Yes, I have a reactive dog. No, it is not my fault!

The article below has been written by Dr Isla Fishburn, it looks at why some dogs are ‘reactive’, interpreting that reactivity and the stigma associated with it.


Yes, I have a reactive dog. No, it is not my fault!

You hear it wherever you go if you have a reactive dog, “Oh, you just need to put more training in.” What people don’t realise is that training, at least of the obedience kind, can help with reactivity issues but is not going to stop it.

I have been writing an article about over-exercising our dogs (with a particular focus on agility) as I believe this to be one cause of reactivity for some dogs. Why? Well because the first way for dogs to communicate is via scent and (without going in to too much detail –this is about reactivity in general rather than one specific type of reactivity) we, as our dog’s teachers and role models, can cause some dogs to smell very different to what they should (from both too much action packed exercise as well as diet). This could cause reactivity towards the dog smelling incorrectly or even cause the dog that is now “supercharged” to become reactive.   I am seeing more and more dogs appearing to have reactivity issues of some kind; to other dogs, to people, to inanimate objects etc. For every case, there is always the same old comment passed of “Your dog just needs more training” or “You haven’t trained the dog properly – it’s not socialised.” I’m sorry, I didn’t realise that there was just one cause of reactivity and that the solution is more training.

Dogs, being dogs, are territorial, predators and, like any animal (including us) are going to respond to circumstances based on how that circumstance effects the dog’s wellbeing through its survival; receive something positive and it will help the dogs survival, receive something that the dog did not like and the dog will want to defend its survival. This is where your basic reinforcement training originated. If you have a dog that is scared of something, then at a distance that is comfortable for that dog (yes, we are looking at dogs as individuals here), give the dog something enjoyable (usually food or toy) whilst it sees that very thing it is scared of and the dog will learn to not be scared of it. Simple, right? If only it were!

Now, I am not saying the above is a hopeless exercise because it can work for some dogs (and I, for one, have used it successfully) but it is just that – some. What I want people to realise, however, is just how subtle and complex a dog can be; how a dog makes associations with certain events, why a dog can be reactive and to, ultimately, appreciate that yes, someone may have a reactive dog but, no it is not their fault (neither the dog’s or owners). I want you to learn just exactly what we put our dogs through and why they may be reactive. Then, just consider how much hard work, effort and understanding an owner with a reactive dog needs and tell them just how much you admire them for this; one of the hardest and constant moments an owner of a reactive dog faces is the comments or facial expressions received from others who judgementally assume that because their dog is “fine”, it must be the other owner’s fault why their dog is reactive. I remember an occasion where I was on a walk in a forest near to where we live. As I came down one path, I saw a lady whose dog was reactive when people were too close to the dog (I later found out this was at a distance of about 5 metres). Between shouting at the dog and apologising to me, every bit of her was in turmoil. On seeing this I simply turned around and said “don’t worry, your dog is just telling me she is frightened and I am listening to what she is saying – she is just doing what most dogs do when frightened.” The lady was surprised at my response to her dog, and became rather tearful in receiving such an understanding statement (she was expecting the usual underhand comments that came when her dog reacted). This lovely lady, who had tried so hard with her dog, had worked with several behaviourists and who didn’t know what more she could do (except maybe never walk her dog!) was overjoyed in that one comment because someone had recognised her dog was not “bad” and that the lady hadn’t done anything wrong (in fact she had tried to do everything right). It was just her dog was telling her and me that she was frightened for her survival. Now, I am not saying this would be o.k. if her dog was off lead and she was distracted on the phone and listening to music (you must have seen them as much as I have) but, to me, she was thinking of her dog and the safety of others by taking it to a place where there are few people and keeping her dog on lead.

Aggression is a natural behaviour. Just as an animal can display pleasure, it too can display displeasure and unease. I really don’t understand why we accept it when a dog is telling us s/he is content but fail to understand and scold a dog when s/he is telling us they feel frightened. It was Charles Darwin who first described a set of basic emotions –happy, sad, fear, disgust, anger, surprise in humans and other animals and, as mammals, dogs are able to feel the same emotions. So, do we as humans show bouts of sadness, anger or disgust? Of course! Why is it then that it is only acceptable for a dog to show the emotion of being happy if and when it is nothing of the sort!

