Reactive dogs can have unusual or sometimes aggressive reactions when they are overly excited, stressed, or anxious. This behavior causes difficulties in their everyday lives and brings challenges to you as their owner. Is reactiveness a problem that can be dealt with for good?
A reactive dog can’t be completely cured, but it can be effectively treated, becoming calmer when exposed to triggers without showing signs of anxiety or aggression. More often than not, reactiveness in dogs requires life-long maintenance and treatment.
In this article, I’ll discuss how to cure reactiveness in dogs and share some effective strategies for helping your pet get better. I’ll also explain what progress you can expect to make with enough care and effort.
How Long Does It Take To Cure a Reactive Dog?
Treating a reactive dog is a complicated process, and it’s hard to give a definitive estimate of how long it will take.
Identifying the Triggers
The first step in reactiveness management is identifying the triggers that cause reactive behavior. Once you’re familiar with them, you’ll have to come up with ways to limit your pet’s exposure to the triggers and work up strategies for calming the pooch down if they accidentally get into an uncomfortable or stressful situation.
Establishing Positive Associations
Then, you need to work on establishing positive associations with things that destress your dog. It’s recommended to use treats and toys to get your pooch’s mood up after they’ve been exposed to a trigger.
Such treatment can change the way dogs react to certain things. Instead of seeing a stranger as a threat and getting reactive due to anxiety, your pet will associate them with something pleasant, like a delicious treat.
Over time, your dog’s responses to stress will become easier to manage, they will be more attentive to you, and you will face fewer challenges when taking them for a walk or letting them spend time with other dogs.
Making Progress in Your Dog’s Reactive Behavior
It takes hard work and a significant amount of time to get to where your dog’s behavior is supposed to be. Typically, you will need at least a year to make considerable progress. With some dogs, it may take even longer, depending on what is the starting point.
Sometimes, reactive behavior in dogs can look like this: your pet becomes alert and tense, growls at the trigger, becomes less responsive, doesn’t sniff or take treats, and pulls on the leash. That’s a milder form of reactiveness that is often easier to deal with.
If your dog becomes uncontrollable when exposed to a trigger, barks, bites, doesn’t respond to your cues, and gets aggressive, their reactiveness is at its highest point and will take more time to be treated.
If you’re lucky, your pet will get to a place where exposure to triggers won’t be as stressful, and aggressive or anxious reactions won’t show at all. However, most of the time, reactiveness isn’t cured for good.
Growing Out of Reactivity
Reactiveness is essentially your dog’s response to the environment, which is a natural thing. When we talk about treating it, we usually mean changing negative reactions to positive ones so that your pet is more comfortable in their surroundings and you don’t have to stress about their interactions with other animals or humans.
Still, strictly speaking, reactiveness is not something that can be ‘cured.’ Your dog can get significantly better, and you can help them face the challenges of the world more confidently. However, most of the time, reactive dogs require maintenance and care throughout their life.
Curing reactiveness is a complex process. Sometimes, it’s best to seek professional help. Read this article to learn about dog behaviorists and how they can help you in your situation.
How To Cure Reactiveness in Dogs
Effective treatment of reactiveness in dogs includes three stages. The method of dealing with the issue step by step limits a dog’s exposure to triggers and teaches them to overcome stress.
Prevention and Management
The first step focuses on reducing situations in which your dog comes in contact with triggers, which are individual to each pet. However, here are some common triggers that may apply in your case:
- Other dogs
- Strangers in the street or at home
- Loud vehicles
- Any restraints that prevent free movement or access to certain areas
Once you figure out what situations make your dog anxious and cause reactive behavior, do your best to prevent them. For instance, change your walking schedule or pick less crowded routes to limit your pooch’s contact with other dogs and their owners.
You also must develop strategies for overcoming such situations if they occur unexpectedly. The best way to deal with such instances is to take your dog away from the trigger. You can do this either with vocal commands or with a leash.
Such measures are essential initially to help stabilize your dog’s emotional state. Exposure to triggers should only happen in controlled situations at further stages of treatment.
The second step is counterconditioning, which essentially means changing your dog’s emotional response to a trigger. Reactive dogs feel anxious, stressed, or scared, which can cause aggressive behaviors. However, before you can fix how they behave, you need to work on how they react emotionally.
As I mentioned earlier, you can use treats to bring positive associations when your dog comes in contact with a trigger. Use a special treat, like meat or cheese, whichever your pet finds particularly tasty.
Here’s the strategy you should stick to:
- Create a controlled stressful situation. For instance, ask your friend to come over if your dog is triggered by strangers in the house, or you can bring your pet to meet another dog.
- When your dog notices the trigger, immediately give them the treat of choice.
- Once the danger passes, stop feeding your dog.
Receiving special treats in the presence of a trigger will gradually create a positive emotional response in your pet. When you stop offering treats once the trigger is out of sight, you’re basically signaling to your dog that treats accompany the objects or situations they feel anxious about, which can change their perception.
Finally, the response substitution stage is where your dog’s behavior, when exposed to triggers, changes to calmer and better controlled.
Remember that altering your dog’s behavior is only possible if you manage to transform their nervous or fearful emotional response into a more positive one. When your pet starts feeling more comfortable around their triggers, keep using treats to encourage the desired behaviors, such as being friendly and inquisitive around other dogs or people.
A reactive dog can be treated and get significantly better. Still, most of the time, reactiveness won’t be completely cured. As much as you manage to improve your pet’s behavior and responses to stress, you’ll have to watch out for triggers and provide care and support for your reactive dog throughout its life.