What is reactivity in dogs? What does it look like?

Reactivity is one of the most common issues that dog owners have with their dogs. Usually people ‘label’ dogs as reactive when they display unwanted behaviours such as barking, lunging, and snapping towards certain triggers such as other dogs, people, objects, and noises. When we use this ‘label’ for dogs, our judgement is merely based on observable behaviours. When we actually address those behavioural issues, we need to delve into the cause, such as fear, stress, trauma, etc.

However, what I want to discuss in this post is not how to reduce reactivity in dogs, but to highlight those equally important but often more subtle behaviours that indicate a dog is struggling and needs help.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

My dog, Jasmine, and I were recently approached by another dog that was on leash pulling towards us. The dog put its face to Jasmine’s and showed the teeth, staring at her. Then, Jasmine started barking at the dog. The other dog’s owner didn’t seem to have noticed her dog’s behaviour. Not only the dog’s owner but also all the other people around us must have thought that my dog had reacted to a friendly dog.

In another incident, in an off-leash park, I saw an off-leash dog approaching another off-leash dog, which is no problem. But, at the next moment, the approaching dog suddenly growled and snapped at the other dog who looked very friendly. If the dog had displayed the behaviour when another dog approached it, it would have been nothing unusual. In such a case, most people would simply label the dog as reactive.

However, the dog’s owner didn’t look worried about her dog at all. She just laughed it off and kept walking. After seeing the dog doing the same thing to another dog, I asked the dog’s owner to put her dog on a lead. She looked puzzled. So, I explained that her dog didn’t look comfortable around other dogs, although I wished I could have described what I saw. (I couldn’t because I didn’t want to embarrass her in front of other people.)

In both cases the dogs didn’t bark or lunged. So, from a distance, it would have looked nothing concerning. But, it was clear that both dogs were uncomfortable with such close encounters with other dogs.

In training for reactive dogs, one of the most important concepts that we try to teach the dogs is increasing the distance to their triggers helps them feel better and safer, bringing them back under their threshold. But, if a reactive dog doesn’t display obvious reactive behaviours in close encounters with his triggers, his owner may not notice the dog’s fear or stress. As a result, the dog’s owner may miss an opportunity to help the dog overcome it before the issue gets more serious.

So, watch your dog carefully especially when he is facing his likely triggers with his back toward you.

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