In my work as a professional dog trainer, I frequently hear from clients who are concerned about their dog’s behavior when another dog or person is nearby. Owners struggle to keep their dog under control, and often feel frustrated and embarrassed, while their dogs bark at, pull toward or lunge at these “triggers”. A dog may behave this way because he is fearful, anxious, frustrated, aggressive, over-excited or over-aroused in these situations. This is classified as “reactive behavior” or “dog reactivity”, regardless of the reason it occurs. Reactive behavior does not get better on its own, and is best addressed in specially designed classes for reactive dogs.
Reactivity in dogs is a behavioral issue. It requires a different type of training and expertise compared to regular obedience-type training, because it deals with behaviors arising from an emotional state. A reactive dog is experiencing emotional distress. He is not purposely choosing to misbehave. Instead, he is having trouble coping in that situation, and is unable to think or make good choices. To help the dog feel more relaxed and less distressed when the dog encounters other dogs or people, we need to change the emotions that the dog associates with the trigger. This is accomplished through a program of carefully choreographed, repeated exposures to the triggers, during which the dog experiences only relaxed, pleasant emotions.
Working with a professional dog trainer or behavior expert is strongly recommended, rather than trying to resolve your dog’s reactivity on your own. Many dog owners are misled by advice from friends, conflicting information from books or on the internet, and methods seen on TV shows. One size does not fit all when working with dog behavioral issues, and the wrong type of intervention can worsen the dog’s reactivity, especially if using punishment to address reactive behaviors. As mentioned in previous articles, punishing a dog in the presence of triggers that already cause stress for the dog will not improve his feelings toward that trigger. Punishment may lead the dog to associate more negative feelings with that situation.
Most of us would not attempt to tackle a very challenging plumbing problem if we did not have the tools, knowledge, and experience required, and we would not hesitate to call in a reputable, qualified expert. Your dog deserves the same quality of expertise to help him relax and respond to you, even when there are other dogs or people around. An expert in dog behavior and reactivity will be able to help you to accurately assess contributing factors, and to recognize and interpret the subtle signals of stress and arousal shown by the dog. They will be able to design an appropriate program to assist your dog to become more comfortable around his triggers without pushing him too far and eliciting reactive behavior.
As with hiring a good plumber, care should be taken when choosing the professional to help with your dog’s reactivity. Look for a Certified Behavior Consultant-Canine (CBCC-KA) or Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). These credentials are awarded to highly experienced dog experts who use humane methods which are based on the science of dog training. They have demonstrated excellence in the field of dog training and are committed to maintaining their knowledge at the highest level.