Smart Training for a Reactive Dog

Some dogs just don’t have the temperament to easily tolerate strangers, other dogs, or children. For some dogs, allowing strangers, dogs or children to approach and/or touch them is just contrary to their nature. It’s not necessarily something you did or did not do; it’s their genetic makeup.  No matter how much training you do, you cannot change the temperament. Consequently, you cannot let your guard down when your dog is around others. You must keep your eyes on him—and on the people or dogs around him who may try to approach—at all times. Keep him by your side and under a command. Protect his space for him by ensuring that others do not approach. Protect others by ensuring that your dog does not feel the need or have the opportunity to bite—which could result in euthanasia. Any awkwardness you may feel about telling others to keep their distance should be overcome by your responsibility to advocate for your dog. You know his limitations.

If your dog is being wary in his environment, that feeling comes from fear/ stress/insecurity. In a situation he knows he will be less stressful, but a new environment or person is going to escalate his stress.  I had a dog that I trained for competition for 4 years. On a familiar field with people he knew, he was excellent.  When we traveled, or worked on unfamiliar fields, he was stressed. He was always looking around, checking for hidden threats– thinking the boogie man was coming after him. During the official trial, when I could not maintain constant contact or keep up a stream of reassurances, he would become very stressed.   Not only that, the stress of unfamiliar environments caused him to lose weight whenever we traveled. I retired him at 4 years because I realized that a dog with his temperament could not enjoy the competition. I enjoyed the competition; he did not.  At that point I realized that putting him in these situations and environments was unfair—cruel actually—because every unfamiliar environment caused extreme and unhealthy stress. His response was never going to change; I could not change his temperament.

Some say that “at first” he is OK with dogs and people. That may be because at first, no one is approaching. However, this does not mean he is not stressed. He is still “on alert.”. You know this about him, so do not increase the stress by extending the time he must feel watchful or allowing people to approach. Do not keep him in the situation that is stressful for him and puts a big target of liability on your back?

Dogs learn from one another. If he is already stressed, being around other high-energy and potentially reactive dogs will only reinforce to your dog that reactivity is the correct response to stress. It will set back any progress you make in teaching him to trust that you will control his environment for safety. And it will intensify his need to be on guard (and eventually reactive) in what he perceives to be threatening situations. If you do find yourself in an environment where your dog is stressed, don’t keep him there too long.  Your dog is only going to be able to handle a certain amount of stress before he becomes reactive.  So, it’s up to you to say, “He has had enough, let’s go to the car.”

I’m sure this is not the answer you hoped for. But your dog is who he is. If your current goals are not compatible with his temperament; you must change your goals for liability purposes. You cannot force him to be something he is not. Some dogs, like the 4-year-old I retired from competition, just want to be in their home environment – a familiar place where they do not have to feel on guard at all times. Enjoy your dog for who he is. You can work together at home and in safe, controlled environments. You can train in a partnership that, although your original goals may not be achieved, your new goals will nonetheless be rewarding and satisfying for you both.