when he is out for a walk, barking at a cat when he sees her on the street or chasing after mice found in an alley or running away from balloons that appear in front of him?

Did he react aggressively whenever another dog approaches you (a sign that he is being possessive of you) or bark excessively when he is on a car ride (he is excited because of the moving scenery from the car)?

Factors that can trigger his anxiety include the dog’s breed, size, age as well as “things” that he perceives as threats.

Your dog’s reaction is also affected by how other dogs behave toward him (whether they bark at him or remain calm).  

It is not uncommon for a dog or puppy to stare or bark at your dog, causing him to become uncomfortable and act out in a reactive manner.  

You will need to give him more treats and get further away from the dog, preferably behind a car so that the dog will not be in his field of view.

Prevent Trigger Stacking

Dogs have a maximum level of stress they can endure before “breaking out” just as humans do.  

Each day, your dog is subjected to numerous stimuli (triggers) the moment he wakes up and these stimuli will contribute some level of stress to him. As your dog gets along with his day, his stress level will gradually build up. 

When the stress level exceeds his “threshold”, he will get “worked up”. This is often referred to as trigger stacking. 

The triggers, such as your child screaming, your cat running around the house, a postman delivering a package, or a dog walking past your fence may seem normal to you, but they may have a great effect on his emotions. 

So it’s important to monitor your dog’s triggering threshold (by observing his body language) so that you can immediately do some action (through treats distraction) to calm him down and remove him from these stimuli.

Bringing him back to his crate would be a good way to calm him down as your dog will find a sense of security and peace when he is in his crate. (This is assuming he is already crate trained).

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Keep Track Of The Triggers

Knowing what are the triggers that lead to your dog’s fear and anxiety is certainly going to help you in addressing his reactive behavior and training him to remain calm.

By reducing these triggers, your dog will be less likely to reach his aggression threshold.

If your dog is reaching his threshold earlier than usual, did anything special happen today?  

Did you have visitors coming to your home, or you are bringing him to visit your parents, and he finds himself in an unfamiliar environment?

Or have you brought him for a car ride, and he is feeling anxiety about the ride?

These stimuli could be mental stressing for him and cause him to react negatively.

Avoid Tension On His Leash

If your dog is reactive, you should definitely keep him on a leash while walking him.

However, be careful not to let the leash get too tight. If you pull your dog’s leash too much, he will sense your emotional state and know that you are getting stressed. As a result, he will react to your emotions and become reactive. 

So teaching yourself to be calm at all times when you are out with a reactive dog is extremely important. 

A tight leash will also make your dog stay alert, and he will always be on his guard as to what is going to happen next. This will put him in a tense state and trigger his anxiety.

So keep his leash loose while ensuring you still have that control. (Just in case he goes all the way out to another dog).

Loose leash is a signal to your dog that he should feel relaxed and enjoy the stroll.

Stay Calm And Make Your Dog Engage With You

You will certainly need a lot of focus and attention when walking with your reactive dog as you have to be mindful of the surroundings that could have an adverse impact on his emotions. 

Be calm and do not get too stressed up whenever you see potential triggers that can cause your dog to react negatively.

If your dog finds that you are getting nervous, this will cause him to react negatively.

Keep feeding your dog with treats and make sure that he is engaging with you. Remember, your goal is to make him feel that it is much more rewarding to pay attention to you than his stimuli.

You can make use of some verbal praise along with the treats to improve his engagement with you. 

Get To Know Your Dog’s Body Language

Brush up on your knowledge of how to interpret your dog’s body language. This will certainly help to improve your communication with him and build his trust and bond.

When you understand how your dog feels from his body language, you will be able to prevent him from becoming reactive.  

Fear signals include pulling back his ears, tucking his tail or even trembling.

Alert signals include frozen forward stance, closed mouth, high tail and forward ears.

Relax signals include soft eyes, loose open mouth and low relaxed tail.

By knowing how to interpret these signs, you are in a better position to “read” your dog’s mind when he is out in the street.

For example, if your dog starts to tuck his tail when he sees another dog coming his way, you know that he is feeling nervous and afraid.

You can then move him away in another direction so that the dog is out of his sight.

Know What Works For Your Dog

Each and every dog is unique and what works for one might not work for another. So find out what works best for your dog to maintain his calmness.

In the case of my dog, I have observed that keeping him in a sitting position in a corner tends to work well when he is showing signs of anxiety (his body is trembling) when he sees a bigger dog across the street.

