Tips for Handling A Reactive Dog

Have you ever tried to explain something that no one else can understand or see for themselves, leaving you feeling a bit lost and confused?

Dot, shown above, is aggressive towards humans.

It’s hard to grasp this just by looking at her photos and the content I share about our activities. Some people have even told me that I’m exaggerating her behaviour.

But I’ve witnessed the side of her that ‘turns,’ and they haven’t, which makes it difficult for others to truly understand how dangerous she can be.

Turning behaviours like aggression around can be super complicated and dogs, much like humans, have their own quirks and personalities to try and work with.

Some are calm, composed and eager to please, while others might be more reactive, headstrong and a challenge to be around.

Whether they’re reacting out of fear, frustration, or excitement, understanding how to manage and work with a reactive dog is crucial for everyone involved in their life.

I really think that some basic elements of resolving reactivity are undervalued and side stepped when it comes to these kind of dogs, so I thought’ I’d share some practical tips for handling reactive dogs, that have pulled me from many a reactive, barking and being redirected onto or bitten kind of place!

Engage in Mental and Physical Exercise

I believe that a dog’s physical exercise can become neglected as your world shrinks due to their regular reactions.

I would hope it was clear to all that a well-exercised dog is generally calmer and less likely to react negatively, despite knowing that exercise alone isn’t the only resolution.

Therefore, one of the first things I did when Dot arrived was to ensure she got the right amount of exercise to meet her needs.

Some dogs are content with playing in the garden and a short walk around the block. Others, like Dot, require longer outings, which can be challenging when trying to avoid their triggers. Nonetheless, providing ample physical exercise is paramount when managing a reactive dog.

Within two weeks of increasing Dot’s exercise routine, I saw a remarkable change.

She transformed from a stressed, hyperactive lunatic who couldn’t stand still into a calmer, more composed dog. While still very active, she became happier to settle, more engaged, and began thinking about her responses instead of reacting impulsively and trying to bite everything.

All from an exercise increase.

If, like Dot, your reactive dog is highly strung at the beginning of a walk and reacts to almost everything but calms right down on the way back when they’re tired, they might be using barking as a way to relieve boredom, due to insufficient exercise.

You could try increasing their exercise by walking at off-peak times, like early in the morning/late at night, or booking a secure field to give them extra and see if this helps reduce their reactivity.

In addition to physical exercise, mental stimulation is equally important.

I think that many people think mental stimulation is just limited to puzzle toys, snuffle mats, or giving the dog a bone or a Kong.

While these are good and I’m in no way discrediting them, there are numerous other activities that can be way more engaging for both you and your dog, making the process more rewarding and mentally tiring for them.

Instead of letting them entertain themselves, why not try a short training session together?

Activities like scent work games or playing hide and seek around the house and garden can be very beneficial.

I include scent work sessions, running, play, and more formal training sessions with my dogs, especially Dot, most days.

Even a short 3-5 minute play session at home, focusing on retrieves, drops, or waiting while you hide the ball can keep your dog’s mind occupied and significantly reduce reactivity, when you go out with them.

When we do our tracking or lead work training, it doesn’t take much to tire them out.

A little really does go a long way in dog training!

Engaging in your dog’s mental exercise routine can improve their quality of life, calm them down, and enhance your connection and engagement with them, which will help outside as well.

Other forms of mental stimulation include exploring the environment, allowing them time to sniff around, and simply walking and sniffing the air.

Natural selection exercises can be great for reducing frustrations and building confidence too, and although it may be unpleasant when they come back with a mouthful of something gross, like sheep poo, we need to remember they’re dogs and will do dog things.

Wow, I intended to cover more tips for handling a reactive dog, but I’ve focused extensively on just one element and nearly written a book about it.

I’ll save another tip for the next blog.

In the meantime, if there’s anything specific you’d like to learn about, feel free to let me know.

Speak soon,
Head Trainer for Reactive Dogs

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