We’ve all seen them: those nightmarish dogs that leap, jump, growl, snap, bark, threaten, show their teeth, act like bullies and attack other dogs. They ruin visits to dog parks and even walks in the neighborhood. They are out of control. They should not be allowed.

It’s natural to get angry or upset when you encounter a problem dog. It’s scary enough, but it’s even worse when the out-of-control dog is yours.

Years ago, almost no one used the term “reactive” to describe these difficult dogs. They were called “aggressive” and most handlers applied physical corrections. Today, the term “reactive” describes several related problem behaviors, and the emphasis has shifted from physical punishment to positive reinforcement training.

Like many owners of reactive dogs, I was not prepared. My first two Labradors, Samantha and Chloe, were calm, gentle, relaxed and easy to lead. Neither of them ever chased a deer or a car. From time to time, I would hear about placing problem dogs, but I didn’t pay much attention.

Now I’m making up for lost time. My crash course in reactive dog training began two years ago when my Labrador, Blue Sapphire, was six months old. Blue loved to chase not only tennis balls, but animals, skateboards, kids on bikes, motorcycles, joggers and anything else that moved. For months, he would emit a ferocious bark whenever he saw movement – a walker, a dog, a deer or a bike – 50 or 100 yards away. No one who knew us would have guessed that this growling, barking, darting terror was otherwise intelligent, affectionate and a pleasure to live with.

Since then, I’ve not only worked with talented local trainers, but I’ve also studied books, DVDs, articles and online courses on the subject of reactive dogs. Blue has mastered impulse control and I am learning a lot about training. Maybe some of what helped us will help you too.

FIND SOME BOOKS… AND MAYBE A VIDEO.

You don’t have to buy the library of books I’ve invested in, but some of the descriptions may help you understand and implement effective training programs. Trainers who present the same basic information do so with different examples and approaches, at least one of which may be perfect for you, your dog and your schedule. If you prefer video demonstrations, try DVDs, webinars or online courses.

It would be wonderful if these resources came with magic wands that would transform our dogs overnight, but alas, they do not. They provide tools that we need to master and practice to help our dogs develop patience, confidence and manners.

Some of you may be more interested in how and why dogs react and what their body language means; you may find the technical descriptions and language of behavior modification fascinating. Others may want to ignore the technical details and begin training, or focus on the emotional and energetic connections between dogs and people. Whichever way you go, you’ll find resources to help you improve your understanding and ability to manage your reactive dog.

For a subject that barely existed twenty years ago, reactivity has spawned a training industry. To date, I have reviewed 40 books and more than a dozen DVDs by non-force trainers, some of whom live with reactive dogs, and all of whom have helped inexperienced trainers change the behavior of their reactive dogs.

DEFINITION OF REACTIVITY

What is a reactive dog? Reactivity describes a dog’s exaggerated or excessive reaction to certain situations, such as the sight of a person, animal, other dog or unexpected object. Dogs are said to be leash reactive when the frustration of a restrictive leash overwhelms them (see Feisty Fido by Patricia McConnell). Blue is a good example, because when he is off leash on a trail or in a dog park, he plays well with other dogs.

In the training book The Midnight Dog Walkers, Annie Phenix states, “A reactive dog reacts to normal events in his environment with above-normal intensity. These exaggerated reactions include barking, whining, pawing, hypervigilance, panting, pacing, restlessness, and difficulty responding to his handler, even to familiar cues such as ‘sit.'”

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