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Understanding Reactivity in Dogs

Understanding reactivity in dogs: decoding their heightened responses to stimuli & using positive reinforcement as a key to fostering calm and harmonious behavior.


What Is Reactivity?

Dogs with reactivity tend to exhibit heightened arousal in response to ordinary stimuli. Arousal refers to your dog's level of responsiveness to various events, both those originating from you (such as cues) and those arising from the environment (such as interactions with other dogs or people). This heightened arousal in reactive dogs often manifests as lunging, barking, and growling. This can make it challenging to manage and redirect their focus away from the trigger. Typically, reactive dogs are driven by fear, and their intense emotional response can hinder their ability to stay composed in such situations.

Typically, reactive dogs are driven by fear.

The Bucket

Every dog has a world of their own experiences and perceptions. Dogs have the ability to be pessimists or optimists, depending on how well they were socialized as puppies, their experiences and their current environment. Causes of arousal can be positive and negative, but they still add to filling up a dogs emotional bucket.

Picture your dog's emotions as a bucket filled with water. The size of the bucket varies according to how your dog is feeling on a given day. Now, imagine that this bucket has holes at the bottom, enabling the water to drain out. Reactive dogs tend to have smaller buckets with fewer holes, causing their bucket to overflow rapidly.

Several factors contribute to filling up the bucket: their mental state, overall health, the surrounding environment, experiences of punishment, encounters with other dogs or people, barking at passing traffic or out the window and their tolerance of frustration when unable to have something they want.

Chart from Absolutedogs

Reactive dogs tend to have smaller buckets with fewer holes, causing their bucket to overflow rapidly.

Once your dog surpasses their threshold, they may exhibit behaviors like lunging, barking, growling, and potentially even biting. When your dog is in this state, increasing distance from the trigger is a good method to help calm them down. Its important to notice your dogs body language leading up to these behaviors to help prevent the overflow.

Naughty but nice dogs (NBN) are complex creatures and can experience PTSD from their past experiences. However (PTSD or not) they do give us clear warning signs before this behavior happens. Its up to us as owners to recognize these behaviors and do whats best for our dog.

Don't be afraid to advocate for them in front of other dog owners. They don't understand the struggle your dog is going through! A quick "My dog needs space" lets other owners know not to approach. As responsible dog owners we are arming ourselves with the knowledge of whats going through our dogs mind in those moments, and how to deal with it safely.

It can take a long time for the bucket to empty, anything up to 72 hours after the initial exposure.

Warning Signs from your dog to look out for.

Dogs often provide warning signs through vocalization and body language before becoming reactive. Recognizing these cues can help you intervene early and prevent escalation. Some common warning signs include:


  • Growling: A low, guttural sound indicating discomfort or warning.

  • Barking: An intense, repetitive vocalization that may signal anxiety, territorial behavior, or perceived threats.

  • Whining: High-pitched vocalization indicating distress, anxiety, or seeking attention.

Body Language:

  • Stiff Body: A tense and rigid body posture may indicate unease or potential aggression.

  • Raised Hackles: The hair on the dog's back stands up, signaling arousal or aggression.

  • Wide Eyes: Dilated pupils and wide-eyed expressions can suggest stress or fear.

  • Excessive Panting: Heavy panting, unrelated to physical activity, might indicate anxiety or stress.

  • Lip Licking/Yawning: These behaviors can be stress signals in dogs.

  • Avoidance: Turning away from the trigger or trying to create distance.

  • Freezing: The dog becomes completely still, possibly preparing to react defensively.

Dogs give us clear warning signs before reactivity. Its up to us as owners to recognize these behaviors and do whats best for our dog.

Ears and Tail:

  • Ears Pinned Back: Indicates fear or unease.

  • Tail Stiff and Raised: Can signal alertness, tension, or aggression.

Reactive Postures:

  • Direct Stare: A prolonged, fixed stare can be a sign of potential reactivity.

  • Exposing Teeth: Showing teeth, even without growling, is a warning sign of discomfort.

Seeking Safety:

  • Backing Away: Trying to retreat from the trigger or perceived threat.

