If you have a reactive dog and want to help them learn how to be calm and at peace in the face of triggers, you can make a huge difference with intentional touch. I have helped many owners of reactive dogs move to huge improvement, or even totally cleared the problem with healing bodywork (the Whole Energy Body Balance Method).
If you’ve ever had to deal with a reactive dog, you’ll know how volatile and dangerous they can be. This can be from the perspective of owning one, OR it can be from the other side – meeting a reactive dog can be scary, dangerous, or even end up resulting in serious injury to your dog, or yourself. IT’s stressful at both ends of the lead, and there are things you can do to help – both when you’re holding the lead, AND when you are having a reactive dog interacting with you or your dogs.
Reactive dogs show signs of anxiety and arousal that can quickly escalate into aggression – lunging on the lead, barking, sometimes even attacking and biting people or dogs. Reactivity can be triggered simply by seeing another dog in the distance, kids walking home from school, or a man with a hat on – the triggers will vary from dog to dog.
Why do dogs become reactive?
Reactive dogs are nearly always afraid and painful dogs. In most cases they will be carrying pain in their neck, back or body, and are being reactive to stop other dogs or people from bumping them and causing pain. In other cases they may have been attacked or injured by another dog, or abused by a human. Sometimes it may be that that they have linked something non-harmful to an uncomfortable or stressful experience and can become reactive to strange things.
Poor socialization, poor genetic temperament, adverse incidents happening during developmental fear periods, and owners who have poor boundaries and inadequate training skills can all contribute to reactivity problems.
Reactivity develops when a dog has a painful, fearful, or stressful experience. This causes the dog to trigger into a state of fight/flight. They feel threatened, and this is the survival response. If the other dog or person then moves away, this reinforces the reactive behaviour. (This is why so many dogs are reactive with the postman – the dog barks, growls, etc., and every single time, the postman moves on down the street. The dog feels like it’s won, and the behaviour tends to get more intense over time.
The key thing is that reactive dogs go into what I call hyper-arousal. They cross the redline and go into full-blown fight/flight mode. When this happens, the frontal cortex turns off, and without the ability to think rationally, reactive dogs often stop responding to commands. They have switched into full survival mode, and literally cannot hear their humans anymore.
What can you do to help reactive dogs learn how to relax and be at peace?
Let’s start with how you can help reactive dogs that belong to someone else.
- Never let your dog run up to another dog on a lead. Keep your dog on the lead, or call them back to you. If they won’t always come when called, keep them on the lead until you can talk to the other dog owner. If your dog races up to a reactive dog to play, they may be attacked. Even if they are not attacked, you’ll be making the reactive dog’s problem worse.
- Never give any dog that seems anxious or aroused a direct gaze into their eyes – that’s very threatening to them. Also don’t let your dog stare at a reactive dog, as this will escalate things very quickly.
- If you’re visiting a friend’s dog who you know is reactive, be very calm, slow and deliberate in your movements. Never approach the dog, give them time and space to come to you.
- If a reactive dog has lost the plot, slowly and carefully move away. Keep an eye on the situation, never turn your back, but slowly and calmly move out of their trigger zone. When you get a certain distance away they will start to settle.
Helping your own reactive pup
There is a lot you can do to help reactive dogs. The first thing you’ll need to do is to get better at understanding your dog.
- Learn how to train your dog effectively. Never use aversive training techniques (like shock collars or ‘snapping’ on a check chain as this will increase arousal levels and make things worse over time.
- Learn how to train your dog into healthy relaxation with the loving, intentional touch of the Whole Energy Body Balance (WEBB) method. I have helped so many dogs learn how to relax with this work. And I’ve taught a stack of dog owners how to do it too. The bodywork from the WEBB method causes a body-level relaxation response. We consistently see really good reductions in reactivity with this work.
- Find out if your dog has silent neck, back, or body pain. 53% of pets have significant pain that is invisible to their humans. In the WEBB method online training, you’ll learn how to feel into the body and find this hidden pain, and then how to melt that pain away with healing bodywork. I nearly always find that reactive dogs have pain that is driving the behaviour.
- Don’t ‘flood’ your dog, ever. It’s never a good idea to purposefully trigger a reactive dog. Better to avoid situations that cause the problem. Stay at a distance where your dog can settle, then ever so slowly move closer over time. You can very effectively combine this strategy with the relaxing WEBB bodywork.
- Keep your cool. Your dog is afraid and painful. They are not a bad dog. When they are reactive they don’t have the ability to respond to your commands.
- If nothing is working, seek help from the appropriate professionals – some reactive dogs may need prescription meds to help them in the re-training period. Prescription meds are not my first go-to, but dogs with severe problems may benefit a LOT from them.
- Have a vet check, blood tests etc. to make sure there are no underlying health issues contributing to the problems.
You can rehabilitate reactive dogs. It’s not a short or easy road, but if you’re devoted and determined, it absolutely can be done. You will need to learn new skills. It will be challenging. And the rewards are so worth it!
If you want me to help you with a reactive dog, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org