I will provide him with treats to keep him focused on me. This distraction method is extremely effective for calming him down.

Some dog owners find success by just letting their dog keep walking and using treats to distract his attention. Do what you feel works best for your dog.

Use Your Body To Block His View

In the event that your dog starts to act aggressively when facing another barking dog, stand in front of him to block his view and use some high value treats to catch his attention.  

By using your body as a barrier, you can block his focus on his target and this will help him to regain control of his emotions. 

“Buddy” System

This “buddy” system works by having a well-trained dog to be your dog partner during the training. This is how it works :

  1. Do the training in an area with little distraction and your backyard will be an ideal choice.
  2. Have the well-trained dog sit in one corner of the yard.
  3. Put a leash on your dog and lead him to a well-trained dog. Stop approaching once your dog shows signs of anxiety. This will be the “calm distance” that your dog is comfortable with when facing another dog without reacting negatively.
  4. Call out to your dog by his name and when he focuses his attention on you, give him a high value treat and praise him for being calm.
  5. Progress with this training daily, with the goal of improving the “calm distance” so that your dog will ultimately be able to stay calm and play with the well-trained dog.
  6. He will also get to learn socialization skills from this well-trained dog during their playtime.
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Prepare Better Treats For The Training

When working with your dog on his reactivity behavior, it’s important that you get hold of some really high quality treats that your dog simply cannot resist.

I would recommend hot dogs or cheese as dogs usually crave for these rather than those dry kibbles. Remember, the more unique the treats, the better it will be to get his attention.

Bring 2 types of treats with you when you take him for a walk down the streets. The normal treats that he had daily and some “special” treats that he would only get once a week.

You can give him the standard treats when you take him for a normal walk on a quiet street that does not have many dogs or people around.  

When you are reaching a much busier street where there are cats, dogs, kids, runners or bikers along the way, change the treats to high value ones.

In this way, you are rewarding him for being calm even when there are many stimuli that might cause him anxiety.

It’s all about the treats versus the stimuli that he is encountering. The treats had to be tempting enough to act as a distraction and motivation for him so that he would pay his focus on the treats rather than the stimuli.

So, if your dog is experiencing a high level of stress and anxiety when he sees another dog across the street that keeps staring at him, use compelling high quality treats to make him focus on you and calm him down.

This is a form of positive reinforcement for rewarding his good behavior, which is to remain calm when facing his stimuli.

Frequency Of Dispensing The Treats

Depending on how challenging the environment is for your dog, adjust how often you give him treats.

You can give your dog treats every few steps if he’s on a walk on a wide street with fewer stimuli.  

But when he reaches a narrow street, you will have to increase the frequency of the treats to keep “holding” on to his attention till the other dog walks pass.

Is It True That Older Dogs Become Less Reactive?

Reactivity unfortunately does not subside like many puppy habits. When you have a young reactive dog, it is UNLIKELY that he will get over his reactivity without any training.

On the contrary, reactivity tends to increase with age.

Is It Possible to Make a Reactive Dog Friendly?

The reactivity of any dog can be improved by training regardless of age. There is never a wrong time to socialize an adult dog.

However, if a dog’s behavior is ingrained for an extended period of time, retraining him will take a lot longer. 

Whether a reactive dog will do well when exposed to its triggers will largely depend on how intensive the dog’s training is.

What Are the Most Reactive Dog Breeds?

There are some breeds of dogs that are more likely to react adversely to certain situations. Here are the five most common ones :

Border Collie – They have impressive herding ability, energy, and drive. It is precisely this very characteristic that makes this breed a bit reactive.

Chihuahuas – They are known to be highly territorial, hyperactive, and attention-seeking. This can lead to their reactive nature.

Australian Cattle dog – Originally bred to herd livestock, it isn’t surprising that he’s an active, loyal, and vigilant breed. However, as with most herding dogs, he can become overly agitated easily and become reactive to anything that spurs his interest.

Boxer – Their sweetness, amiability, and fun personality are just some reasons why people love boxers. Negatively, they have dominance issues, separation anxiety, and obsessive traits. This triggers their reactive side readily.

Rottweiler – Despite their greatness, Rottweilers struggle with dominance. They are especially reactive when they see other dogs.

Conclusion

Reactivity behavior is not something that can be addressed within a short time period. It may take months or even years to have your dog’s reactive behavior corrected and learn to socialize at ease without any troubles.

Take small steps and gradually build up your dog’s confidence so that he would feel comfortable when facing any stimuli in his life!

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