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What is Dog Reactivity?

Key Points

  • Two types of reactivity

  • Reactivity is not aggression, but can escalate.

  • Canine Coaches & Trainers can help address the issues that cause reactivity.

Dog Reactivity

"Reactivity" means, quite simply, that the dog reacts to another dog, a person, or an object we trainers call it stimuli. Essentially, something or someone triggers the dog to do things like bark, growl, and lunge which can look like the dog is being aggressive.

But that's not always the case. Sometimes the dog is distressed and reacts out of fear, and other times, the dog is perfectly fine and has no inclination to attack the trigger.

We'll focus our discussion on two very different types of reactivity:

  1. Reactivity related to what's called "barrier frustration"

  2. Fear-based reactivity

While both types of reactivity can look the same to many people, they mean very different things to the dog. Barrier frustration is all about access and, more specifically, a lack of access. The dog wants to get to something but can't. Fear-based reactivity is more about making something go away. The dog is afraid of something or someone and can't escape because he's tethered by a leash.

The differences can be hard to spot for many people, but with a little knowledge and a better understanding of canine body language, we can better determine which type of reactivity we've got.

Barrier Frustration

It can be incredibly stressful for a dog to not be able to check out something on the other side of a fence, a door, or even a leash. (Yes! Many dogs become highly frustrated by the mere fact that they are tethered to a leash — especially if another dog or other animal strolls by.) But, and this is a big BUT, barrier frustration does not mean the dog is going to behave aggressively to whatever thing he wants to check out. If the dog gets along with others when his access to them is not blocked, he is likely not upset with them. He’s just frustrated that he can’t go say hi, play, or sniff out some info.

What does a barrier-frustrated dog look like? There is no set answer, but it could be any mixture of the following:

  • Lunging and pulling (if on leash)

  • Barking

  • Crying

  • Growling

  • Twirling, flipping, flopping

  • Bouncing

Basically, you’ll see a lot of pro social (read: friendly) gestures combined with attempts to get past whatever is holding him back.

Blocking visual access, by keeping the window shades closed, for example, can help to reduce barrier frustration. Also a qualified trainer can help teach your dog good “greeting skills,” so that your dog doesn’t get quite so worked up when he happens by another dog when out on leash. It’s important to brush up on your body language knowledge so that you can differentiate between a barrier frustrated dog and one who is afraid. Let’s learn more about the latter now.

Fear-Based Reactivity In fear-based reactivity, the dog’s behavior is more “organized.” The dog is more likely to go through orderly steps to tell an animal (or person) to back off. For most dogs, the last thing they want to do is to bite and risk getting attacked themselves, so they have a nice vocabulary of warning signals. For dogs experiencing this type of reactivity, we most likely see this body language:


  • Tension on the leash when another dog is in sight. This may begin at a pretty great distance, but the dog is aware of the other dog in the environment.

  • Growling. Low level growling may begin as soon as the other dog is perceived, regardless of distance and may grow in intensity if the other dog gets closer.

  • Snarling

  • Lunging

For some dogs experiencing fear-based aggression, walking at off-hours, walking in less populated areas, and/or using muzzles (see video below) can help both ends of the leash find walks safer and more enjoyable but remember this is management not training. Both types of reactivity can be off-putting to owners and cause people to feel unsure or scared walking their dogs. Working with a trainer, who can identify and address the underlying cause, is the best way to overcome the problem.

Be careful to never grab a dog who is displaying reactivity, because redirected bites where the dog lashes out at the nearest thing to him can occur.

Be sure to click here and Subscribe for my continuation on Dog Reactivity Coming Soon!

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