Dear Shannon: Reactive Lizzie

Reactivity – to other dogs, strangers, bikes, skateboards. I’ve worked with her myself, and tried a couple different trainers and attended a reactive dog class, and she isn’t as bad as when we first adopted her. But it seems like I mostly just manage it, and muddle through. If we see another dog while we are out walking, she doesn’t bark and lunge (I will cross the street to the other side or step 10 feet off the trail so we aren’t too close) but she zeroes in on the other dog with the border collie stare and lays down in the border collie crouch until the other dog passes, then she pulls as hard as she can to get to where the dog has been so she can sniff.

She is very reactive to strangers, barking and lunging, but once she gets to know them, she is pretty good with them. I have to warn people to never put their face near hers because that really sets her off.  We have a neighbor that she did not like when we first moved to our house and he started giving her treats whenever he saw her and now she will drag me down the street to see him whenever she sees him outside so I know she can learn that strangers are okay – but not everyone is willing to carry treats or try to understand that she is actually afraid and not just a rotten dog. We don’t have many people over to our house anymore because of her. I have two friends that haven’t been inside my house since we got her because of her. And if we have to have a repairman here, she is in a crate in another room with the door closed.

She’s challenging and exhausting but we love her. Just wish we could get beyond this reactivity and people thinking we have a vicious, crazy dog.

Dear Lisa,

Having a reactive dog like Lizzie is not as uncommon as you may think but it can be overwhelming and exhausting.  It is good that you have recognized that Lizzie is probably fearful which makes her react.  When people and dogs are afraid they often exhibit “fight, flight or freeze”.  When Lizzie barks and lunges, she is in “fight” and she may be experiencing “freeze” when she stares down a dog (she could also be posturing like border collies do when they are going to herd, without seeing her it is impossible to know for sure.

The first thing to mention is that you need to be sure you do not “punish” Lizzie.  I am not sure if what type of collar you are using but she should not be on a choke chain, pinch collar or electric collar.  Adding pain will only make her fear worse which can lead to more aggressive behavior.  I like to use a harness so the dog does not have pressure on their neck if they pull.  My favorite harness is the Freedom No Pull Harness made by 2 Hounds Designs.

You are on the right track by giving her space between her and other dogs and by having strangers giving her treats.  If you are not already, I would recommend bring high value treats on every walk.  When you step to the side to let the other dog’s pass, give Lizzie treats.  If you pass a stranger or have someone come into the house, keep her on leash (so you can maintain control) and have the stranger toss treats to her at first.

If you notice that Lizzie does not want to take treats when she is on a walk or when she is around a stranger, it means that she is too stressed.  If this happens, you may need to create more space between her and the other dog or stranger.

In some cases, dog’s that are experiencing this type of stress can benefit from a Thundershirt, Adaptil Pheromone collar or a supplement like Zylkene or Anxitane.

When I work with dog’s like Lizzie I usually end up with a very customized training plan.  These are a few simple suggestions.  It may be helpful to work with a behaviorist or trainer who understands this type of behavior.

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