  • Hiding Behind Owner: Seeking protection or reassurance.

  • Excessive Energy:

  • Pacing: Restlessly moving back and forth, showing restlessness or discomfort.

Oreo calmly enjoying the scenery, instead of reacting to the passing boats.

Here are two charts that display the body language of dogs in their behavioral states. It's important to learn these if you want to understand dog behavior. Especially when counter conditioning a dog with its trigger.

Chart from HDDT K9 Services

Its a common misconception that a dog wagging its tail only means its happy! Dogs express many emotions through their tails.

Chart from

Note: It's essential to consider these behaviors in context and pay attention to the overall body language of the dog. Some dogs may show a combination of these signs, and the intensity can vary depending on the individual's temperament and past experiences.

If you notice these warning signs, it's crucial to remove your dog from the triggering situation. Sometimes a direct removal is needed. However, teaching your dog how to be flexible in their arousal states is a key concept to train in your dog, so they can choose to remove themselves. Showing our dogs the ability to choose through training concepts is a fundamental skill your dog will have to protect himself and be happy. These include calmness, confidence, disengagement and flexibility. These are all crucial for anxious and fearful dogs to grow their confidence and make the right choices.

Consult a professional dog trainer or behaviorist to address the underlying issues through positive reinforcement training and behavior modification techniques. Always prioritize your pet's safety and well-being while working to improve their reactivity.

Introducing Positive Reinforcement to Reactive Dogs

Understanding reactivity in dogs through the lens of positive reinforcement is a compassionate and effective approach to addressing this behavioral challenge. By utilizing positive reinforcement, we focus on rewarding desired behaviors rather than punishing unwanted ones.

Positive reinforcement training involves offering rewards such as treats, praise, or playtime when the dog displays the desired response or behavior. This method creates a positive association with the cues or situations that previously triggered reactivity. As the dog learns that calm and controlled behavior leads to rewards, they become more responsive and less reactive to their triggers.

Setting dogs up for success

Our dogs belong to a completely different species and don't understand our language, yet they make tremendous efforts to follow our cues. Just like it would be challenging for us to comprehend someone speaking in a foreign language, punishing them for not understanding would only lead to upset and defensive reactions. Instead, we should focus on setting our dogs up for success by praising every small achievement. For example, when your dog remains calm in the evenings or refrains from reacting to stimuli outside, celebrating these positive behaviors with praise can strengthen the bond between you and your furry companion.

As the dog learns that calm and controlled behavior leads to rewards, they become more responsive and less reactive to their triggers.

Through positive reinforcement, we can build trust and a strong bond with our dogs, creating a safe and encouraging environment for learning. It helps to reduce anxiety and fear, which are often underlying factors in reactive behaviors. By understanding the individual triggers and thresholds of each dog, positive reinforcement can be tailored to meet their specific needs, promoting self-control and boosting their confidence.

Positive reinforcement also empowers dog owners by giving them the tools to effectively communicate with their pets and manage reactivity in a humane and constructive manner. With consistency, patience, and the right training techniques, positive reinforcement can lead to significant improvements in a reactive dog's behavior, promoting a happier and more harmonious relationship between the dog and their human companion.

We can build trust and a strong bond with our dogs, creating a safe and encouraging environment for learning.

Oreo calmly enjoying the beach, checking in with me instead of reacting to other dogs.

Understanding reactivity in dogs is crucial for ensuring their well-being and fostering a positive relationship between dogs and their owners. By recognizing the root causes of reactivity, such as fear and anxiety, we can approach training with empathy and compassion. Positive reinforcement training serves as a powerful tool to bridge the communication gap and guide dogs towards more desirable behaviors. Instead of resorting to punishment, we should focus on setting our canine companions up for success and praising them for every step in the right direction. Through patience and consistent positive reinforcement, we can transform reactivity into calmness, building trust and a deeper bond with our furry friends. Let us embark on this journey with open hearts, making a positive difference in the lives of our beloved canine companions.

Until next time NBN (naughty but nice) crew!


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