Reactive Dog Resources

This page is a reference tool for all people with reactive dogs, each section has a heading and its related pictures, videos and articles can be found below this heading. All headings have been blogs on the main page at some stage and can be searched for by heading or label words on the main page

How Dogs Learn

Positive Reinforcement – We increase the chance of a desired behaviour happening again by rewarding it. The dog soon learns that in order to earn his reward, he just has to repeat that desired behaviour.

E.g. when the dog sits in front of us, we say“yes” in a happy tone and reward that with a treat. Marking the behaviour with a “yes” and rewarding the dog with a treat will increase the chances of that behaviour happening again. This is a strong way to enhance the bond/relationship with your dog whilst training. Rewarding all the desired behaviours is a great way to help you and your dog feel great about training, and increases the desire to train and learn new things. When we use positive reinforcement dogs learn to think more and look to offer us behaviours in order to be rewarded. This gives the dog confidence in the learning program.

Positive Punishment – We decrease the chance of an undesirable behaviour happening again by adding a punishment that the dog dislikes (an aversive). The dog learns that if he repeats this behaviour, it may be paired with an aversive.

E.g. the dog Jumps up at us, so we smack it on the end of the nose!! The dog learns that if he jumps up at us, this may be paired with a smack on the nose, and so decides against jumping up.

This method of training, will eventually break down the bond/relationship between dog and handler and if used regularly will not only stop the dog enjoying training, but may, if the dog becomes fearful lead to aggression. Dogs may become tolerant of this method, making it ineffective in changing the behaviour, yet still affecting your relationship. Unlike positive reinforcement, dogs here learn not to trust their handler, and look to suppress behaviours in case a punishment was to follow.

Negative Reinforcement – The dog’s behaviour makes something undesirable go away.

E.g. in order to increase the chances of a sit, we lift the lead, choking the dog, and remove when sitting. The dog will sit because he doesn’t like the choking when lifting the lead. Like the punishment method dogs just want bad stuff to go away. They will however pair you with the“bad Stuff” and this will break down the bond/relationship you have with them.

Negative Punishment – We decrease the chances of an undesirable behaviour happening again by removing a motivator (something the dog wants)

E.g. the dog jumps up to get our attention (something the dog wants), so we turn our back (removing ourselves) in order to reduce the behaviour happening again. This type of punishment is a non-force method and can include removal of a treat, a toy, a person or even a privilege. This is a non-aversive method of providing a consequence for an unwanted behaviour. This type of punishment is best paired with positive reinforcement, which quickly teaches the dog rights and wrongs. In the example above, if we rewarded the sit on the floor with a treat or our attention (positive reinforcement) then we would not only look to extinguish the unwanted jumping up, but also increase the chances of the sit on the floor.

Jeff Sasse(2010)

Counter conditioning and desensitization

These two techniques are often used to change unwanted behavior in dogs and cats. Just as the term implies, counter conditioning means conditioning (training) an animal to display a behavior that is counter to (mutually exclusive of) an unacceptable behavior in response to a particular stimulus. For example, a dog cannot be trying to bite the letter carrier and at the same time greeting them in a friendly, excited manner.

Desensitization involves gradually exposing a pet to the situation, without provoking the unwanted reaction. If an animal is highly motivated to perform an undesirable behavior, and if that behavior is easily and quickly displayed, competing behaviors may be difficult to elicit. That’s where the desensitization part of the process comes into play. Desensitization is the process of exposing an animal to a stimulus beginning at a very low intensity. So low that it does not result in the undesired behavior. For example, if a cat becomes fearful and hisses at visitors, then the first step would be to find a distance at which the cat does not hiss, growl, attempt to flee, or show other signs of fear. The stimulus intensity is then increased gradually (bringing the cat closer to people in the example), without eliciting the unwanted behaviour.

Performed simultaneously, these techniques provide a way in which an animal can be gradually taught to show acceptable behavior in the face of a stimulus that used to elicit problem behavior. They are often used when working with different types of fearful and aggressive behaviors.
Counter conditioning and desensitization must be implemented very systematically. If the incremental increases are too large, or occur too quickly, the techniques will either not be effective, or may even make the problem worse. Implementing a counter conditioning and desensitization program requires some thought and planning.

1. Define the starting point. Ideally, a behavior modification program of this sort should be designed and carried out in such small steps that the problem behavior never occurs. This means all the stimuli that elicit the behavior must be identified and ways found to lower their intensity until your pet doesn’t react to them.For example, if a cat becomes afraid if someone approaches closer than 6 feet, then the starting point would be a distance significantly greater than 6 feet. In order for these techniques to be most successful, your pet should not be put in any situation that triggers the problem behavior.

