Being a reactive dog is stressful and exhausting. Having a reactive dog can be the same, for the human. Dog reactivity is a complex issue but, with some patience, time and training, you can help your reactive dog become more calm, confident and happy. This will greatly reduce their reactions and give you more confidence to know how to handle your dog when they are reactive. Whether your dog is reactive on leash, towards people or to sounds or objects, check out my Relief for Reactivity Program for help with learning why your dog is reactive, how to help them and what to do before, during and after a reaction. If you are looking for ways to help your reactive dog I have filled the Relief for Reactivity program with everything I know about the behavior and the process.
Below are some great ways to support your reactive dog emotionally (these are great for all dogs but especially helpful for reactive dogs):
Sniff Walks – Sniff walks are a wonderful activity for ALL dogs but offer reactive dogs exceptional benefits. Find an local area (preferably a large grassy or open space area) that you know is the least likely to have dogs, bring a 15 ft long, light lead and let your dog sniff, walk and explore AS MUCH as they want. Follow them and see where they take you! The freedom, sniffing and exploring will relax your dog. It’s important to work with your dog FIRST on getting familiar with the long lead (so they don’t run and hit the end of it). Slowly let it in and out and practice getting used to it before giving your dog the entire line. NOTE: If you have a large dog that it’s trained to walk well on leash this activity could pose a danger to you – be sure you do some loose leash training first.
Mat/settle training – Training your dog to go to and settle on a mat is a wonderful way to reinforce calm. The more you do it, the more calm your dog will be in general. It’s also a great thing for traveling as it brings peace of mind to your dog when they have their “meditation” mat with them in a new place. Bring it to cafes, beaches and anywhere you’d like your dog to stay and relax.
“Find it” in grass – Playing find it in the grass is relaxing for your dog because sniffing and exploring is a natural way to promote calm and relaxation. You can just say “Find It!” and toss a handful of treats and/or kibble in the grass. If your dog isn’t engaged, start small and work up – they WILL figure it out but some dogs need practice at first. Next thing you know, they will be begging to play. For high energy dogs, I recommend doing this with their mealtime kibble, too.
Hiking - Anytime you can find a nice quiet hiking spot it will be relaxing for you and your dog. I understand it may be tricky to find a place where there are NO dogs but, if you have a small dog you can always pick them up and quickly pass other dogs if they come upon you. If you are lucky enough to live near a quiet hiking trail without dogs, be sure to bring your long lead and watch your dog explore and relax! (Worst case, go for a walk in a quiet neighborhood with minimal traffic and dogs).
Water Play – If your dog loves water, you can purchase a small, blue plastic kiddie pool for summer and toss waterproof toys in it. This is such a fun, confidence building exercise for pups that like water! If your dog is hesitant, start with a dry pool, add the toys and some treats. Let your dog get used to the pool without water, then just add splash of water in the pool (even ¼” will do) and slowly add more as they adjust and play. This can be done over time, not all in one session. (You can also use ball pit balls instead of water if your dog dislikes water).
Digging box – Does your dog enjoy digging? It’s a very relaxing activity for those that enjoy it. You can make your own digging box by using the blue plastic pool (above), fill with sand and bury some toys and Milk Bones. (If your dog is destroying your yard, simply move them to the digging box if you catch them digging). Be sure you bury things to get them going and to keep them motivated. If you have an area in your yard that you can designate as a “digging zone” that works, too.
Hide and Seek (indoors and outdoors). This will also help to reinforce your recall. To play, simply hide from your dog, call their name and heavily reward them for coming. You can even say “You found me!” and make it very exciting. They will want to play MORE. If you need time to hide, drop a few treats to keep them busy long enough for you to escape and hide. Have fun and be energetic for this game!
Scent Work – Start small here. To play, use highly scented (moist) treats or tiny bits of cheese. Put your dog in another room, leave the treat/cheese in plain sight so it’s easy to find and go get your dog. Tell them “search!” and wait for them to find the treat. Continue by adding a few more bits next time and then, slowly “hiding” them in easy spots. Build up to more challenging searches. Repeat outside in the yard for a wonderful challenge. Remember, it’s important to do this gradually so your dog doesn’t give up too easily.
Massage – A nice gentle massage is sure to calm most any dog. Find a quiet area in your home, bring your dog’s bed and put on some quiet music. You know what to do from here!
Licky Mats – Licky mats are a great activity for all dogs and will provide some mental stimulation for reactive dogs. You could even try incorporating it into your training on the go! I use peanut butter and wet dog food on licky mats. Greek yogurt is good too!
Snuffle Mats – Another really fun activity that provides mental stimulation (which is relaxing for your dog). They are available on Amazon and also handmade (shop small!) on Etsy. Place treats or kibble in the appropriate places and let your dog find them. You can even use them for meal times. So simply but very powerful!
Christine Durrant, CPDT-KA Professional Dog Trainer and Behavior Consultant