Reactivity, do dogs grow out of it?
Is your dog young and reactive, and are they showing some alarming behaviour aimed at either people or dogs or both?
Have people told you that this behaviour is just a “phase” and that your puppy will some day grow up to be absolutely fine with other dogs?
So lets take a look and see whether or not you can assume your puppy will grow out of this reactive behavioural phase, or whether you will need to do some training to help your puppy overcome the reactivity
Will a dog actually grow out of being reactive?
With puppies they can actually grow out of some of the behaviours that we don’t like.
For example they might stop chewing shoes or taking things and putting them into their mouths. Usually they will calm down and mature between the age of 1 - 3 years old depending on the breed. Most of the puppy habits will in time calm down, however reactivity is not one of those behaviours that will.
If you have a young dog who is reactive, then don’t just assume that they will grow out of this reactivity. Quite often its the total opposite. Reactivity can increase over a period of time. If a dog frequently has experiences that are negative, then this will make your puppies future responses to stress triggers stronger. Training you dog for their reactivity is absolutely critical.
Puppy reactive to other dogs.
Young dogs who are showing signs of reactivity usually start this behaviour around 6 - 12 months old. With reactivity the earlier your puppy shows signs of reactive tendencies, the more you should be concerned. If your puppy is 8 months old or younger and they are showing reactive behaviour, then seriously you need to invest professional help as soon as possible from a trainer or behaviourist who have experience with reactivity.
When puppies are young they are not only vulnerable but they cannot defend themselves, their reaction to any dog or human is to actually default to being friendly.
When it comes to evolution this makes the most sense, it guarantees that the puppy will not be part of any escalation and will stay safe.
For a puppy that doesn’t show this typical puppy cheerfulness when they see other dogs may already be experiencing deep rooted reactivity that needs will need to be helped with. It is not a good idea to attempt to simply try and introduce your reactive puppy to another dog.
There are some dog breeds who are more than likely to produce puppies who are dog reactive. These are breeds that are particularly bread for herding and guarding. An example is the Belgian Malinois, and if you have a Malinois puppy, then it is sensible that you look out for any developing reactive mannerisms.
If my dog is reactive, how can I tell?
So how can you tell if your dog is just excited to see other dogs or is actually reactive?
There’s a lot of young dogs who don’t have any impulse control and they want and need fulfilment in an instant in all areas of life. When it comes to meeting another dog that they want to play with and they cannot get that fun game started straight away, they can end up lunging, barking and jumping up on their lead. This will look exactly like reactivity and in fact it can actually be a sign of lead reactivity!
The difference is actually in the emotion behind the behaviour. Responses that are down to reactivity are based on emotions that are negative, being stressed, scared, anxious, angry. Dogs who are overly excited however are mainly just wound up and frustrated because all they want to do is play.
One way to tell whether or not your dog is reactive to put your dogs thoughts into words. A dog who is reactive thinks:
I want that dog to just go away. They shouldn’t be in my life. They are making me feel stressed. They just need to leave.
A dog that is over excited would just think:
I really need and want to run and play so bad with that other dog! Please I really don’t want to be on the lead. I just want to play and be free!
Try watching your dog’s behaviour and you’ll know whether your dog is being reactive or is just over excited.
Can a dog who’s reactive be rehabilitated
If when watching your dog you work out that yes, what your dog is showing is in fact reactivity, don’t feel upset: Dogs who are reactive can certainly improve.
It is important to try and not let your dog deep root their reactive behaviour any more. For a lot of owners this will mean making some changes in their day to day lives.
An example is, if you walk your dog every morning at 7 am and your next door neighbour walks their dog at exactly the same time, and their dog sets your dog off being reactive, then change what time you walk your dog to either earlier or later to avoid walking at the same time.
Actually, some owners who have a reactive dog need to stop walking their dogs for a short while. This is because every time that the dog is sent over threshold, it will ingrain on the dogs reactivity even more.
From an evolutionary point of view this makes a lot of sense that any highly stressful and negative experiences get remembered for quite a long time. It helps to prevent dogs and all other animals from repeatedly putting themselves in to dangerous situations.
Sadly, this will also mean that reactive dog training will need to be really planned well. If you take your dog into a situation in which your dog is going to fail and lose control, your dog will then have an even worse connection with their trigger.
But saying that: having the right approach with your training, you can completely help your dog get better with their reactivity.
How am I going to train my dog to be less reactive?
Treats will be your number 1 friend: They are going to be useful in forming a new and positive link. Don’t worry about your dog being spoilt or making your dog rely on treats: The more generous you are with the use of treats in your training session, the faster your dog will progress.
Plan your training sessions in advance. It is not advisable to just go out and see what happens when you have a reactive dog. Why not ask someone you know with a dog, like a friend and see if they can assist you with your training.
Start in a wide, open space. When your puppy sees the other dog, immediately drop some treats on the ground. You want to teach him “Another dog means that good things are happening!”
If your reactive puppy is lunging and barking, then you are too close to the other dog. Get more distance by moving away. Remember:
Whenever your dog goes over their threshold their reactivity will keep getting worse.
If your puppy can eat and enjoy the treats calmly at a large distance from the other dog, move a little closer. It may take several sessions until you can shorten the distance between your dog and the helper dog. And this is absolutely fine!
Remember this: Slow and steady wins the race, Don’t push your dog over their threshold and make a bad impression out of them!
Can a reactive dog get better with age?
Even dogs who are senior can be quite reactive!
Unfortunately, The simple answer is no. Reactivity is a deep rooted reaction that will only get better with effective training and consistency.
Never punish a dog for being reactive: This will only imprint an emotion that is highly negative and this might end up make it totally impossible to sort in the future,
A lot of dogs start showing reactivity at around their first birthday. If your dog all of a sudden starts to show reactive behaviour, don’t wait: The sooner you start dealing with the behaviour through training, the higher the chances will be that you can help your dog to improve.
My reactivity course includes a complete training program for dogs who are reactive, from start to finish, and full support is always available.
If reactive behaviour is not addressed with training, then the dog is more than likely to stay reactive for their whole life.
Reactive dogs are they dangerous?
Reactive dogs can actually be dangerous. As a dog owner you are 100% responsible for keeping your dog under control at all times. You should never allow your reactive dog to be off lead when there are dogs and people around. You also need to make sure that your garden is secure and that your dog cannot escape and leave your property.
You need to manage and supervise your dog at all times, especially around smaller dogs and children. Many incidents that involve bites happen due to dog reactivity and these happen everyday.
It is absolutely impossible to guess exactly how reactive a dog is going to be when in close vicinity to the trigger or how the dog will do when off lead. You always need to be extra vigilant and have multiple layers of security in place.
Muzzles are a great piece of kit and are a really good way to add an extra layer of safety when going out on walks with a reactive dog. With conditioning your dog to wear a muzzle using training, you can make wearing a muzzle quite comfortable for your dog. If this is done with patience, practice and consistency, most dogs are happy to wear a muzzle on short walks within just a couple of weeks.
What’s the bottom line
So do dogs actually grow out of being reactive?
Answer, No they don’t. The only way to deal with reactivity is through consistent training. Don’t ever punish your dog for being reactive or the behaviour will only become worse. Even more so if you own a young dog who suddenly starts to show reactive behaviour, you should seek help from a trainer who is experienced with reactivity. My Reactivity Course is a solution that is affordable!
If you are consistent with working on your dog’s reactivity, it is highly likely that the behaviour will improve a lot over time. Plan for around 2 months of dedicated training. If this is done correctly, you may see a small result within as little as one week.
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