Working Through Reactivity in Real Life: How Do I Stop My Dog From Barking at Everything?

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By Nichole Myers-Youngquist, CPDT-KA, WHS Behavior & Training Instructor

WHS Adoption Supervisor’s dog, Maddie, barking for the camera. Photo by Steffanie Anderson.

Did you know that Willamette Humane Society has a behavior hotline? (503) 585-5900, extension 318. We also have an email, behavior@whs4pets.org. You can call or email us to get training advice, group class information, or schedule a private lesson.

The most frequently asked question we hear: “How do I stop my dog from barking at everything?” Families tell us the barking is accompanied by other behaviors such as lunging, pulling, jumping up, snarling, and snapping. The behavior occurs most often when the dog is on a leash. This is reactivity. 

The term “reactivity”  describes animals who respond to triggers with a higher-than-normal level of arousal. An article from the American Kennel Club states that reactivity is often confused with aggression. They are not the same thing, but reactivity can escalate to aggression. Aggressive behavior is hostile, destructive, and can cause injury to a person or animal. 

In order to answer this FAQ we must first address the reasons behind the behavior.

Why is my dog barking?

WHS alum, Magnum, barks when he feels stressed. Photo by Jessi Henry.

Dog behaviors such as barking, lunging, snarling, and snapping are primarily influenced by emotions of fear, anger, and frustration. According to Patricia McConnell, PhD and animal behaviorist, every dog is different in their intensity of emotional feelings and what triggers their hyperactivity or irrational behavior responses. 

Reactive dogs are living in a state of distress (or excessive, unhealthy stress). Their bodies react without thinking, and their ability to learn is severely limited or non-existent. If you observe your dog’s body language closely, you will see small indicators of stress (licking of the lips, panting, yawning, paw lifting, or hyperactivity) before these signs appear. Your job: Take action before your dog is distressed. 

Setting you and your dog up for success

Short-term management:

  • Stay calm. Your behavior affects your dog’s choices. Remember that your dog is on a leash which limits their option from flight to fight. Do not shout, “no” or “leave it.” Your dog is in a distressed state of mind and, probably, unable to understand what you want. Do your best to get your dog’s attention and move away from the trigger. Try using a squeaky toy or offer them a hot dog morsel.
  • Get distance. Oregon-based dog trainer, Grisha Stewart, MA, CPDT-KA, KPACTP, developed a useful tool called Behavior Adjustment Training, or B.A.T. As part of B.A.T., dog owners are encouraged to compare dog stress levels to rising water. Ideally, you will keep your dog on dry land or feeling relaxed. Move farther away from triggers before your dog’s arousal rises with the tide. By moving away from triggers you are actually listening to your dog and relieving their stress.
  • Be an advocate for your dog. Watch your dog’s body language around triggers, especially in public areas. Your dog does not need to meet every person or dog during outings. You can say, “No.” 
  • Choose the road less travelled. Move to the other side of the street when you see another dog or stranger. Choose a time of day when the least amount of triggers are likely to occur. 
  • Choose equipment that is the least invasive and not aversive. Do not use prong and shock collars or choke chains. These tools punish your dog and damage your relationship. They can make the reactive behaviors worse. Tools such as a front-leading harness or a head halter helps maximize leash control and minimize discomfort. Check out last month’s blog for more walking equipment ideas.
  • To exercise or not to exercise? Highly aroused dogs are stressed. Some dogs have a hard time controlling themselves or calming down. These dogs are often reactive and hypervigilant. This is commonly seen with ball- or frisbee-obsessed dogs. Exercise is essential to your dog’s well-being, but in moderation. Allow for calm sniffing periods during your walks. Or change up the type of exercise you do each day. Try* flirt poles or parkour
Dog Parkour class teaches  your dog to engage with you and the environment instead of barking. Photo by Wayne Beasley.

In the long-term, training, consistency, and routine work well to change a dog’s feelings towards triggers. Long-term training involves: 

  • Set up training scenarios. Life is unpredictable so you can’t be sure when triggers will show up. You can, however, set up training sessions for modifying behavior. Start in a low-distraction environment and gradually work your way up.
  • Get distance by using a U-turn. If a trigger is ahead of you, get a treat in your hand. Put your hand with the treat on your dog’s nose to get their attention. Both of you turn around together in a tight arc. Be sure to stay close to your dog. 
  • Play pattern games. Dogs love routines or patterns. Teach your dog to play a game when a trigger is present. The more often you do this, it becomes a pattern for your dog to rely on when a trigger appears. In a previous blog we described “I Spy” (also known as “Look At That”), an association pattern game. Simply put, your dog looks at the trigger. Your dog looks at you. You say, “Yes.” You give your dog a tasty treat. A reminder: Introduce triggers at a significant distance. Check out this video with demonstrations of how to do pattern games in real life.
  • Practice patience. There is no quick fix for reactivity. Every dog is different. Focus on the goal: Your dog looking to you for guidance and a tasty treat instead of barking.

Don’t Be Afraid to Get More Help

You are not alone. If the behavior worsens, contact your veterinarian to rule out anything medical. Then contact our behavior and training department to get additional advice and schedule private lessons. 

Thank you for reading.
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