Five phases of reactive dog ownership

Raise your hand if you already knew that Chick is a recovering reactive dog. Good, that’s a lot of you. We have written about it openly in the past, in the hopes that we can help others stop feeling ashamed of their dog’s unsavory behaviors.

Ok, now raise your hand if you knew that Doodlebug is a reactive dog too. What’s that? None of you? Well, that probably makes sense, since until about a week ago, we were on your team too.

How can this snuggle-pile be full of reactive dogs?

We’ve done a lot of thinking and learning about reactivity over the past years, but a lot more over the past week or so since we’ve started to understand that we’re dealing with a bit of it in our Doodlebug. Just yesterday morning I was thinking about the phases of caring for a reactive dog — the long period of not understanding or not admitting it, then the scary journey toward facing our fears and moving forward, and finally that sense of accomplishment that comes with knowing that we have a plan for whatever situation we find ourselves in. Our journey with Chick’s reactivity has been lifelong, but we spent years in the pre-action phases and reinforced a lot of bad habits before we found the courage to move forward. With Dude, we figured out what was going on in a snap. It may still take months or years to get to our end point, but just knowing that a positive path exists and we’ve taken the first step is a huge sigh of relief.

Our five phases are based solely on our own experiences working with reactive dogs in our home — everybody’s phases might be different!

1. Realization. Maybe your new dog took a while to come out of her shell, and was perfectly polite and neutral toward dogs at first. Or maybe your puppy didn’t start showing signs in the first year of his life. Or maybe you built up a high wall around your dog so she never had a chance to express her reactivity before. There is a whole catalog of reasons that you may not realize you have a reactive dog on your hands — these are just three. With Chick, we were in this phase for a few months, and with Dude, we were there until last week.

2. Denial. Then something changes, and maybe you start to see hints of reactivity here and there. A surprising growl at a motorcycle whizzing by the house. Or a lunge and snap at a cute puppy on the trail. Or some extreme pulling, panting, and whimpering every time you pass a dog jogger in the neighborhood — suddenly more intense and focused than in the past. But obviously, these incidents are flukes — easily explained away . . . right? The motorcycle just startled him. He was just excited to play with the puppy. He is jealous of dog joggers and wants to join in. She can’t be reactive, she lives with other dogs and three kids! But, you’re in denial. Denial is one of the two dangerous phases of reactive dog ownership because during this stage, we’re constantly testing our dogs. We assume that the growl or lunge or bark or whine was just an isolated incident, and we keep putting her into situations where she should prove us right — after all, she is not a reactive dog! We keep running them through crowded areas or bringing them to the farmer’s market, and they keep proving to us that they’re not comfortable. We keep making excuses “She’s just nervous,” or “He’s not feeling well.” In the meantime, our dogs are getting more and more practiced in the art of growling, lunging, barking, staring, or — in rare cases — biting. We spent about a year in this phase with Chick, and only about a week with the Dude.

Ready to practice my lunging and barking.

3. Panic. After sufficient testing in which the dog proves that she does not, in fact, know what is expected, most of us with reactive dogs get to this phase. And it’s not a fun one. Only the experienced dog handler — or the person who came into the situation understanding that she is dealing with a reactive dog — can skip over this stage altogether. The panic phase is characterized by the kind of handling that actually exacerbates the dog’s reactivity rather than helping the dog make better choices. Every time we seize up on that leash or yell at a dog who is barking and lunging, we are sending a message: “There is indeed something to be worried about. I am worried too.” For sensible and experienced dog handlers, this phase is short-lived. You realize that you don’t know what to do and your dog certainly doesn’t know what to do, and you call in professional help. For others of us — especially novices like I was when I adopted Chick — the panic phase can last months or years. During this time we can accidentally be training our dog to be aggressive, by sending the exact wrong signals during moments of stress. We sometimes joke that you have to first train a dog to be aggressive before you can become a good dog trainer — and at the center where we train, it’s true of almost all of the staff. The panic phase is a dangerous one, so it’s best to take a deep breath, have a stiff cocktail, and regroup as soon as you’re able. You can work through it! We panicked for a year and a half with Chick before we sought help; with the Dude we were in this phase for two days — from last Sunday until this past Tuesday.

