What is Reactivity?

Text source: Reactive Champion

Reactivity is a strong reaction demonstrated by a dog in response to a relatively mild trigger. This trigger can be another dog, a person, a specific object, or a sudden change in the environment. Each dog's reactive behavior will look different, however it usually involves some element of barking, growling, or lunging towards the trigger, and occurs on a regular and somewhat predictable basis.

Reactivity cannot be determined based on a single event, nor is it based on a dog's reaction to an overwhelming event or item. Barking, growling, and lunging are normal behaviors, and should be expected in response to truly intense situations. 

Reactivity is typically the result of anxiety or fear, although some dogs will behave in a reactive manner for other reasons; frustration or over-excitement often results in a dog that cannot control itself. This is often seen when on leash or behind fences or other barriers.

Reactivity should not be confused with aggression because the reactive dog is not intending to cause harm. It is generally assumed that the reactive dog is “all bark and no bite,” and that his behavior is used to scare away whatever is worrying him or causing him concern. Despite this, one should use care when working with a reactive dog as the heightened arousal and out-of-control nature of his behavior increases the risk accidental harm.

Trigger Stacking

Text source: Positively

trigger stacking

What is a trigger?

A trigger, in dog behavior language, is an addition to the environment that causes a dog to increase their awareness/fear/reactivity. Anything that constitutes a stressful trigger certainly adds another layer of stress to what a dog is experiencing.

What is trigger stacking?

Stressful triggers alone are not responsible for creating a shorter fuse in a dog. There are a number of things that can add to trigger stacking. Dogs really like routines. They thrive with structure and known expectations. Any additions and changes to a routine can add a layer of stress that creates a reaction that is not typical of the dog in question.

What does this mean in the overall scheme of things? This means that the simple act of not getting a daily walk when this is an expectation can add stress. A much loved visitor well known to the dog can add stress via excitement. Interacting at length with people the dog is not typically exposed to, regardless of the dog’s comfort level with friendly strangers, can add stress. A lengthy car trip to a favored location can add stress. A day out at a favorite activity can add stress. The stressor doesn’t have to be an adverse activity to create a reaction.

Take a Cortisol Vacation 🌴

Text source: Pawsitive Abilities

For most dogs, we need to temporarily change their environments and routines to avoid common triggers. This could mean changing the time of day you walk your dog, covering or blocking access to your fence or windows so that your dog can’t bark at people or other dogs going past, or avoiding visitors to your home for a period of time. It oftentimes means taking a break from dog training classes or dog sports competitions and avoiding travel. We may need to change your dog’s exercise from exciting ball play to leisurely “sniff walks” on a long leash or increase mental exercise by feeding out of puzzle toys.

While the cortisol vacation is a great place to start for chronically stressed dogs, it’s not a long-term solution. Rather, the goal of this break from life is simply to help the dog find a calmer place from which he’ll be better able to learn new coping strategies. This is a temporary respite from the craziness that he can’t yet deal with.

Reactive Dog Journal

Keeping track of your day-to-day can really help you better understand your dog, their triggers, and help you navigate the world together. While it's important to recognize what your dog's triggers are, it's even more important to recognize the signals displayed before a full reaction. Engaging with your dog before a reaction ("Dog, leave it! Look!") will be more successful than waiting after a reaction.

Your dog's triggers

What did your dog see or experience that caused a change in body language? Are some more difficult than others? Some examples:

  • Running dogs
  • Bikes approaching head-on 
  • Children running or screaming
  • Wheelchairs
  • Trucks

You as a trigger

What do you do when you see one of your dog's triggers? Some common examples:

  • Gasping/sucking in air
  • Tightening your leash
  • Slow down/speed up walking
  • Talking more or less
  • Walking partners alerting "DOG!"

Image from Sophia Yin

Image from Sophia Yin

Your dog's body language

Other than the barking and lunging, what are some more subtle changes in body language you notice when you encounter a trigger? Some examples:

  • Tense body
  • Forward stance
  • Ears perked forward or ears pulled back
  • Lip lick

These are compared to your dog in a comfortable environment. Context matters!

Cues To Practice

For the purposes for our class, our dogs should know the following basic behaviours as they will be used for all exercises.


"Look" asks your dog to reorient their eyes at your eyes.

Image from    Deaf Dogs Rock

Image from Deaf Dogs Rock

  • Place the treat in front of your dog’s nose.

  • Take the treat up to your eye, holding it between your thumb and index finger – this becomes a hand signal.

  • Most dogs will look you in the eye if a tasty treat is beside it!

  • When you have a few seconds of eye contact, reward with the food.