2. Define the dimensions or characteristics of the stimulus that influence your pet’s response. For example, if we are working with a cat that is afraid of being picked up, we need to know which aspects of that process influence the cat’s fear:

o Is she more afraid of adults than children?
o Is she more afraid of men than women?
o Is she more afraid of a family member or someone she doesn’t know? o Is she more afraid when someone moves fast or slow?
o Is she more afraid in a particular room?
o Is she more afraid if the person speaks to her or is silent?
o Is she more afraid if someone is sitting or standing?

Some common factors to consider include location, loudness, distance, speed of movement, length of time near the other animal or person, response of the other animal or person or body postures of an animal who induces fear or aggression.

3. Arrange these characteristics in order from least to most likely to produce a negative response. A counter conditioning and desensitization program needs to begin by using combinations of stimuli that are least likely to cause a fearful reaction. In our cat example above, perhaps the cat is least afraid of being handled by a familiar adult female who approaches slowly and speaks softly to her, while she’s lying on the bed in the bedroom. She is most afraid of a nephew who runs up to her yelling while she’s in the kitchen.

4. Always begin with the characteristics or dimensions that are least likely to elicit the problem behavior. We would begin with the easiest combination of characteristics of the situation, and gradually work up to the most difficult. If we find that this cat will be less afraid of a male child approaching slowly than an adult female approaching fast, then we know speed of approach is more critical than type of person. Thus, the working order on these two characteristics, from easiest to hardest, would be:

o Adult female, slow approach o Male child, slow approach
o Adult female, fast approach o Male child, fast approach

5. If necessary, devise ways to make each dimension less intense.
sound of the hair dryer, the sound must be presented to the dog at a low (sub-threshold) intensity, one that does not provoke the fearful behavior. This could be done by turning the dryer on and off quickly before the dog showed fear, turning the hair dryer on in another room, covering the dryer with towels, etc.

6. Pair each level of each characteristic with a positive consequence, as long as the problem behavior is not displayed. At these sub-threshold intensities, the stimulus must be paired with something positive for your pet. In this way, the animal comes to associate good things happening in the situation rather than bad things. Alternative behaviors such as calmness and friendliness are then reinforced instead of fear, aggression, etc. being elicited. The reinforcement must be powerful. Good choices are food, especially favored treats, toys, or social reinforcements such as petting, attention, or praise. If food is used (and it’s almost invariably helpful), it should be in very small pieces and be highly desired by your pet (cheese, hot dogs, or canned tuna often work well). You may need to experiment a little to see what food is the best motivator for your pet.

7. Do not progress to the next level until your pet is clearly anticipating the reinforcement. People commonly want to know how long they need to repeat each intensity level. This will
depend entirely on your pet, who should be demonstrating that he is indeed expecting good things to happen. Perhaps he looks to you for a tidbit, or looks around for his toy. This should be in contrast to his previous reactions such as trembling, tensing up, or other fearful or aggressive responses.

8. Don’t make all dimensions more intense at the same time. In our cat example above, notice that we increased the intensity with type of person, and subsequently increased the speed of approach. We did not try to do both at once by shifting from a slowly moving adult to a fast child.

9. Progress slowly. It is common for people to tell me, “I tried some of those ideas and they didn’t work.” Usually what has happened is that they tried to progress too fast, didn’t take small incremental steps, or didn’t use highly motivating rewards. Counter conditioning and desensitization take time and must be done very gradually. You will need to think through the steps you need to take. Rather than expecting progress in terms of leaps and bounds, look for small, incremental change. It can be very helpful to keep a log or record of your results, since day to day changes will not be very big.
If a dog is afraid of the

An example of a somewhat simplified counter conditioning and desensitization program for a dog who displays fear-motivated aggression toward men could be:

1. Identify the point at which fearful or aggressive behavior is first elicited (e.g., when the man is 6 feet away and is approaching to pet the dog).
2. Begin the program with a situation the dog will tolerate without becoming aggressive or fearful (e.g., the man walks by at a distance of 7 feet, with non-threatening body postures, paying no attention to the dog).
3. Encourage the dog to assume a confident posture on a leash such as standing, walking, or sitting.
4. Offer a small food reward and/or toy to generate expectant, excited, non-fearful behavior.
5. Respond in an up-beat manner, petting, praising, and talking “happy talk” to the dog.
6. Conduct several sessions of a few minutes before making it any more difficult for the dog.
7. Instruct the man to stand 7 feet away and make a small arm motion ashough he was beginning to reach out and pet the dog.
8. Give the dog food and praise for non-aggressive, non-fearful behaviorhile this happens, also conducting a set of short sessions.
9. Practice this scenario until the dog is anticipating the food reward or the toy.
10. Slowly decrease the distance between the man and the dog, adding to the arm motion on such a gradual basis that fear or aggression is never elicited. Many repetitions with more than one individual may be required. A new step should not be taken until the dog is clearly anticipating the reward.