4. Progress. Eventually, you might realize that you don’t want to live in fear, looking over your shoulder the whole time you’re walking your dog. You want to be able to proudly take your dog in public and understand what to do in a variety of scenarios. So you seek help. The bravest of us pick up a good book — like Patricia McConnell’s “Feisty Fido,” and go it alone. Others will look for an experienced private trainer. Still others will join a group class — whether a simple obedience class or a specialty class for reactive or fearful dogs. We reach out to friends and colleagues for advice, and we start to take baby steps. Eventually the baby steps add up, and we start to see a positive change. We gain confidence and keep moving forward. Sometimes we take a deep breath and congratulate ourselves on our accomplishments.

5. Management. I’m so lucky in my new line of business that I get to be exposed to dogs in all stages of the reactivity. The most inspirational — obviously — are the ones who started out totally wild when exposed to their triggers, and have gone through all five phases and learned so much in the process that they can now comfortably go anywhere and do anything. This is where we all hope to end up. But management is a broad spectrum — some dogs are cured, so to speak, of their reactivity, while others still need to be worked, reminded, and handled skillfully in challenging scenarios. Chick falls into the latter camp. If we let our guard down completely and let him be in charge of his interactions, he might get into trouble now and again. But as long as we keep him focused and working in tough situations (like when walking or hiking around off-leash dogs), he can really shine.  For Doodlebug, we’ve set our sights even higher. Follow along on our journey as we help him work on himself!

If you’re a dog owner caught in the denial or panic phases right now, please seek help. There’s no shame in reaching out for assistance. Reactivity is rooted in a million different causes — fear, frustration, playfulness, panic, medical issues, and others — but the common elements are usually  (1) a dog not understanding what is expected; and (2) well-practiced inappropriate reactions. Both of these elements can be countered, and the sooner you start working on it, the sooner you will succeed!

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65 responses

  1. Thank you so much for this insight. I have a reactive dog when we walk also. He barks at people and other dogs sometimes growls. I do get tense on the leash or react to it so I know I am the problem. We’ve been practicing for a few weeks where if I see someone coming I just take a deep breath and pretend they aren’t there and keep walking. He seems to be getting better mind you there are some times that he isn’t but I’m trying not to react to it. He was never like that as a pup but our vet says that he is protecting me. He doesn’t do it with my husband but always with me. I so thankful I am not the only one dealing with this. I do get embarrassed by his behaviour but we are trying to work through it. I am going to get the book you suggested to help us even more. Thank you! P.S Love your blog.

  2. thank you for an insightful article. after reading your blog, i think that i have a reactive dog, possibly 2. so it might be time to seek out that help, though i’ve gotten help in the past for my pom. we’ll keep it going and hope for the best. thanks again.

  3. Thanks so much for this. I have a reactive dog and I didn’t think there was anything I could do about it, but it’s been getting worse. You’re post this morning came at the best time. Vinnie and I will be getting to work on this and I’m sure we’ll both be happier.

  4. Thanks so much for this post. My boy is reactive, and we’re going to class (led by Handsome Dan’s wonderful mama!) to help him get more comfortable in the presence of other dogs. It’s so comforting to know that other people are in this boat. The pictures of Chick and the Dude together are wonderful and give us inspiration to keep it up with our boy!

  5. Oh what a great post. And I think some of the phases can spill over and pop up sometimes even when we think we’ve progressed past them. Definitely have been through the first two phases with my Monster, and am trying to phase out of the 3rd and into the 4th now. Like recently I took him out in a public place and this lady came up with her baby and we tried to banana curve avoid her, but when Monster snapped and lunged I blamed the lady instead of myself for not managing the situation better. And when you talk about panic – I had to go with him and sit against a wall for like 5 minutes just to calm down and not feel like such a terrible dog owner.

    Would you recommend a Reactive Dog Class, a Fearful Dog Class (as the behaviorist I’ve consulted with thinks Monster is reacting out of fear), or both?

