A happy blonde cockapoo wearing an I Need Space yellow vest from Reactive Dogs UK, stood in long grass

When I introduced you to my dog Schlappohr the cockapoo, I briefly mentioned that he is reactive to both people and dogs. I’ve embarked on a journey of understanding and managing his unique needs. Through personal experiences, I’ve navigated the challenges and triumphs of owning a reactive dog, shedding light on the complexities inherent in such relationships.

In this article, I’ll explore the topic of reactivity in dogs; its causes, the lived experience of owners, and strategies for nurturing and supporting our furry friends.

What is a Reactive Dog?

So what does “a reactive dog” mean? This term is used to describe a dog that can’t cope in normal situations and over-reacts to those situations. And by over-reacting I mean behaviours such as barking, growling, lunging, cowering, and pulling on the lead. Some of these behaviours can appear aggressive in nature.

What makes a dog reactive?

There are a number of reasons why a dog might be reactive. One of the main reasons is fear. But other reasons include frustration and excitement.

Schlappohr’s reactivity is driven by fear. And he shows that reactivity by excessively barking, growling and occasionally lunging. He first exhibited signs of fear at around six months of age but he got worse as he got older.

Being the owner of a reactive dog

What is it like being the owner of a reactive dog? It’s not easy, let me start by saying that. Some words I would use are: lonely, embarrassing, stressful. When Schlappohr is having a particularly bad reaction to a dog he just doesn’t like the look of, and is writhing around on the end of his lead, snarling, growling and barking, all those words and more are how I feel. You feel judged by those who have witnessed this meltdown. I can’t tell you how many times I have come home and burst into tears. How many times I just don’t want to leave home with him, but have to.

But I’m happy to say I’m in a better place now, as is Schlappohr, thanks to a new behaviourist I’m working with. More on that later.

How to handle dog reactivity

Given I’m not a trained behaviourist, and each dog is different, I can’t give definitive guidance on how to handle your dog’s reactivity. My one bit of advice would be to seek professional help by engaging with a trained behaviourist. Your vet may be able to recommend one, or you can look for a trained and assessed behaviourist through the Animal Behaviour & Training Council. It’s also worth checking with your pet insurance as some insurances cover the cost of a behaviourist.

What I will talk about on this topic is what I do with my own dog Schlappohr, for whom I have a behaviourist. But again, these methods are specific to him, so these may not be appropriate for your dog.

Behaviour Modification

Using positive reinforcement, I’ve been working on desensitising Schlappohr to certain situations. This involves high value treats, including a squeezy tube of primula cheese! Whenever he sees a dog, I start “administering”, as I call it, the primula cheese. The idea is that he will associate seeing a dog with something positive.

Management

As much as I can I avoid situations that may trigger Schlappohr. For example, you’ll quite often find me walking him at the crack of dawn when there are fewer people out and about. And us owners of reactive dogs love a cold, wet, windy day as again there will be fewer people and dogs outside.

And if I see a group of dogs approaching of us when out on a walk, if I can, I will head off in a different direction so that I don’t put him in a situation that he may not cope with.

At home, his safe space is the kitchen which has a gate across it. So if someone comes to the front door, the first thing I do is put him in the kitchen so that he can’t run towards whoever is at the door. If I’m expecting a visitor, then I will get a frozen licky mat ready so that he has something to soothe him.

Whilst he can get used to new people it takes time and the introduction has to take place responsibly. I always tell people not to approach him or engage with him. I keep him on lead at all times so that I have control over him. If he approaches the person to have a sniff they know not to try and touch him. It can take many, many weeks for him to trust someone, and I make sure to go at his pace; but once he does accept someone he absolutely adores them!

Body Language

Learn to read your dog’s body language. You’ll start to see subtle signs that your dog’s emotions are starting to change. Are they licking their lips? Pinning back their ears? When you start to see these signs, you can intervene before your dog reacts, for example by removing them from that situation.

Medication

Schlappohr is on anti-depressants. Something that often comes as a surprise when I tell people – dogs and anti-depressants aren’t something you normally associate together. Medication on its own is unlikely to help. But used in conjunction with a behaviour modification programme it can help, as your dog will be more receptive to learning new behaviours.

