(2024 update) What is Dog Reactivity? 6 Deadly Mistakes When Training Your Reactive Dog

(2024 update) What is Dog Reactivity? 6 Deadly Mistakes When Training Your Reactive Dog

What Is Dog Reactivity?


Dog reactivity is a common behavioral problem that many dog parents have to deal with. It can be a challenging experience because it’s a behavior that is not well understood by many dog trainers. 

In this article I’ll explain what exactly dog reactivity is, what are 7 common mistakes you don’t want to make, what to do do when your dog shows reactive behaviors and how to overcome it. I’ll explore the nuances of dog reactivity, providing insights into its causes, signs, and effective training methods. With the right understanding and training, you can help your pup overcome reactive behavior.

Understanding the basics of dog reactivity is the first step towards addressing this issue. Dog reactivity refers to an exaggerated response to certain stimuli, often leading to aggressive behavior. An example of a stimuli could be an encounter with other dogs, people, or  specific objects like bikes, scooters etc. Reactive behavior may include barking, lunging, growling, or other signs of distress.


Dog Reactivity vs Dog Aggression

Understanding the nuances between reactivity and aggression in dogs is crucial for effective training and appropriate management. While these two words are often used interchangeably, they represent distinct behavioral responses with different underlying motivations.

While reactive behavior involves an exaggerated response to a stimuli or trigger, aggression is a deliberate attempt to cause harm. 

Reactive Behavior:

Reactivity in dogs refers to an exaggerated response to specific stimuli, such as other dogs, strangers, or loud noises. Reactive behavior is often rooted in overstimulation, fear or anxiety. It is a defensive reaction with the purpose of creating distance from the perceived threat. Common signs of reactive behavior include barking, lunging, growling, or other signs of distress.

Characteristics of Reactive Behavior:

  • Triggered Response: Reactive behavior is a response to a specific trigger, and the intensity of the reaction varies based on the dog’s perception of the threat. This triggers can be other dogs, strangers, loud noises, moving objects or stationary objects.

  • Intent to Avoid or Remove the Trigger: The primary goal of reactive dogs is to create distance from the trigger rather than causing harm. The behavior is driven by a desire to escape or remove the perceived threat or stimuli.

  • Emotional Response: Reactive behavior is often driven by an automatic emotional response to a perceived threat, and it may not involve a deliberate attempt to harm.

Reactive dogs are only activated by specific triggers in specific situations. Very commonly in urban areas is caused by a restrainer not by the stimuli. An example of this is leash Rectivity. Which caused by the lack of leash communication skills on the human.

Another example of a restrainer is a window or a fence: two dogs barking and lunging at each other on different sides of the fence. When you remove the fence they are perfectly fine with each other. The combination of the fence with a stimuli, in this case the other dog, triggers the reactivity. What happens here is that the fence is physically restraining the interaction. One of the dogs starts getting frustrated to the point where it gets over threshold or red zone and triggers the reactivity. 

I want to point out that a reactive dog that gets over threshold or into red zone can become aggressive and create harm and bite. But the intention was never to create harm. The reason why it becomes aggressive is because they get out of control and over threshold. 

Aggressive Behavior:

Aggression, on the other hand, involves a deliberate attempt to cause harm, whether to a person, another animal, or an object. Aggressive behavior is not always linked to a specific trigger, and it may occur without apparent provocation. Understanding the motivations behind aggression is essential for developing an appropriate training and management plan.

Characteristics of Aggressive Behavior:

  • Intent to Cause Harm: Aggressive behavior is characterized by a deliberate attempt to harm, either defensively or territorially.
  • No Specific Trigger: Aggression may occur without a specific trigger, and the behavior is not necessarily linked to a specific stimulus.
  • Different Body Language: Aggressive body language may include stiff posture, raised hackles, exposed teeth, and a direct stare. The dog may display a more offensive response compared to reactive behavior.

Aggressive behavior may require more extensive behavior modification training and professional guidance.I t’s important to note that a dog may exhibit both reactive and aggressive behaviors depending on the context and the specific trigger. Seeking the guidance of a professional dog trainer or behaviorist can help accurately assess your dog’s behavior and develop a tailored training plan to address any underlying issues.

Figuring Out Your Dog’s Reactivity Triggers

When dealing with reactivity Identifying the specific triggers that set off your dog’s reactive behavior is crucial for effective training. Observing your dog in different situations and environments can help pinpoint these triggers. Common triggers include:

  • Other Dogs: Many dogs display reactivity towards other dogs, whether on walks, at the dog park, or through windows at home.
  • Strangers: Some dogs may react aggressively to unfamiliar people, particularly if they approach too quickly or make direct eye contact.
  • Loud Noises: Thunderstorms, fireworks, loud bikes or other loud noises can trigger reactive behavior in some dogs.
  • Specific Objects: Dogs might react to certain objects, such as bicycles, skateboards, hats or even specific colors.

6 Deadly Mistakes When Training Your Reactive Dog

Training a reactive dog requires a savy and nuanced strategy. Avoiding common mistakes is crucial for successful training. Here are six deadly mistakes to steer clear of:

#1 Thinking It Will Go Away By Itself

One of the biggest mistakes is thinking that your dog’s reactivity will naturally go away. Reactive behavior tends to get worse because it’s self reinforced. Proactive and consistent successful training is necessary.

#2 Not Having a Game Plan

Failing to plan ahead can put you and your dog on situations where you can’t scape. Sometimes this can be dangerous and the very least your dog will get worse since he keep rehearsing those reactive behaviors.Planning ahead involves identifying potential triggers in different environments and having a strategy in place to navigate these situations. 