    • Hey, reactive dog class is for fearful dogs too. The VAST majority of reactivity is triggered by fear, so you will be learning the right things in reactive dog class as long as it is aimed toward confidence building. Talk to the folks running both and see what they say. Some fearful dog classes are more aimed toward the shy/shut down dogs, but you still could benefit- you may learn about critical distance, calming signals, and how to help your dog focus on himself rather than what he is worried about. Is either class at YDF or WARL? I think both are great…

  6. THANK YOU!!!!!! I have a reactive dog that I work with diligently, but feel that I have done everything I can do on my own. I have gotten some help with him, but to find someone who will take on a reactive pit bull type dog is not easy to do. I have thought about putting him down, but when I see the small pieces of progress that happen, I know that he is capable. I look at what I can do to help him, and what I am doing wrong. Your blog is VERY helpful. So THANK YOU!!!!!!

  7. Hi, our names are the Grad Students, and we have a reactive dog! This is so helpful, it tooks us a long time to get to stage 4, where we are currently…

  8. Thank you for this post. I’ve been following your blog the past couple months and have learned so much. (We started working on the Take-Too Bad skill you talked about yesterday and it’s already working great!) We rescued a Newfoundland about 5 months ago and while she’s a calm, well mannered sweetheart at home, when she goes out she gets her spazzy. She pulls and pants. Just in the past couple weeks, she’s started barking a lot (in new situations) too. Since she’s a 100lb dog, she can be difficult to control. While we’ve never seen her be aggressive, a huge fuzzy black bear of a dog can be frightening to people! I always thought reactive dogs are growlers or biters. But, reading this, she may fall into that category and we definitely need to correct it because once she’s calm (takes about 5 mins), she charms everyone that meets her.
    Can you recommend a way to find an experienced trainer? It’s hard to know who you’re dealing with. We had one who recommended a shock collar (for basic around the house training!). When we said that was extreme for our lump-on-a-log dog that has fabulous house manners, he didn’t have a good alternate plan. How to tell a good trainer?
    Thank you for your blog – I love your photography and am learning so much!

    • I think the best route is to find the most sophisticated / well reputed shelter or rescue group in your area (probably an all-breed rescue with a large network that is successful with even harder dogs) and ask for a recommendation. Alternately, you can look on the APDT website, which has a directory. Look for somebody with a CPDT-KA (a higher level of experience and knowledge than a regular CPDT), and interview a few people. You want somebody who has experience with fearful and reactive dogs, uses all-positive methods, and tailors training methods to each dog, depending on their triggers and motivations. Often you can do a consult or phone consult for free or cheap. Your gut will tell you whether you’re working with somebody who can help you.

      Good luck!

  9. Thank you SO much for writing this! I’ve been in stage three for a couple weeks, but we’ll be entering stage four tonight when our long-awaited class starts! I’m hoping a simple obedience class is all it will take, but we might need something more specialized in reactivity. *sigh*

  10. “There is indeed something to be worried about. I am worried too” 🙂 that’s such a great description of the issue. I have had to fight so hard to get that idea through to the rest of my family. “You think you’re reassuring him, but you’re not, you’re confirming his fears. When I go out and he cries because he can’t see me, hugging and petting him is telling him, ‘we’re all worried that she’s gone forever.'”
    good luck with the Dude

  11. Mushroom is reactive on-leash toward other dogs. Looking back on it, we should have realized it as soon as we met her, but we thought it was limited to Badger. Luckily, I’d read a lot about leash reactivity from various blogs, so we were able to skip phase 3 and are now in the process of scheduling some time with a trainer.

  12. These stages sound eerily like that email I sent you the other day. We have recently realized that both Turk AND Rufus are reactive, and Rufus tends to get Turk riled up. We have been in denial with Rufus for 6 years(!) and are now taking the steps to work on his issues along with Turk. We met with a trainer to discuss our course of action, and have started with training and de-sensitization. It’s going to be hard, but it is important. Thanks for sharing – great post, as always.