If you think medication might help your dog, speak to your behaviourist and vet. You might need to try different ones until you find one that works for your dog. Research possible side effects particularly when they first start taking it. I remember Schlappohr having a couple of days of being very restless; pacing around the flat, panting and barking. I won’t lie, it was horrible to see. But his body soon adjusted and I do feel that he’s calmer on the medication and his reactivity is improving and he’s learning new behaviours.

Organisations

Reactive Dogs UK

Trust me when I say that, as an owner of a reactive dog, you’re not alone. Reactive Dogs UK was started by Nic Crampton when labrador Genevieve came into her life and has helped over 36,000 reactive dog owners in 7 years.

RDUK is run by experienced accredited professionals and a team of dedicated, trained volunteers. They have a simple but powerful ethos: to offer unparalleled empathy, compassion and care and provide thoughtful, trustworthy professional guidance to owners of reactive dogs, free from judgement.

I joined RDUK in 2023 and found my behaviourist through them. The support is amazing. Whether you want to rant about something that has happened; share a success story, ask for advice, there are always people willing to listen and offer support. I no longer feel alone in my journey of owning a reactive dog, because unless you have, or have had, a reactive dog, you don’t really know what it’s like.

Yellow Dog Products

Letting other people know that your dog is reactive and needs space is a great thing to do when you’re out with your dog. It can help stop people approaching your dog or prevent people letting their dog run up to yours. Yellow is the colour for reactive dogs. So if you see a dog in yellow, whilst it might just be that the dog, or rather the owner, likes the colour yellow, there’s a high chance that the dog is reactive so please give them the space they need.

Yellow Dog UK

One of the first yellow dog products I invested in was the “I Need Space” vest from Yellow Dog UK. Schlappohr wears it outside and whilst not everyone takes notice, I do often hear people commenting on it and it does help signal that he needs space.

Yellow Dog UK doesn’t just advocate for reactive dogs, but any dog that needs space. That could be because the dog is in training, in heat, or have health issues. Following the launch in 2012 of the Swedish International Gulahund Yellowdog programme the team behind Yellow Dog UK took on the role of UK Ambassadors of Gulahund. They tirelessly promote the yellow dog campaign across the UK, and will continue to do so until everyone knows that a dog in yellow needs space.

My Anxious Dog

Over the years I have added to my yellow dog products, including a yellow dog lead that says “Keep Dogs Away”, a yellow raincoat that says “Anxious” and a yellow squeezy bottle that I fill with Schlappohr’s primula cheese.

A blonde cockapoo wearing an Anxious yellow raincoat from My Anxious Dog

All these items came from My Anxious Dog, which was created by Sarah Jones after her dog Bella started showing signs of being a reactive dog. Sarah has created a wide range of products that come with different messages, such as “Keep Away” and “Do Not Touch”.

Truffle Muzzles

I was initially upset at the thought of Schlappohr wearing a muzzle. I think there’s a stigma attached to them. When someone sees a dog wearing a muzzle they think they’re dangerous. But I’d like to try and break that stigma. Whilst Schlappohr has never bitten anyone, I know that I’m responsible for him and his actions, and I will do whatever I can to make sure he and other people and dogs are safe.

He doesn’t wear his muzzle very often, but we’ve started using it when we’re in the lift of the building we leave in. He can find being in the lift difficult. The doors open and suddenly there’s someone entering the lift, encroaching on his space. So he wears his muzzle; I feel more relaxed because I know that if he chose to lunge at someone he can’t hurt them.

A blonde cockapoo wearing a customised muzzle from Truffle Muzzle

I got his muzzle from a small Italian family-owned business, Truffle Muzzles. They customise the fit of the muzzle based on your dog’s dimensions and you can customise the colours and even bling them up with charms and different coloured rivets!

Final Words

Reactivity in dogs is complex. Whether you were keen to know more about the topic, have a reactive dog yourself, or think your dog is showing signs of reactivity, then I hope I’ve helped answer some of your questions and given you resources where you can learn more.

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