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How To Enable a Reactive Dog To Live A Full Life

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David Adams

December 31, 2023

Dog Reactivity

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* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

Are you concerned that your reactive dog won’t be able to live life to the fullest? People with reactive dogs sometimes feel discouraged or that they cannot give their dog a full life, but don’t worry! In this article, we will go over how to lead a full and happy life with your reactive dog, including self-care, managing your dog’s environment, and tips for having fun with your dog. Reactivity is common, and with some creativity and problem-solving skills, you and your dog can still have a great time together!

An important note: make sure to have a qualified trainer evaluate your dog before engaging in any new activities that have the potential to be harmful to your dog or anyone else (e.g. off leash play). You can definitely manage your dog’s environment and your own self-care, but it’s important to get a trainer involved when you have a reactive dog.

What is reactivity in dogs?

The American Kennel Club defines reactive dogs as “[dogs] that overreact to certain things or situations.” Typically, this looks like barking, growling, or lunging. Reactive dogs have certain triggers that cause them to react. Some examples of common triggers are: other dogs, tall people, men with beards, skateboards, and so forth. 

Reactivity isn’t necessarily forever

First off, remember that your dog’s reactivity is not static and can be improved through training. To train a reactive dog, you’ll definitely want to find a trainer to help you. (You’ll want to find a trainer who also uses positive reinforcement training, and does not use any punishment or aversives.) 

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Taking care of yourself with a reactive dog

When you’re in the position of caregiving, it’s important to make time for self-care. This is true with dogs, too! If you have a reactive dog, you might feel stressed or overwhelmed at times, and that’s completely normal. 

Taking care of yourself is essential for both you and your dog. You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of your dog’s needs. That’s why self-care is an important part of providing a great life for you and your reactive dog. 

woman with dogs

Self-care ideas:

  • Exercise (without your dog): Exercise is a great way to relieve stress. Try to build some exercise into your schedule that doesn’t involve your dog, like going to the gym, yoga, or even just stretching by yourself. 

  • Meditation: Meditation is another proven stress reliever and can be done almost anywhere, and for any length of time that’s comfortable for you.

  • Therapy: Taking care of your mental health is important for dog parents and non-dog parents alike, and therapy can be a big part of that. 

  • Dog-free days: Try to make time for yourself without your dog. If you are able to leave your dog home, plan a day for yourself (and maybe your partner or a friend) to go do some activities dog-free, like see a movie or go to lunch. 
    • If you are unable to leave your dog unattended but are able to safely crate him for a while, that’s a great option too. The important thing is to take some time for yourself and give yourself a break from thinking about the dog’s needs.

For more self-care tips, the Reddit community r/reactive dogs has a great thread on the subject

Manage your reactive dog’s environment

You can help your dog’s reactivity by managing their environment. This means identifying your dog’s triggers and limiting access to them as much as possible. This might look like: 

  • closing the blinds if your dog barks at strangers they see out the window

  • turning on background noise (such as a white noise machine or using a phone app (like Rain Rain) for a dog who barks at sounds from outdoors

  • not walking your dog in areas with lots of other dogs, or going to dog parks with unknown dogs, if your dog is reactive to other dogs

The situation will be different depending on your dog’s triggers, but in many cases, the trigger is avoidable (or can be lessened) at least some of the time.

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Tips for having fun with your reactive dog

Don’t worry, you and your reactive dog can still have a ton of fun! Reactivity is common and there are many ways to manage it while still having fun with your dog. Remember, it’s important to have your trainer evaluate your dog before engaging in any new activities, especially if they involve off leash play.

  • Go out at sunrise: Sunrise is a great time to be out and about with a reactive dog. Many common triggers, like other people, other dogs, skateboards, loud trucks, etc, are less likely to be out at sunrise. Take your dog on a walk at sunrise and you’ll most likely have the neighborhood to yourself! Or, if you’re able, you might even engage in some off-leash exercise at sunrise, provided it’s safe.

  • Think of places to go that avoid the dog’s triggers: Each dog is unique in what triggers them. Once you’ve identified their triggers, you can think of places to go where the trigger is unlikely to be. If skateboards, bikes, and cars trigger your dog, you might try a nice hike outside of the city. If your dog is triggered by tall people, or people with hats, beards, etc, you might try a hike or walk in a less crowded area. Get creative!

  • Use Sniffspot: Sniffspot is an excellent option for any dogs who need their own space. A Sniffspot can give your dog the freedom to explore a fun new environment while remaining safe. Sniffspot is especially good for leash-reactive dogs or dogs who are reactive to other dogs. Book a Sniffspot in your area and let your dog have fun!

  • Don’t give up on playdates, if possible: Depending on your dog’s triggers and the severity with which he reacts to them, playdates with known dogs can be a great activity. (Obviously, this will not work for dogs who are very reactive to other dogs across the board, as the dog may become aggressive. Use your best judgment and make sure safety comes first for everyone involved.) If your dog is overstimulated by the dog park, he might do well in a backyard with just one dog that he knows. Or maybe your dog is reactive when he is on a leash (sometimes called “leash aggression”), but is fine with other dogs when he is off leash. With any playdate, make sure you talk over your dog’s reactivity with the other dog parent, and that you know their dog’s triggers (if they have any) as well. You’ll also want to have a plan in place in case either dog gets triggered. With some safety precautions and good communication, playdates may still be an option for you and your dog. 

Trainer Review of this Article

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:

Alexandra Walker
Professional Canine Trainer - Accredited / PCT Level 2
Courteous Canine/DogSmith of Tampa
AKC CGC® and STAR Puppy Approved Evaluator 
Licensed Pet Dog Ambassador Instructor/Assessor

Sniffspot Dog running on field

Get safe exercise for your dog by renting a private dog park near you

David Adams photo

David Adams

December 31, 2023

Dog Reactivity

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