  13. Thank you for this great post! I’ve gone through the phases but never was able to express what we humans go through as thoughtfully and thoroughly as you just did. It’s a process! We’re still working on it (and probably always will be!) with 2 out of 3 dogs having reactivity issues. I was stuck in Denial and Panic for what seems like years but it only took one reactive rover class to get me to the point where I understood how to manage them and how to recondition them positively. I felt like all the guilt, frustration, anger, embarrassment that I had been feeling was lifted off my shoulders and I had a plan and a path forward.

  14. Thank you for this post! I wish I’d had it when I adopted Reggie. I spent a lot of time in the phases 1, 2 and 3. I sometimes feel guilty because now I realize that Reggie was trying to tell me he needed help and he wasn’t comfortable and I didn’t “listen.” I feel terrible that I didn’t know and he kind of had to pay for my ignorance.
    I tried to go it alone because I didn’t understand the magnitude of the problem. I got Patricia McConnell’s books (which are wonderful and helpful, but not geared toward urban environments). When you live in a big city and absolutely cannot avoid other dogs it makes things a bit more complex. We might see 10 other dogs just on our morning walk.
    I finally did work with 2 trainers both of whom were great and I learned a lot, but even then I felt embarrassed. (The first trainer I worked with did not use positive reinforcement techniques and I didn’t want to work with him again. This may have only served to cause further problems.)
    Reggie’s about 10 now (I think) – sometimes I think I’ve figured out his triggers and sometimes he surprises me.
    Thanks again for a great post.

  15. Wonderful! Funny how that with one of ours (a cute, inviting-looking Puggle) I know is a crazy leash reactive to people/dogs and came to that conclusion immediately — I’ve been in the denial stage with our bully for a few months now. The first two years we had him, he was fine. Time to nip it in the bud!
    We also had a severely leash-reactive foster that taught me a lot. The most important thing I learned was to shed the guilt — just b/c she reacted the way she did towards other dogs, didn’t mean she was a bad dog. Heck, she loved other dogs after a slow, proper introduction b/c she lived with my TWO! She was a lovely dog and through training classes offered to fosters, we made some large improvements in management before she was adopted. 🙂

  16. i have a very reactive (boundary aggressive) 9 lb terrier and i missed the signals before the escalation, which was a strike against my pride as a dog trainer! but, it is what it is and we are working on it. in our situation, its a constant. she is forever in training classes just so she has controlled interactions with other dogs and she thrives in those environments. too much time off from class and we are back at ground zero. in the house is much harder to deal with. she has almost gone through the window once and just when we start to make some real progress, something happens to put us back miles. you see, i also have a highly anxious dog in my house due to a medical condition in which she cannot regulate her stress hormones and that makes it harder to manage the reactive one…they really feed off of each other. i have say, anyone reading, that she has made leaps and bounds so never give up!

  17. Wonderful post!!! I wish I had been able to read something like this 3 years ago. The first time my then 13 month old Lab lunged at a dog, I freaked out! Now 3.5 years later we are in stage 4/5 and what a journey it has been. I can never fully let my guard down but I no longer want to hide at home and avoid crowds.

  18. This much insight can only come from people who’ve been through the entire process. 🙂 I’m super impressed. Good luck with the Dude — sounds like he’s definitely in the right hands!

  19. Great, great, great post! I’m so impressed at how you took this sometimes scary and frustrating situation and explained it so eloquently. We have a reactive German Shepherd and it’s been a long road with her since that first growl at another dog at the dog park – she was about 9mths. Thank you for sharing this. I am going to check out McConnell’s book…

  20. This is an awesome post. It’s helpful to raise awareness — it’s a problem, with a solution (or at the very least, some room for improvement!). I am amazed daily by the sheer number of people who come in to the Vet with a dog that is exceedingly difficult to handle and acting aggressively. The behavior is explained away, “he’s really good at home”. Unbelievable! Do you really want for your beloved dog to only be emotionally balanced within the 4 walls of your home? He’s a prisoner, and so is the frazzled owner.

  21. What a great post! Thank you so much for touching on this subject. Zeus was mildly reactive when we adopted him but it escalated after he & my husband got ambushed by a very persistent off leash dog. He went from whining & occasionally barking at some dogs to full out lunging & acting like a maniac at every dog we saw. It was extremely frustrating & embarrassing and it seemed like we had the only wild dog in the neighborhood.