#3 Not Regulating Trigger Intensity

Exposing your dog to triggers at an intensity that exceeds their threshold will worsen reactivity. Gradual exposure, a controlled sate of mind, and calm reinforcement are crucial components of effective training. Pushing your dog too far too quickly may result in setbacks and increased stress levels.

#4 Not Being Consistent in Your Training

Consistency and success is the cornerstone of dog training, especially when dealing with reactivity. Inconsistencies in your approach and skills can confuse your dog and will delay progress.  You will also loose your dogs trust.

#5 Being Stationary or Making Your Dog Sit Down

Reactive dogs close to their threshold rarely find comfort in being stationary or sitting down while staring directly at their trigger. Forcing your dog into a stationary position can increase anxiety and exacerbate reactive behavior. Instead, focus on creating distance, de-escalating techniques, and desensitization to encourage calm behavior.

#6 Punishing Reactivity

Punishing reactive behavior is a common mistake that can have detrimental effects on your dog’s well-being and exacerbate the issue. Punishing is based on fear of consequence, so even you manage to suppress it you are not solving the underlying issue. Behavior Training is based on teaching your dog to cope and and self regulate their emotional responses to triggers which actually solves the underlying issue short term and long term.

Remember that patience, understanding, and a deep bond between you and your dog are key components of a successful training journey.

Counterconditioning and Desensitization

Counterconditioning and desensitization are powerful training techniques to modify your dog’s reactive behavior. These methods focus on changing your dog’s emotional response to the triggers by associating positive experiences with them.


Desensitization involves gradually exposing your dog to the trigger at a level that doesn’t provoke a reactive response. Start at a distance where your dog remains calm and gradually decrease the distance over time. This helps your dog become desensitized to the trigger.


Counterconditioning involves pairing the presence of the trigger with something positive. For example, if your dog is reactive to other dogs, you can reward calm behavior in the presence of another dog with treats, gradually creating a positive association. Many times this can be counterproductive since the treats can create more stimulus and you can break your dogs calm behavior. Sometimes less is more. 

Combining these techniques in a controlled and systematic manner is essential for success. Consistency, progress and Timing are key!

What To Do When Your Dog Shows Reactive Behavior

When your dog exhibits reactive behavior, it’s essential to respond appropriately to manage the situation and prevent escalation. Here are some tips for handling reactive episodes:

1. Stay Calm:

Dogs can pick up on their owner’s emotions. Stay calm and composed to help prevent your dog from becoming more agitated.

2. Use De-escalation Techniques:

Redirect your dog’s attention and eye contact away from the trigger.  This helps break the focus on the trigger and will start calming your dog down de-escalting the situation.

3. Create Distance:

Increase the distance between your dog and the trigger to a level where your dog calms down. This can help avoid a full-blown reactive episode.

5. Remove the Trigger:

If possible, remove your dog from the situation causing reactivity. This may involve changing your walking route, crossing the street, or creating a physical barrier.

Remember that punishment is not an effective solution for reactive behavior. Instead, focus on positive reinforcement and training techniques to address the underlying causes.

How to Reduce Reactive Behavior

Reducing reactive behavior in dogs requires a multifaceted approach. Here are some effective strategies:

1. Early Intervention:

Addressing reactive behavior as early as possible increases the likelihood of successful intervention. Puppies, in particular, can benefit from early socialization and behavior training.

2. Behavior Training:

Implementing Behavior Training is key. Reactivity is not something you want to correct, is some thing you don’t want to occur in first place. You need to help your dog before the behavior happens not after. Self control training techniques will help mold your dog’s behavior. Reinforcing controlled emotional responses and self control by providing good guidance will create a stronger bond between you and your dog.

3. Consistent Training Routine:

Dogs thrive on routine, and consistency is key when training a reactive dog. Establish a daily training routine that includes successful focused sessions to maintain well mannered behavior consistently. Success is not how much you can push it until you get a reaction. Success is how much you can push it without getting any reaction. 

4. Identifying and Managing Triggers:

Understanding and managing your dog’s triggers is essential. This gives a chance to to proactive training instead of reactive training Avoidance of triggers and gradual exposure under threshold is key.

5. Professional Training Help:

Seeking the help of a professional dog trainer or behaviorist with field experience can speed the process considerably. They can assess your dog’s behavior, identify triggers, and create a custom  training plan.

6. Use of Desensitization and Counterconditioning:

Desensitization involves gradually exposing your dog to their triggers in a controlled state of mind. Once your archived that you can use counterconditioning to focuses on changing your dog’s emotional response to those triggers. Combining these methods can be highly effective in reducing reactivity.

7. Provide Structured Mental Activities :

Provide structured activities and exercise where your dog does some mental self control work. Mental structured activities usually involve slower pace and more thinking, where your dog can learn coping skills and social skills. This is not to be confused with more mental stimulation (since stimlus is the problem) or obedience training. You can read here more about what is the difference between Behavior Training and Obedience Training.

Can Dog Reactivity Get Better?

Dog reactivity is very often something that can be overcome at a high success rate. The outcome for improving dog reactivity largely depends on two factors, the dog’s intensity of the behavior and the consistency of successful training. In some rare cases a complete fade out of reactive behavior may not always be achievable, but even in those cases significant improvement is possible with dedicated training and management strategies.

      As we’ve discussed, a more informed approach to understanding and addressing dog reactivity can yield faster, more effective, and meaningful results, all while strengthening the bond with your dog. By distinguishing between dog reactivity and aggression, learning about common mistakes to avoid, understanding what to do when your dog exhibits reactive behaviors, and discovering ways to overcome it, you are now equipped with better tools to tackle this challenge.

Success is measured by achieving controlled emotional responses and self-control, emphasizing a proactive approach to behavior training.

         © Gabriel Riesco, Pawmos Dog Training LLC |   All Rights Reserved Feb 2024