Reactive dogs are not necessarily aggressive - often far from it, in fact. Being overly reactive is sadly quite common in dogs and is often caused by anxiety, trauma, or a lack of socialization as a pup.
When a reactive dog is triggered, it can result in growling, barking, or even lunging towards someone or something. Again, this may seem aggressive, but most of the time it is a defensive reaction to feeling afraid.
Many dog owners are so busy trying to manage their dog’s reactivity that they don’t focus enough time on how they can calm them more generally to minimize their stress. This in turn can keep them calmer when triggered.
Here are five ways to calm your reactive dog.
Make their lives more predictable
Dogs are no different from humans in the way that a predictable routine can calm down their nervous system. Like children, dogs crave a routine to make their lives more predictable - they feel more secure when they know what to expect.
If you have a dog that suffers from anxiety, giving them a predictable routine makes it easier for them to stay calmer, as their daily life makes sense and they know what to expect. So, routine feeding and walking times are a great start, and even scheduling in other daily rituals, such as playtimes and training sessions.
Another great regular activity that can form part of your dog’s routine is socialization, but we’ll discuss that in the next step below.
Incorporate regular socialization
Socialization is an important part of overcoming anxiety in dogs, particularly if it was lacking when they were young. When pups don’t get enough positive exposure to other dogs, animals, and people, they can develop social anxieties that make them fear such interactions.
Depending upon how severe their social anxiety or lack of socialization has been, it is important to take it slowly, so as not to overwhelm them. If unfamiliar people trigger them, get some friends to help you by regularly dropping by and remaining very gentle in their voice and movements, and focus on keeping the interaction very positive and calm.
If your dog is particularly uncomfortable, you may need to start with the family first, and encourage all household members to invest some time in gradually increasing your dog’s comfort with being touched, held, and hugged.
Socialize them regularly with other animals, too. Again, start slowly if this is triggering for them. If possible, have any friends with dogs to visit - so long as their dog has a good, calm temperament - and gradually encourage some positive interactions.
Work on reconditioning their responses
Sometimes, we can interrupt patterns of conditioned responses to change them for the better. This is called Counter Conditioning, and can effectively alter the emotional response to a trigger.
Essentially, when exposed to a typically triggering experience or stimuli, immediately reward the dog with a treat or toy before they begin exhibiting any of the unwanted reactive behaviors. It can take some time and patience, but can completely transform a dog’s reactions to certain triggers when they begin to associate them with pleasure and happiness.
Understand their physical cues
It can help to calm your dog and take positive action more quickly when you understand how to read their physical cues or body language.
A happy, calm dog who feels comfortable is loose in the body and often wagging its tail, of course. They usually have relaxed ears, soft eyes, and open, relaxed mouths. Early signs of nervousness or fear, however, usually involve some initial signs of physical tension, alert ears perhaps, and even low growling - or they will cower away, or hide behind you.
Either way, the earlier you can spot the cues that their mood is changing or they are being triggered, the sooner you can respond accordingly. What you do next will depend upon your dog and the severity of their reactivity. You may need to remove yourselves from the situation or focus on comforting them.
What you get will, to some extent, depend upon your particular pooch, but there are a number of canine accessories that can help to calm and manage a reactive dog.
For example, the Gentle Leader is a vet-recommended headcollar designed by dog trainers and helps with dogs who pull. It eliminates pressure on their throat and applies gentle pressure on certain pain-free points that redirect their tendency to pull instinctively.
Crates can also be very helpful in lessening reactivity, as dogs who are crate trained can feel particularly secure in their crate and learn to self-calm.
Another fantastic product for calming a reactive pooch is the aptly named Original Calming Bed. These beds are built to soothe anxious dogs, helping them to feel extra snug, safe and secure. They also come in a range of sizes to suit just about any breed.
Often, doing some conditioning work, increasing socialization, establishing a routine, and providing them with some comforting accessories can be all it takes to calm your reactive dog down.
If you have tried everything and are still not seeing any real progress, it might be time to consult with a trainer and a vet. In some instances, vets can prescribe medication for anxiety, and it’s important to check for any underlying health issues.