A dog, being a dog, is a dog! They are typically territorial, they are predators, they form and value social groups and they value their own survival (seriously). Hell, you might even consider a dog as a living biological organism because that is EXACTLY what they are. So, why is it that on wildlife documentaries when we observe living biological animals doing what suits them for their survival we accept it? Yet, for our dogs we want the dog to act like a perfect, numb, robot that has no emotions, feelings or say in what is going on? I do believe and work with dogs on the basis that the dog in question is both viewing and responding accordingly to how its very survival is being effected. So, I want everyone to understand dog reactivity, for the safety of themselves, their dogs (as they are the ones desperately trying to tell us how they feel) and other people, especially as the rules of what a dog can and can’t do become tighter and tighter until, ultimately, we turn our dogs in to goldfish – which we all know is not going to happen – you can’t turn the natural behaviour of an animal in to another one, unless you are a sorcerer of course (but I think the rules of what they were able to do in time gone past meant that sorcerer’s, too, were forced to become mere mortals). So, no, when your “perfect” dog comes hurtling towards a dog that has dog reactivity and you say “It’s o.k. my dog is “fine”” please beaware that the reply you are likely to hear will be something like, “Your dog may be fine, but my dog thinks it’s also “fine” to use your dog as a combined lollipop come head scarf.” It would be much more courteous for those of you who do have a dog that is “fine” to recognise when a person who is giving out as many signals as they can that their dog is not fine with other dogs to simply  do what you can to keep both your own dog safe and reduce the stress that thereactive dog will be under. Note, the reactive dog is going to be on lead meaning even if it wanted to run away it couldn’t. This leaves that dog no choice but to display reactive behaviour to the thing that it has an issue with and that is still coming towards it – usually off lead. So, what can you do if you do see a reactive dog on lead and you are out with your dog that likes to meet other dogs? Well, simply put your dog on lead and as best as you can put in as much distance between you and the reactive dog (you have no idea how quickly this can undo all the hard work someone has put in with a reactive dog just by a dog being off lead and walking up to that reactive dog – it only confirms the reactive dog’s reasons why it is being reactive in the first place…phew…there were a lot of reactives there!). In these circumstances, a reactive dog that is on lead becomes more reactive towards dogs that are off lead because, typically, the off lead dog is already a threat through scent as it has had the opportunity to run around, chase a ball and produce a large amount of adrenalin that the reactive dog is going to see as an issue.

Dogs are social group animals that do include some individuals who simply prefer to be on their own. Regardless, being a social animal can be costly in terms of the dog’s survival. Living as a family means, to a certain extent, resources have to be shared. Most dogs accept this if we mix the correct dogs together (and even this can go wrong in cases where I have had to help in house reactivity where dogs living in the same home do not get along). Living socially is also costly because there is an increased spread ofdisease when living with many individuals and, in some cases, a dog simply wants to interact with those that it knows, but to stay well clear of those that it does not know to reduce the risk of disease (through parasites, viruses etc). In this case a dog can quickly learn that the strange thing keeps coming towards them unless it barks, lunges and looks like Lucifer himself! Living as a social animal is also costly because it increases the chances of, from time to time, or as a result of the dog’s survival being threatened, conflict. As a result, aggression is costly for both animals involved in the conflict because both have the possibility of sustaining an injury.

The important thing to realise is that when a dog is showing reactivity it is doing so because it feels its life is threatened and by being reactive the dog thinks it is the best way to deter the very thing that is threatening it (now think of how that dog must feel in the case of where another dog that is off lead is still coming towards it!)  I have a reactive dog (I know, I am a behaviourist yet have a reactive dog – tsk tsk!) and I have spent several years studying, observing and listening about reactivity and its causes in order to help her. Yes, help her because, deep down when my dog is reactive she is still trying to tell me something – that she feels her survival is being threatened. Every time she reacts, she becomes stressed and this can add to her levels of reactivity as a result of stress stacking or being constantly exposed to the threat (which I try to prevent as best as I can). As we all know, stress in moderation can be a good thing but prolonged stress is not going to do us any favours, and this is really important for our dogs too. A stressed dog is not a healthy, happy dog and stress can have damaging effects on a dog mentally, emotionally and physically. This is something that I would always consider if you have a reactive dog (or any dog for that matter) – never put that animal under too much duress. It is not fair, not necessary and something a dog would be exposed to very differently if we only allowed this to happen by understanding how natural social systems work (and is a large cause of reactivity in the first place because we do not follow the natural progression of a dog and what it would receive through each successive development – something I call natural learning stages).