You may need to supplement the behavior modification program with other approaches, such as avoiding situations that provoke the problem, using a headcollar like the Gentle Leader collar, or treating your pet with anti-anxiety medication. Your veterinarian or an animal behaviorist can give you more information on these options.

Trouble Shooting Counter Conditioning Problems

This video is from Emily Larlham. Her site has many more great video's. I have chosen this one today as it trouble shoots problems that people have when using Counter Conditioning. When people tell me that their dog isn't responding to Counter Conditioning (the process of pairing something nice with the appearance of something they previously or currently find unpleasant or scary) I often have to find out why this is. This short video explains many of pitfalls that people will have. Including when the dog hasn't associated that the appearance of the "scary thing" triggers the rewards from the handler. When the dog is over aroused by the rewards, when the dog has incorrectly paired the rewards with the clicks or the marker work "yes". If you are interested in seeing more of Emily's videos search "Kikopup" on You Tube.

Happy Watching, Miranda xxx

The "Look at That" Exercise 

The key with “look at that” training is keeping your dog below threshold (i.e. quiet and calm) while teaching them to look at a stimulus they do not normally like and rewarding them for looking at it. To train LAT, use your Clicker Leash to click and reward your dog the second they look at a trigger as long there is no reaction. If your dog is too intense with the triggers being used, start with a neutral target like a piece of paper or other item your dog has no association with and again click as soon as they look at it. When your dog is offering a quick glance towards the target, name it “look.” Your dog will quickly start to look at their triggers and turn back to you for a reward. If your dog does not turn quickly, it is likely because they are over threshold. You should increase the distance between you and the trigger and try again.

Begin playing LAT with a different neutral distraction for about 30 seconds, as often as you can each day. Gradually progress to more challenging distractions such as favourite toys, the mailman, squirrels and approaching people. Once your dog has mastered the game with various distractions, you can progress to using dogs they like and then strange dogs. Remember, the key here is to keep your dog calm during this game. If they begin to growl, bark or lunge, they have gone over threshold and you need to start again with more distance between you and the object.

Using Behavioural Adjustment Training or BAT 

ehaviour Adjustment Training, or BAT, rehabilitates dog reactivity by looking at why the dog is reactive and helping him or her meet his needs in other ways. In a nutshell, BAT is a dog-friendly application of ‘functional analysis’ that gives the dogs a chance to learn to control their own comfort level through peaceful means. It’s very empowering to your dog, in a good way.

BAT Takes a Functional Approach
When the dog does a problem behaviour, it is usually because an event in their environment, an environmental cue, triggers the dog to want or need something. Fulfilment of the need or want that is triggered by the environmental cue is called the functional reward. Here’s the sequence:

Environmental Cue = Behaviour = Functional Reward

So the functional reward for behaviours done after seeing a steak are the eating of the steak. The functional reward of behaviours done after spotting the squirrel is getting closer to / chasing the squirrel.

To discover the functional reward of a problem behaviour, look at the consequence of the dog’s behaviour – what are they earning from the people, dogs, and world around them by doing the behaviour?

For example, when dogs bark, lunge, growl, etc., one big consequence is usually an increase in distance from the trigger (they scare it away or are allowed to leave themselves). So we use increased distance—walking away from the trigger—as a functional reward.

Basic Steps for Problem Behaviours with BAT

1. Analyze to discover the functional reward of the problem behaviour.

2. Expose to a subtle version of the trigger. Don’t go so close or make it so challenging that the dog does the problem behaviour, including panic or aggression. Make it obvious what the dog should do, but not so easy that he’s not making a choice at all. Breathing should be fairly calm.

3. Wait for good choices (ex. look at trigger, then look away or stop pulling on leash or…). If distress increases, abort the trial rather than letting the dog flounder.

4. Mark with a word or clicker.

5. Give access to a Functional Reward – fulfil the need that triggered the behaviour you are trying to change.

6. Optional Bonus Reward, like food or a toy, esp. on walks - distracts from trigger.

When to Take a Functional Approach
1. You can figure out what the functional reward is for the problem behaviour.

2. You can control access to the functional reward.

3. There is an alternate behaviour that will reasonably earn the same functional reward in the dog’s everyday life.

The Importance of Management
Anyone that claims or even subtly implies that he/she can get your dog "fixed" or "cured" of its aggression is trying to sell you on his services.

It is much more realistic to start with the idea that you may not be able to cure his aggression, but with proper treatment and training you may be able to control your dog's aggressive tendencies, and reduce the behaviour. This means that managing your dogs behaviour in order to prevent any possible "incidents" is essential.

Apply the management and safety planning according to what your dog reacts to.
Avoid what sets your dog off

If your dog growls when you pet him on top of his head, don't pet him on top of his head!! If your dog growls at others, keep him away from others.

