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What are the signs of a reactive dog?

Reactive Behaviors in Dogs

Reactivity in dogs can be a difficult and sometimes dangerous problem that takes time and patience to reverse. Although any dog can develop reactivity due to developmental, environmental and medical reasons, some dogs, such as terrier and shepherding breeds, are more likely to develop reactive behaviors. Many reactive dogs may be managed through training and behavioral conditioning, however, some dogs may need additional help such as anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications to control their actions and reach their full potential.

Dogs that overreact in response to certain stimuli are known as reactive. Most reactive dogs can become somewhat calmer and happier animals with training, although in some cases, medications may also be recommended.

Symptoms of Reactive Behaviors in Dogs

There are several behaviors that might clue you in that your dog is feeling anxious or may be in a reactive state. Some of these behaviors may include:

  • Barking
  • Body tense and low or forward
  • Hiding
  • Growling
  • Intense stare
  • Licking of lips or muzzle
  • Looking away
  • Lunging
  • Nipping
  • Sudden scratching
  • Tail between legs
  • Teeth bared
  • Urination when approached
  • Whites of eyes are red or pink
  • Whites of eyes showing
  • Yawning


Dogs can become reactive to any object or circumstance, but there are a few that strike more frequently than others. Types of reactivity that are relatively common include:

Dog Reactive

Dogs can be reactive specifically to their own kind. In some cases, these dogs are reactive to all other canines, in others, they may be reactive to a specific category of dog, such as dogs with long hair as opposed to short, or even small dogs as opposed to large.

Leash Reactive

Leash reactivity is the most commonplace of the types of reactivity, and can be quite troubling for both you and your dog. As the typical responses to fear are either fight or flight, and the dog is unable to flee due to the leash, it may instigate the dog to fight instead.

Reactive to Men or Children

Although reactivity to men or children may be triggered by poor treatment or abuse, it is much more likely to be due to a lack of exposure during the animal’s socialization period.

Causes of Reactive Behaviors in Dogs

Triggers that may trigger reactive behaviors in dogs are typically a combination of nature and nurture. Possible components to fostering reactive behaviors may include:

  • Developmental factors — When abuse and traumatic events occur during a puppy’s developmental phase or if proper socialization did not occur early in life, this can cause a dog to become more fearful
  • Environmental factors — When raised in either an overly sheltered environment or if exposed to an environment of violence may trigger fear and reactivity in canines; in some situations, these factors may lead to the development of anxiety disorders or PTSD, which can increase the chances of a reactive episode
  • Genetic predisposition — Certain dogs or breeds of dog have a slight predisposition to developing a reactive personality; terrier breeds tend to be reactive towards other dogs, and shepherding breeds are naturally more reactive to motion, particularly forward motion
  • Physical disorders — Some physical disorders, particularly those that cause chronic pain, can elicit reactive behaviors, and disorders that affect the thyroid may cause your dog to be more anxious, increasing the chance of reactivity

Diagnosis of Reactive Behaviors in Dogs

When visiting your veterinarian regarding behavioral issues such as reactivity, information will be collected for a complete behavioral history. The type of data that is needed for a complete behavioral history typically includes information about the patient’s sex and age as well as anything else that may be known about the breed of the canine and their medical history. Facts about the circumstances prior to reactive episodes will be very helpful in diagnosing any underlying conditions, as will information regarding your dog’s behavior after the incident is over.

Details regarding the patient’s daily diet will be required, as well as any information regarding any new medications that have been introduced recently and the veterinarian will also need to know which corrective methods have already been tried and what the result of those methods was. As some cases of reactivity may have a physical or medical component as well, a thorough physical examination will also be completed, including standard diagnostic tests such as a complete blood count, biochemistry profile, and urinalysis.

Treatment of Reactive Behaviors in Dogs

The treatment for reactivity issues will be dependent on both the severity as well as the underlying trigger for the behavior. Certain chronic reactivity issues can become potentially dangerous and should be addressed by a veterinary professional. The management for dogs with reactivity disorders should be a cooperative effort between a professional trainer or behaviorist and the animal’s owner. It is crucial not to scold or punish a dog for its reactive behaviors. Scolding your dog for behaviors that are motivated by fear generally tends to enforce their feelings and increase the chances that fearful behavior will develop into more aggressive reactions. A commonly utilized training method to treat fear and reactivity is known as desensitization, a method in which treats and praise are used in conjunction with the presence of the object of fear to cause the feared object to become a more positive and familiar presence and thereby reducing any reactivity related to it.

Obedience training may also be employed to mitigate fear and anxiety, which will reduce the likelihood of a reactive response, and be used as a distraction from negative stimuli in a technique known as a counter-conditioning. In severe cases, behavioral therapy and training are not enough to calm the patient, and anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications may be recommended to calm your companion.