So, why is my dog reactive? Well, obviously,it’s my fault. I clearly haven’t done enough training or done it in the right way, regardless of the fact that my other three dogs are “fine.” It can’tpossibly be because my dog (and all dogs in fact), being a dog, views her world different to how I would. Her development, life experiences and natural character make her who she is. This is the same for every dog and these influence the dog’s acceptance of its world and what it is or is not going to feel threatened by (yes, exposure to stimuli and breed can be important but as we have such a rich diversity of social behaviour in our dogs there is much more to it than this and this is what I want people to realise). For my dog, her reactivityis very deep-rooted and is as subtle as the smell of somebody or another dog. For any of you who have an understanding about trauma and how the nervous system then responds to signs and symptoms of this, my dog can’t even cope with the presence of adrenalin in another individual. This is because the traumas my dog received were multiple, occurred at a very young age, were severe and constant. Her ability to cope with trauma was also hindered because she is female and a natural decision maker (which makes her require protection from others and be rather self preserving meaning she wouldn’t expect her life to be threatened in the first place). Any sign of her reliving these past traumas and, not only does she become frightened, but her nervous system also recognises her survival is threatened and reacts accordingly. So, with reactivity in most cases it can even be due to an involuntary response generated by the nervous system (you should know that any behaviour is largely controlled by the nervous system of that animal, regardless of the behaviour being reactive, playful, inquisitive etc). In all honesty, this not only makes her a difficult dog, but difficult for me as a behaviourist who should be struck down with an almighty bolt of lightning to dare have a less than “perfect” dog. However, she is what she is and is reactive because she did not receive the support and guidance she required at the time she needed it and was exposed to situations that she couldnot cope with. What I am trying to say is that she (and any other reactive dog) is not reactive just for the sake of it – being reactive is not a stable or healthy life decision for a dog.  However what makes my dog “perfect” is that she really does need to gain your trust before she accepts you but, by God, when she has your trust she invites you into learn about her world and presents to you all the wrongs we often do as human role models and guardians for our dogs. In so doing, she opens her world and the needs of a dog in the hope that, whilst she can’t be “saved” from her reactivity, her suffering (as I see it when she feels the need to react) is worth it so that we can learn what to do next time (when working with or getting another dog). As a behaviourist, she has taught me to understand dogs more than what most books, seminars and documentaries have been able to. Rather than focusing on my limitations with her as a reactive dog (and this can be challenging when you time it wrong and there are four off lead dogs hurtling towards you, blocking all routes of “escape!”) and forcing her to be in a situation that she simply can’t cope with, I prefer to understand what my dog is feeling, what she can cope with and apply natural and biological foundations to help her. These include what a dog is, how she would be guided through this if living naturally (this is the thing, for some dogs our actions and what we expose them to can be rather unnatural or introduced unnaturally) and accept that she, as an individual, has a totally different outlook on her world to anyother dog; I always consider her individual psychological, physiological andphysical needs.

There are many reasons why a dog may be reactive, but the bottom line is, in most circumstances the dog during this time is really desperately trying to convey how it is feeling, and that is to say, it is feeling fearful and trying to defend itself the best way it knows how. AND, in some circumstances, there is no amount of training that is going to wholly prevent that dog from being reactive. It becomes more of an approach to learn to recognise the triggers and what best to do for the dog when these triggers are present. Of course, how and if a dog overcomes reactivity depends on the causes that are making the dog react as well as the constitution of that dog as an individual (everything from genetics to life events). By viewing a dog as an individual you will soon realise no two dogs are reactive for the same reason and you will need to work differently to help each dog feel less threatened.

So, why might a dog be reactive? Hmmmm…where to I start? It can be a dog being naturally territorial; because its owner is suffering an illness or the dog believes the owner feels frightened (you will just have to trust me here when I say this is due to how a dog senses and reacts to hyper-arousal); the dog may be fearful; the dog is protecting the survival of young pups, young children or other family members; the dog is in pain or is unwell; the dog wants to chase a prey animal (this is common in dogs as they are predators and can get frustrated or over-stimulated through prey drive); the dog has suffered a trauma that can be anything from a fright, an attack or being constantly exposed to mild trauma; the dog is exposed to the stress and strains of every day life; the dog is frightened by your communication (e.g. putting hand on head, shrieking, running) or body language (e.g. walking on a straight line, a stranger smiling and talking to a dog); the dog wants to be left alone; the dog is on the wrong diet (really? Yes, really!); the dog doesn’t feel it can escape; the dog does not like the scent of another dog (yes, really, the first route of dog communication is scent and depending on the other dog, scent can cause reactivity); a dog may be in natural competition with a dog and feel the need to react as a result of gender, reproduction, neutering etc (again, yes, really! As a biological animal dogs can be in natural competition with other dogs, just as humans are in natural competition with…well, just about everything including themselves!); a dog may misunderstand the shriek made from a person that is excited or frightened (this creates a predatory response in some dogs as it sounds like the noise a prey animal will make just before it dies); through incorrect human handling the dog may have learnt that it is allowed to be reactive; the dog is becoming senile (aggression in this case is a result of confusion); a dog may not be happy where it is at; it can be from a particular smell, environment,shape, movement…anything. What matters is that it is specific to that individual dog and whilst aggression is a natural behaviour we don’t want to expose our dogs to this level of stress. Remember, when a dog is being reactive it is usually because, for whatever reason, the dog feels that the stimulus presented to it is having or going to have a detrimental impact on its survival – either as a conscious threat or subconscious threat (as in the case of trauma).

