Reactivity vs. Aggression: Understanding & Supporting Your Dog

When it comes to your dog’s behavior, you want others to see the same sweet and gentle companion that you see at home. It can be frustrating and scary when your dog’s behavior suddenly shifts while on a walk or when you have company over. People often assume that these behaviors are signs of aggression, but in reality, your dog may be reacting out of fear or overstimulation. Let’s make some distinctions between the two and discuss what you can do to help your dog. 

Identifying Dog Aggression

The difference between aggression and reactivity is a tough call to make to the untrained eye. True aggressive behavior is when a dog intentionally chases down a subject and bites down without the intention to release it. On the contrary, a dog that quickly bites and releases is not necessarily an aggressive dog. The distinction here is that aggression is an intention to fully rid the threat that the subject poses to the dog. Here is a quick breakdown of an aggressive dog’s behavior:

Dog A sees Dog B. Dog B isn’t doing anything to engage Dog A. Dog A charges toward Dog B and bites down with a latch onto Dog B’s neck area, refusing to let go without intervention. This can be considered true aggression.

Characteristics of Reactivity

What most people characterize as “aggressive behaviors” are realistically a type of reactivity. Reactions are usually rooted in fear and generalized overstimulation. Genetically sound dogs do not naturally wish to act in aggressive ways. They feel as if they have no other option but to keep themselves (and sometimes their toys/food) safe. Reactive dogs make decisions based on feelings of fear, nervousness, or overstimulation. While a situation may seem normal to you or other dogs, reactive dogs go into a high-alert state of mind, clouding their ability to stay calm and feel confident. Reactivity can be triggered by past experiences, a lack of trust in their handler, or a lack of structure in their lives. Some examples of reactive behaviors include:

  • incessantly jumping on people
  • constant barking
  • lunging while on a leash
  • growling
  • nipping
  • running away/cowering.

Our Method for Reactivity

We have many clients who come in thinking or being told by others that their dog is aggressive, but it is almost always more complex than that. Canine psychology, in conjunction with human behaviors, can either escalate or deescalate a dog’s tendency to display reactive and aggressive behavior. Reactive dogs desire an environment and handler that will prove to be reliable and safe regardless of the circumstances. For example, if a dog has had a bad experience in the past with children and now growls when it sees a child, it can be rehabilitated through proper training to understand that a threat does not exist. They can learn to trust their humans to prevent negative outcomes and regain their confidence over time.

If your dog is reactive, we would love to help!  Our rehabilitation & obedience training programs are designed to ensure a better relationship between the dog, the owner, and the real world. After our professional trainers have completed a rehabilitation and obedience program with your dog, we take the next most important step in educating you as the dog owner to understand how you can impact your dog’s mental state going forward so that you can thrive together.

Advocating For & Supporting Your Dog

If your dog is reactive due to fear or environmental triggers, you can be their advocate by informing people how and when to greet your dog. Never allow someone to approach your dog when they are feeling overwhelmed, fearful, or in an elevated mood. You can put your dog at a sit by your side and wait until they are in a more relaxed state of mind. If your dog struggles with this, you may need to inform strangers not to approach your dog or seek help through our training programs. This will give you and your dog the freedom to confidently navigate the world without fear.

Let our experienced trainers help you understand your dog’s behavior and create a training plan for a happier, more confident canine companion. Contact us today to schedule a consultation!