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Recovery of Reactive Behaviors in Dogs

Drugs that are administered to treat behavioral issues frequently take several weeks before they become fully effective, and it is essential that your veterinarian is aware of all of the other medications being administered to the patient. The way that canines metabolize medications can be very different from the way that a human metabolizes the medication and dosages can vary based on your dog’s specific response to the medication. Many antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications have contraindications with certain pain medications, antihistamines, and even herbal treatments. These drugs alone are rarely effective in eliminating challenging problem behaviors, and continuing with behavioral training will help your pet to become a happier and healthier individual.

Managing a leash-reactive dog

It can be embarrassing and stressful if your four-legged friend lunges, pulls toward, or barks at other dogs while on-leash.

Dog on leash

Here are some behaviors to watch out for:

1. When off-leash and in their own environment, dogs naturally greet from the side (in an arc) and sniff each other’s genital area. They don’t approach head-on and make hard eye contact unless a fight is about to start. Greetings typically last only a few seconds.

2. When our dogs meet on leash, they are typically forced to approach head-on and are often unable to turn their bodies. Their forced body language, and our own, tell our dogs that we want to fight with one another. Most dogs don’t want to fight, so they display a number of behaviors designed to prevent it. These distance-increasing behaviors includes barking, lunging, or growling — anything to make the threat go away.

3. If the dog owners decide to visit, or let the dogs say hi, the problems may get worse. On-leash, both dogs feel trapped, unable to get away from each other. Often, owners have their dogs on tight leashes, thinking this will help if anything happens. Unfortunately, a tight leash tells your dog you’re stressed, making your pup more stressed in return. As a result, both dogs may start barking, switching from their flight instinct, to fight.

Dog, Persephone, outside on a leash

4. Many owners don’t recognize rude behavior in their dogs, thinking they’re just overly friendly. They may let their dog charge up to another one, get in their face, or jump on them. This is extremely rude behavior among dogs and is sometimes the result of a lack of socialization past the puppy stage.

Adult dogs, while patient with puppy antics, will usually start to discipline puppies once they reach 5-6 months. The discipline isn’t violent and usually takes the form of a bark or growl. If a puppy never experiences these corrections, he may continue this inappropriate behavior in adulthood. When an adult dog inappropriately greets another one, the other dog will react with a loud bark or growl. It can be embarrassing and you may assume that the reaction means your canine companion is aggressive, while the dog’s inappropriate behavior was the issue in the first place.

5. Many people correct their dog for any perceived display of aggression. Some may force them to sit or lie down in an approaching dog’s path thinking this will help correct the behavior. ​​​​​

This can be dangerous for many reasons:

  • This teaches your dog that other dogs, and potentially other people, cause punishment. Remember any punishment — yelling, jerking the leash, grabbing your dog, or saying no — increases their anxiety level.
  • Correcting a dog for growling or barking may prevent them from growling or barking in the future. Growling and barking are warning signs that the dog may bite. If your dog is afraid to bark or growl, it may mean they’ll bite without warning when they’re stressed or uncomfortable.
  • Correcting a dog who is highly aroused or stressed may cause them to redirect their aggression to the handler.

Teaching dog to walk on leash

Here are some steps to help your dog feel better on-leash:

  1. Practice getting your pup’s attention before you go out. Say their name and reward them for looking at you. Start in a low-distraction environment, like your living room. Gradually move to busier areas as you’re able to get your dog’s attention regardless of what’s going on around you. This will teach your dog to look at you regardless of the environment.
  2. Don’t wait for your dog to react. When you’re out on your walk, as you see another dog approaching, wait until your dog notices them. When they do, get their attention and reward. This will teach your dog to associate the presence of others with something wonderful. When they look up at you for more, go closer and repeat.
  3. Don’t rush your dog. If they bark or lunge at the dog, you went too far, too fast. Or you just didn’t realize a dog was nearby. Simply add more distance and repeat. Don’t punish your dog for barking or you’ll undo the work you’ve done.
  4. Manage your dog’s environment for everyone’s safety. Keep them at a comfortable distance from other dogs. Don’t allow others to greet (at this time), or let them invade your dog’s space. Every negative experience will set your progress back, so it’s best to avoid them if possible. If you live in an area with lots of dogs, consider taking your friend somewhere less canines are present.
  5. Avoid approaching other dogs head-on. If you find yourself approaching another dog head-on, simply go around them in an arc, keeping your dog’s attention as suggested above. If the other dog starts to lunge and bark, keep your pup’s attention and reward more often. As soon as the other dog is gone, so are the treats. This will reinforce the idea that other canine companions mean good things, like treats!
  6. Consider a basket muzzle for walks. If your dog has harmed another person or dog, we recommend using a basket muzzle for walks. This will keep everyone safe while you’re working on this behavior. We also recommend seeking professional assistance. Please call our free Behavior Helpline at 763-489-2202 for additional information.

Did you know AHS offers reactivity dog training classes?

AHS offers a variety of specialty dog training classes, including our Reactive Rovers program specifically for dogs struggling with reactivity. You can sign up for our free reactivity seminar today to learn about next steps.

For more information on our training program, call 763-489-2217 or send us a message.

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