Now, one thing that interests me and we need to be mindful of is that there is general hype about dog-dog reactivity increasing and the reason for this is said to be due to poor or lack of socialising. I am sure for some dogs this is the case, but not for every dog. What I see is that dogs, being territorial and natural competitors, will from time to time simply clash with some dogs (there are a few biological reasons for this that I discuss elsewhere but not here). Lets look at simple population growth to explain this one. The human population is forever growing. In the UK there are more than 25% of households that have a dog. As the human population grows, so does the population of dogs in an area. For some dogs, simply being surrounded by too many competitors can cause this dog to show natural aggression and reactivity. Now add to this the fact that the dog in question is fed the wrong diet, is neutered and is possibly supercharged with adrenalin from too much exercise and I would expect this dog to be reactive without even considering the other causes of reactivity listed above that the dog may also be showing (and lets not even talk about reactivity through miscommunication of breeds – this is a topic in itself).

What we must learn is that aggression is a natural behaviour displayed in any animal (and even plants) that feels it needs to protect itself as its life is threatened. For some dogs this can be a threat from a mere inanimate object, which for that dog, is struggling to learn that this object is not going to harm it. For other dogs it can be a threat from a person or another dog since an attack that the dog experienced. We must also learn that dogs do not think like humans and by believing this we put our dogs more at risk.

So, when you next see a dog with its owner and, where the dog is being reactive or the owner is trying to prevent any reactivity, please do bare in mind what the dog may be feeling, what you can do to help the dog be less reactive (by moving away, avoiding eye contact, putting your dog on lead!) and appreciate that the dog is, for whatever reason, feeling frightened for its own survival or for the survival of those who it considers family.

This isn’t about how to put the reactivity right because, if it were, this would be a book! It is not about training or what to do if you have a reactive dog but simply about reactivity and what it means. To me, being asked to stop a dog being reactive is an unusual concept because we must learn that aggression is a natural behaviour. What we must recognise is why the dog is being reactive and how can we help the dog to be exposed to or near by the very thing that is making it reactive. If this appears futile then we must adopt strategies that work best for the reactive dog – remember the dog did not ask to be placed in to this world, we decided to co-exist with him/her. And, at all times, we need to think about the safety for the dog, the owner and other dogs and people that may see the reactive dog.

Reactivity can be an easy thing to resolve over time. In many cases, however, it can be one of the biggest changes in a behavioural response we can ask a dog to do and, sometimes, a dog simply can’t. We first need to identify the dog as an individual and what a dog is (e.g. territorial, genetic influences, environmental influences, life experiences), what the triggers are, why the dog is feeling threatened by these triggers and what best practice methods can be put in place so the dog is not exposed to too much stress. The way that a dog makes connections (through scent or otherwise) and associations to stimuli that the dog believes is threatening its survival can also be misunderstood or simply not even noticed by us, our dog’s role model. We can expose our dogs to events that, because we enjoy, we assume that our dogs do too. For instance, many dogs are more calm when surrounded by things that are familiar to them; thy like safety, security and familiarity; for many dogs change is a worrying time because the dog then needs to re-assess its survival during change. Having a dog is not and should not be easy (you are responsiblefor the life of another animal that can think differently about what effects its survival and what it needs to exist) and it becomes more difficult for those that do have a reactive dog.

To those of you who do have a reactive dog, I salute you. I salute you for all the hard work, understanding and restrictions you have taken on in the name of your dog’s safety, wellbeing and survival. Enjoy your dog and all that s/he tells you, because if your dog can’t tell you how it is feeling then who can it tell?


Dr Isla Fishburn owns Kachina Canine Communication in Northumberland. She travels nationwide to where there is a dog in need. Working holistically, Isla considers a dog as an individual and teaches you how to understand and communicate with your dog by considering how a dog’s innate character as well as environmental conditions such as surrounding family, environment, diet and trauma influences the wellbeing and life choices of our dog. Isla works on creating mutual trust and respect between dog and owner and gives one to one consultations, seminars and teaches holistic dog courses on how to consider your dog’s wellbeing by co-existing and interacting with your dog through mutual trust and respect and identifying your dog’s individual limitations, expectations and needs. If you would like more information please visit her website at

(this article was written and produced by Dr Isla Fishburn and copyright rules apply. Permission has been given to The Wolfdog Blog to use this article)

All material is under copyright protection – it is strictly prohibited to reproduce any of the material unless written consent has been given by Kachina Canine Communication.

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