    Having never owned a reactive dog before, I started doing some research & stumbled upon the “Feisty Fido” book & figured we give that a shot before signing him up for a reactive dog class. It’s only been a few weeks since we starting using the methods explained in the book & we’ve seen a huge improvement with Zeus. We can actually be on the same block with another person walking their dog without him flipping out. He’s definitely work in progress but we’re not going to give up on him.

    Good luck with the Dude and I can’t wait to read more about his training.

  22. Rufus is a “quick fix” with his reactivity. As long as I remember to bring training treats, he will go into a “sit” and “watch me” stance while ignoring the dog. Our foster is a different story – her reactivity training is going to take some patience and a either higher value treats or….something else??

  23. This post is kind of like admitting you’ve been in the closet — so many people have reactive dogs! Our wonderful cattle dog, at the age of 4.5, is just now showing signs of reactivity (cattle dogs can become more possessive/territorial as they age). She always had ‘impulse control’ issues but of late has lunged at our two smaller dogs when she’s jealous of a new person entering the room or house. Back to the trainer for us! Thanks for getting this dialogue going. Helps to know you’re not the only one out there, which is how you can feel when you’re out in public with a dog that suddenly ‘reacts’.

  24. Great Post! I agree that getting past the Denial stage is sometimes the toughest. I have 3 Pits, all females, all with very different temperments. Willow, who has a fabulous temperment, Jade who has potential to be a reactive dog if she doesn’t have a strong leader, and then there’s our foster Lexi….she is definately reactive…we are working with her which takes a lot of patience….hopefully we will be able to find her a home wirh someone who is willing to continue her training.

    Willow’s Mom

  25. Love this post! So many of my clients have dogs who are reactive and insecure- usually the owner is right in stage 2 or 3. It’s so rewarding to see them move into stages 4 and 5 with a little help. I really enjoy reading all your training insights- you really have a gift for organizing your thoughts and explaining them in easy terms.

  26. brilliant post. it’s so true… reactivity in our dogs isn’t something we should hide, deny or be ashamed of. it’s just a fact, and it needs our attention and management.

    i’ll never know why i waited so long to hire a behaviorist, but i’m SO glad we did. our kiba is alive because of her help and guidance and her confidence in our managing him. it sounds dramatic, but its true. his reactivity (towards dogs AND people) at the shelter could have cost him his life! we took a chance, bit off more than we could chew, and sought help.

    he’s a happy member of a four dog, two people home now.

  27. Reblogged this on volunteers 4 paws and commented:
    this post hits home, probably for all of us on some level.
    kiba gave us a reason to truly take the time to understand and learn to manage dog reactivity. we’re all better off for it! no more denial or panic here.

  28. Thanks for your post. I had no idea so many people had problems with aggression! Read all the comments and have just ordered fiesty fido! Hope it might help me with Kim’s aggression to other dogs. He’s a menace in the park and I have to put him on the lead every time I see another strange dog approaching. He’s fine with the dogs he’s know for years and ok with puppies and small fluffy breeds> He was kept in a flat without any walks or socialising for the 1st 16 months of his life so maybe that’s why he’s so difficult. He’s also frightened of some people but not all.

  29. I have gone through these 5 stages with my people reactive GSD over the past year. At 5 months I realized that his shyness towards people was actually reactivity. At that point I got professional help and started our path towards progression. Now we’re somewhere between progression and management.

    Another great book to read for reactivity is Behavior Adjustment Training by Grisha Stewart

  30. OMGosh I just learned so much from this… never knew the name of what my sweet angel pup (rescue pup too I might add) does when we pass by lunging barking dogs behind fences on our daily walks… There is a name for this! Thank you and for the kind but correct and firm reminder to address it. I love this blog!

  31. I just recently had to admit to myself that Weezy’s growling and lunging wasn’t just a fluke every time but that she is reactive and needs a little help unlearning bad habits. We had an appointment with a private trainer last week and it’s a freeing feeling already! It’s encouraging to read this about your sweet babies and to know it’s normal–especially in rescues whose pasts are unknown–to have some issues that need to be addressed. It’s also very helpful to learn how my reactions have triggered Weezy’s reactivity and have essentially trained her to be aggressive. This post is perfectly timed for me! Thanks for the encouraging words and constant positivity!

