Your dog is reactive. They’ll see another dog, person, or other stimulus in the environment (like a car or bike) while out on a walk and suddenly go crazy at the end of their leash. The barking, lunging, and growling feels embarrassing for you — and it’s clear that your pup isn’t having a great time either.
What's going on? How can you work through this behavior with your companion? Will you ever be able to fully enjoy your neighborhood walks?
Reactivity is a common behavior issue. Here’s a look at a dog reactivity chart. Learning about the green, yellow, orange, and red zones will help you understand how your dog is feeling in a given moment and respond accordingly! You’ll make reactivity training progress in no time.
While every living animal is constantly “reacting” to its environment — you might put on a sweatshirt when you notice you’re cold or head to open the door when you hear a knock — “reactive” is used in the dog training world to describe pets who overreact to stimuli in their environments.
Reactivity generally encompasses a range of undesirable aggressive or defensive behaviors (barking, growling, lunging, jumping, pulling, and so on) in situations that typically don’t warrant them in our minds (triggers are behaving normally in a non threatening way) but that are overwhelming or scary to our dogs.
Basically: Your puppy who woofs once or twice when startled? They wouldn’t be diagnosed with reactivity. One who barks, growls, and lunges at every other dog they see out on a walk, on the other hand? They would be considered reactive.
Aggressive behavior on leash can usually be identified as either fear-based leash reactivity or frustration-based leash reactivity.
Your dog’s trigger stimuli are the things that cause them to react. Dogs might become reactive to just about anything, but some common triggers are:
Some dogs react to their triggers in all situations (for example, all dogs they see outside their home) while other dogs only react to more specific images (like pointy-eared dogs directly approaching them at a certain distance).
Your dog’s reactivity threshold is the point where they fully react to their triggers. When a dog is under threshold, they’re able to control their behaviors and be aware of their surroundings (even if they seem a little aroused, nervous, or on edge). When they’re over threshold, though, they're reacting from fear or a predatory instinct.
The best way to work with a reactive dog is to keep them under threshold as much as possible. You don't want to give them a chance to show their reactive behavior. This usually means working at a comfortable distance from the trigger where your dog knows it’s there but isn’t overwhelmed. This is called their critical distance or sub-threshold distance.
If you’re able to control the trigger’s intensity and duration, that can work too (it’s just usually a little more difficult if you aren’t in a controlled training set up).
Put simply: You don't want your reactive pup to have a reaction at all if possible! When a dog goes over threshold, it can take a few days — or even a full week — for their bodies to come down from the cortisol and adrenaline highs. It’s important to be extra conscious of any additional stressors during this period!
This article addresses how to tell if your dog is at or above their threshold in a certain situation — their level of reactivity — and what to do to help them feel better.
For more information on dog reactivity in general, take a look at the other blogs in our Dog Reactivity category:
As mentioned above, you want your dog to stay below threshold as much as possible! When in the green zone, your dog shouldn’t appear reactive at all — they’re able to think clearly and stay calm.
When under their reactivity threshold, your dog can typically:
Celebrate! Keep doing what you’re doing. A dog in the green zone of the reactivity chart is in a great mental headspace to learn and manage their emotional responses — you’re helping them build a new positive association with their triggers from a comfortable distance.
While in the green zone, you can:
As your dog approaches their reactivity threshold, it’s important to pay attention to subtle body language signals. Not all stress is bad — some small amounts can even be helpful in the learning process, such as what’s described in the Yerkes-Dodson law — but you do not want to overdo it. Remember when we mentioned that it can take multiple days or even a week for your dog to fully come down after an intense reaction experience? Err on the side of caution when in doubt!
When approaching their threshold, your dog will likely:
If your dog is in the yellow zone, you can:
When your dog reaches the orange zone, two main things happen. The first is that they’re no longer able to learn effectively or build positive memories or associations with their triggers. All they’ll be able to remember is their stress! The second is that your dog is likely mere moments away from having a full-blown reaction with barking, lunging, growling, or their other typical reactive behaviors.
When your dog is in the orange zone, they:
If your dog is over threshold, you should follow these steps:
Your dog is in the red zone when they’re fully reacting to their triggers. At this point, your pup isn’t able to pay attention to you at all. It’s not that they’re ignoring you on purpose — they’re just so overwhelmed that it’s impossible to listen to your cues during their intense reaction.
We know it can be frustrating, but remember that your dog needs your help in this situation, not your judgment!
Understanding your dog’s threshold and avoiding reactive episodes will help you live a better life together. Rehearse healthy habits, prevent excessive stress, and celebrate your progress over time! The entire reactive dog community is cheering for you.When in doubt about your dog’s reactivity training? Reach out to a local force-free trainer for in-person guidance or a certified professional who offers virtual sessions to guide you from afar.
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.
This is the trainer that reviewed this article:
AnimalKind Training M.Ed. Humane Education Karen Pryor Academy. Certified Training Partner. Certified Tellington TTouch and TTEAM Practitioner
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