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Understanding Reactive Dogs: Signs, Causes, and Solutions

Have you ever heard of reactivity in dogs? Maybe your pet is a reactive dog, but you didn't even know the name of this behavior. If you want to know what we are talking about, we invite you to continue reading our article.

What is a reactive dog?

Reactivity in dogs refers to certain canine behaviors in certain situations. Specifically, a reactive dog is one that behaves in a completely emotional way on most occasions before a determined stimulus or event.

Experts clarify that reactivity in dogs is not associated with specific emotions but with the way in which these animals manage these emotions.

To be more specific, the definition of "reactive dog" given by a professional dog trainer, is that a reactive dog is one that responds in a disorderly and exaggerated manner, in duration and intensity, to a given stimulus. All this regardless of whether the stimulus comes from a positive factor (e.g., joy) or a negative one (e.g., fear).

For this reason, as pet guardians, we should not only be concerned when the manifestations of reactivity involve aggression. Those that originate from a positive emotion are equally revealing.

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Signs of reactivity in dogs

Some of the signs of reactivity in dogs have already been mentioned above, but we specify them here.

  • The dog cannot self-manage situations that generate distrust or fear, such as crossing paths with another animal or being approached by a stranger.
  • In these situations, the dog growls, barks, lunges, pulls on the leash or tries to attack.
  • A reactive dog is also one that responds in an exaggerated and out of control way to less compromising contexts, such as crossing paths with a known person.
  • The dog does not respond to simple commands at these times.

What are the causes of reactivity in dogs?

Canine behaviorists explain that there is no single reason for a dog to be reactive.

The causes may be multiple:

  • Fear.
  • Phobia.
  • Anxiety.
  • Lack of early socialization.
  • Excessive excitement.
  • Education based on punishment or unconscious.

Even so, some experts speak of three recurring reasons for reactive canine behavior.


Some dogs become fearful when they see a person, animal, or object. This problem is usually caused by a lack of socialization or a traumatic experience in the past.


When some dogs are restrained in some way, for example, being held on a leash or behind a door, they can become overly excited if they see another dog or person. The stress of not being able to physically perform as they would like in that situation causes them to become frustrated and react.

Learned behavior

It may happen that the dog behaves reactively because, as a puppy, it tried to approach a person or dog, it received a tug on the leash. It could happen then that the dog started to associate people or dogs with tugs, and now, every time he meets them, he remembers that tug and has a reaction.

What do I do if I have a reactive dog?

When faced with a reactive dog, it is always best to consider seeing a specialist in canine ethology for professional help. In any case, professionals recommend certain guidelines to take into account.

1. First of all, you have to understand that, for the dog, the stimulus he is facing is a threat or something that makes him tremendously curious, and that is why he behaves that way. Therefore, we should not try to subject the dog to the maximum level of stimulation with the intention of getting him used to it. On the contrary, the best thing to do is to distance him a little.

2. Therefore, try to avoid exposing the dog to the stimulus for a while, as far as possible.

3. In the meantime, relaxed obedience should be worked on with positive reinforcement. In addition, the dog should also be taught reorientation behaviors such as the "look at me" command.

4. When obedience results are achieved, begin to introduce the stimulus in question into the walk at a distance tolerated by the dog. When the dog detects the stimulus, it will be necessary to distract its attention and divert it to something else (game, caress, signals to obey and/or look at you, etc.). If the dog moves away from the stimulus without reacting, or if the stimulus moves away from him without any response from the dog, he will be given a reward.

5. Be aware that this will be a long-term job.

What not to do with a reactive dog

In addition to knowing the guidelines to follow when your dog is reactive, it is also important to know what not to do when your dog is reactive.

Do not punish him

Punishment will only make the situation worse. For example, if the cause of reactivity is fear, punishment will make your dog much more fearful.

Do not pull on the leash

Never pull on the leash and much less before the reaction occurs. You would be anticipating the reactivity and if, by any chance, the dog was not going to do it, you will have incited him to do it with the tugging.

Read also: How Can i Stop My Dog Chasing Shadow

Is a reactive dog an aggressive dog?

No, a reactive dog is not an aggressive dog. Unfortunately, many times both things are confused and it is said that it is.

Normally, it is thought that a dog that reacts badly (growling, barking...) when it sees people or animals is because it wants to physically attack them. It does not have to be this way in all cases, sometimes it is only a warning.

Another issue is that the dog has learned that by biting what he considers a threat, the threat moves away. In that case it is a negative reinforcement that would make that behavior to occur and it is something to correct.

Now that you know what a reactive dog is, would you say that your pet is reactive? If so, remember that the best thing to do is to work on him to modify that behavior. If you need help, do not hesitate to consult a professional.