  32. I have question, Bunyip in most situations, is energenic and calm. Other dogs, joggers, birds, sqirrels bunnies, you name it and he will stand calmly observing them and in most cases not bark or anything, just watch. However, I have a lady with a small breed dog that lives in my apartment complex, it barks agressively at all other moving things; Bunyip will react only after it starts barking, I can hardly hold him, he pulls on his leash and gets very agressive. I have taken him to run free in dog parks with other dogs and he is fine. What can I do to show him that this other agressive dog is no threat?

  33. Great info! I had not heard of “reactive dogs.” With the five dogs my husband and I have, we’ve been very lucky to not have these problems, but your post has helped me learn, and I’ve made mental notes for future dogs = )

    Best of luck with the Dude, I am sure it will work out great! Can’t wait to follow along on his improvements = )

    ~ L.

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  38. For a short time while I worked twvlee-hour shifts, I trained my dog to use a litter box. Remember, the dog is still going toneed regular walks and playtimes. First, you need a bigger box than a cat would use try the kind of plastic storage box that fits under your bed. (If your dog lifts his leg, you’ll need an even bigger box, with one side cut out so he can get in.) Then fill it 1/3 full with dog litter or clumping cat litter about twenty to forty pounds.It helps if when you walk the dog outside, you get him to go on command. When you’re ready to train him (like on a long weekend), go for an outside walk. When he poops, pick it up and put it in your litter box so there will be a familiar smell. You can do this with urine too, but collecting it is a lot messier!At his next regular walk time, take him to the box and give him your Go command. If he doesn’t go after a few minutes, let him leave the box and either put him in a crate or keep him on a leash tied to your belt, so he doesn’t have an accident somewhere else. Keep trying this every few hours eventually he’ll go in the box. Give him lots of praise. Count on at least a week, before he’ll reliably use the box on his own. If you have to go out or go to work, confine him in the room with the box preferably one with an easily cleaned floor. Put an old rug on the floor where he jumps out my dog tracked the litter everywhere. He is not likely to eat his own poop from the box if you clean it out every time. However if he eats any of the litter, stop using it immediately clumping litter can cause a serious bowel obstruction.

  39. Love it! We realized our dog was reactive after being attacked by another dog. Her reactivity increased and we moved through the stages. She happens to be in the latter cateogory too. We went to training for over a year, and now I know so much from reading 10 million books that I am continuing to work with her at home. We can now go to park and walk within a few feet of people, however dogs are still another story, but at least we have a U-turn! Strangers in our house is another big issue, and that’s something that will come later or maybe it won’t and she won’t be able to handle it. I’ve learned to accept it, manage it, and continue training.

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  42. This entry is so insightful, short and easy to read. I too, have become a better trainer, behavior counselor and handler from causing a dog to become reactive before I could learn how to avoid that terrible path. Luckily, I changed things around and she is thriving. Bravo!

  43. Catching up on some old entries, and this one is among the best. You captured the five phases perfectly! My newly adopted dog was of the “took a while to come out of her shell” camp, and after having a reactive Elkhound for nearly ten years, I hoped not to deal with that again so I was pretty devastated. I tried not to dwell in the panic stage, though, enlisted the help of a trainer and started exploring the reactive dog blogosphere, where I’ve found so much support and comfort I decided to start one of my own. I’m excited for the future for Ruby and I, and know that she will teach me more than I ever knew before about dog body language, behavior and training.

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  50. I love my pet, I feel on stage 4 and my husband wanted to put my dog to sleep … our dog trainer told us a lot of things such as your dog is crazy and all that … she took Cesar Millan training, now i am seeing another trainer who does positive reinforcement and things are going great, but I will have to get rid of my dog for 1 year because my husband blames the dog for everything … please people be careful of what trainer techniques you follow or hire, dogs are very smart and IT IS POSSIBLE TO MAKE A CHANGE, I hope you all love your love so much to help them overcome te fear!!

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