  • As with the other cues, repeat the cue until your dog can also respond to the cue without the treat.

Important note: it is essential to mark the behaviour as soon as it happens so your dog understands what behaviour is rewarding. Once you've practiced this cue, you no longer have to use food to distract your dog. Simply ask this cue when desired and then reward with food, praise, or play.


Leave It

"Leave it" is a cue used when you want your dog to ignore something completely.

Video and training instructions

Foundational Exercises

In addition to the three cues listed above, the following two exercises helps us improve our technique and work at a distance from the trigger where our dogs can keep their focus on us. This means not only rewarding your dog for appropriate behaviours to replace unwanted ones, but also clear treat delivery and to move in ways that provide clear guidance.

Important note: make sure to do these exercises often in all kinds of contexts and environments and not just when you see another dog. You don't want this maneuver to inadvertently be the cue to your dog that another dog is coming.

Back Away

The "Back Away" is a helpful handling technique used to circumvent a potential reaction. It is typically used and most successfully employed before your dog has any indication that a trigger is present.

Imagine walking down a sidewalk when another dog and handler are walking towards you on the perpendicular sidewalk coming up. The goal is that your dog is focused and looking at you while catching up and while sitting.

Illustration from  Sophia Yin

Illustration from Sophia Yin


Body Block

This technique is usually used when your dog is about to go over threshold, has "locked and loaded" or is not responding to verbal cues or food distractions. This is used to put your body between your dog and the incoming trigger.

  • Shorten the leash and turn into your dog
  • Use your body to move them into a u-turn
  • Once turned into the opposite direction, keep moving until you regain focus.
  • Praise and reward once you're able to get your dog's attention again

It is important not to use verbal corrections during his maneuver. This is an emergency turn to get your dog to disengage from the stimulus in question. This can be helpful if an off-leash dog is approaching.

Important Note: Do not use this technique with a dog that has a tendency to redirect.


Food, Treats, Rewards

Successful training relies in large part on determining what motivates your dog the most. While every dog is different and some may favour praise, toys, or life rewards, very often food is the primary motivating force and can be a powerful tool for shaping new behaviours and helping anxious, fearful, and aggressive dogs overcome their issues. Animals are biologically motivated to eat and we can use this to our advantage!

Food has the power to not only enhance a dog's ability to learn but also to help a dog overcome fear or anxiety by raising levels of dopamine int the brain and stimulating the desire to seek or work for a food reward. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in reward-driven learning and helps regulate movement and emotional responses.


Treat suggestions

Be create and look beyond the pet food aisle! Often, novel snacks can be very high-value for many dogs. 

From the pet store

  • Beef/Lamb lung
  • Beef liver
  • Roll Over
  • Wellness – Lamb & Salmon treats
  • Orijen treats
  • K9 Naturals Green Tripe Toppers
  • Pure Bites

From the kitchen

  • Sliced hot dog pieces
  • Cheese (the smellier the better – Old Cheddar)
  • Peanut butter, Cheese Whiz, Cream Cheese
  • Deli meat
  • Left over meat (steak, chicken)
  • Bacon (or food mixed with bacon fat)
  • Baby food

Food Tubes

Where to find tubes
MEC – Squeeze Tubes / GoToobs
Great for:

  • peanut butter
  • cheese whiz
  • cream cheese
  • yogurt
  • raw fed dogs (ground meats)
  • canned tripe
  • wet dog or cat food


Simply adjust the flour to liquid ratio so your batter is similar to pancake batter. Stores in fridge for up to two weeks. Here's a great baking hack you can consider for both recipes too: http://eileenanddogs.com/2017/01/11/making-500-non-crumbly-dog-treats-from-a-mold/

Tuna Fudge

Tuna Fudge

1 cans of tuna in water (do not drain)
2 eggs
1+ cups of flour (tapioca is a good option)

  1. Preheat oven to 350ºF.
  2. Add fish and egg into bowl
  3. Blend with flour, 1/4 cup at a time until the consistency is a little more viscous
  4. Oil your cookie pan(s)
  5. Spread batter across pan, about 1/4″ thick (doesn’t really matter)
  6. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes
  7. Slice (1″ x 1″) and wait until cool before storing
Liver Fudge

Liver Fudge

Pureed Liver

  1. Preheat oven to 350ºF.
  2. Blend liver puree with flour 1/4 cup at a time until the consistency is a little more viscous.
  3. Oil your cookie pan.
  4. Spread liver across pan, about 1/4″ thick (doesn’t really matter)
  5. Bake for 5 to 10 minutes
  6. Slice (about 1″ x 1″) and wait until cool for storing