Desensitization and other techniques may be needed for many aggressive problems, but you need to know exactly how to do this for your particular dog. Until then, there is no point is setting your dog off. That goes for any of your dog’s aggression problems. The more your dog lunges at your neighbour’s dog, the more you strengthen and encourage that response, and the more difficult it will be to undo that reaction. You must try to prevent all aggressive outbursts or situations completely.


Invest in a crate. If you don’t normally use one and feel guilty, reassure yourself that a crate is actually similar to a den, and dogs can eventually feel safe in there. Decorate it with blankets or whatever else will make you feel better about it. It is the ideal thing when you need a break from your dog or need to protect guests. However, it should not be used for more than a few hours at a time. Trainers who rely on excessive crating to "cure" aggression, could be relying on a psychological condition similar to "learned helplessness" or depression.

A crate ought to be a safe den for the dog. Ask guests to ignore the dog when the dog is in there. Otherwise, move your dog to room where children can’t open it. Put a sign on the door for adults. Don’t rely on a baby gate. Dogs have been known to jump them, or chew through them. The benefit of a crate is that you can have your dog in the same room with you. Note: excessive crating can cause more behavioural problems


If your dog is likely to bite you or anyone else who might have to deal with it at anytime, keep a lead on it, even in the house. See headcollars in combination with leads below. It’s possible to purchase lightweight cloth leads, and snip the handle so that it doesn’t catch on anything while your dog is allowed to roam free within your house. This will allow you grab the lead instead of its collar or its body if you need to pull your dog away from anything. It will allow you to avoid getting to close to those teeth. Note: Tethering of animals may expose them to increased stress and danger.

Muzzles, head collars and harnesses

If your dog is likely to bite, you should consider investing in a muzzle now. Don’t assume that your dog will behave appropriately with a muzzle, however. A muzzle will do nothing to prevent aggressive behaviour. A muzzle will only prevent a bite. You should also condition your dog to wear it so they feel comfortable wearing it.

A head collarmay be useful (ask your trainer). This is not a muzzle. Your dog can still breathe, drink, eat, even bite if not controlled, but it makes control easy, and it is easy to prevent a bite simply by pulling on the lead.

Harnesses will not prevent biting and if the dog is aggressive it could be dangerous reaching around the neck to fit the harness. However, it is good for dogs that pull or lunge and the no-pull front attach harnesses offer more of a humane control for dogs with short snouts, where head halters won't work or where the dog hates wearing a head collar.


Freedom (off lead activity)

Freedom is tricky. As humans we believe that our dogs should be free to roam as they please. We avoid using crates, leashes, etc. But ask yourself; are you avoiding the use of tools like those mentioned above because of guilt or laziness? If so, reconsider what kind of threat your dog poses to others. You will feel much worse if your decisions result in your dog causing enough harm to have it put down. Remember, if your dog is behaving aggressively, whatever is provoking the aggression is also stressful to your dog.

Sometimes dog-aggressive dogs benefit from having more exercise if they are the kind of breed that needs a lot and they are not getting enough. A dog aggressive dog does not need to make friends. If you want your dog to get running exercise, consider getting it a long lead, and taking it to an area where you will not meet other dogs, or walk your dog with a head collar and lead.

Similarly a dog that is aggressive towards people should not be free to growl or snap at people, even strangers. Don't take any chances. It’s far better to be cautious then to need to put your dog down because you thought it "might be okay".

  • Invest in muzzles and/or head collars.
  • Under no circumstances should you dog ever be given the opportunity to escape. If the door is going to be opened, always put your dog on a lead secured to something; put him in a crate or another room.
  • Ensure strangers coming to the house will not have to confront your dog however accidentally.
  • Make sure your garden fences and gates are well secured. If your dog escapes anyway, you will be held liable.
  • Examine any open space your dog is allowed to run in, and make sure there is no danger of anyone or anything accidentally coming into this space. Don't assume that is you are there you can ask people not to come in. Sometimes they will not listen or believe your dog is a threat. If you are at all unsure, use a long lead, and a muzzle.
  • Check your leads, collars, etc. will not break.
  • Never ever leave a young child alone with any dog.
  • Always keep your dog in another seperate area of your home when there are other people who may potentially get bitten.
  • Use a locking mechanism or hook on the doors of rooms and crates, where people cannot accidentally invade your dog’s space.
  • Children have been known to open the doors of dog crates even when asked not to, so it is best to keep your dog in an area where children are not tempted.
  • Children may gain unauthorized access to a fenced area where your dog is kept. Never leave your dog outside without supervision.
  • Get stuck in to training your dog so when your management accidentlaly fails (it probably will at some stage) your dog will be better equiped for the situation they may find themselves in.


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