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What is Reactivity?

And why do so many 'well-socialized' dogs become reactive?

Reactivity is defined as an EMOTIONAL OVERREACTION. Their behaviour is not the problem, it is the symptom of the problem.

The actual problem is an extreme emotional response, whether that be fear, excitement, anxiety, or something else. The outward manifestation of that is their behaviour.

And it is often caused by conventional socialization practices.

Conventional socialization was developed to combat (what is considered to be…) the leading cause of behavioural problems in pet dogs, fear. Fear tends to be caused by two things:

1.      Bad experiences with something, and/or

2.      A lack of exposure to something during the critical period of socialization (<4months).

It makes sense, then, that we would create a bunch of programs that all aimed at creating POSITIVE experiences during that critical period. If our puppies learned that other puppies were wonderful playmates, they would not develop a fear response to them, and the myriad of behavioural issues caused by fear wouldn’t eventuate.

They believe that the more 'positive' and fun it is, the better!

However, during the inception of these practices, trainers were also having to work in line with the recommendations by vets to isolate puppies until their final vaccinations. This was done to reduce the risk of puppies catching communicable diseases, particularly Parvo. And, unfortunately, the puppy vaccination protocol had their third and final jabs falling exactly in line with the END of their critical period of socialization.

So, owners that followed their vet’s advice and isolated their baby puppies at home, would then have to deal with a lifetime of behavioural issues. Because isolated puppies tend to view every novel thing (whether that be human, animal or environmental), with caution and potential hostility.

It prompted trainers to ask the question, how can we safely socialize these puppies? And the answer was to host ‘classes’ in sanitized locations that consisted of lots of direct interaction with other puppies (especially play), and interaction with strangers.

However, this failed to account for two critical things:

1.      How the individual puppy was perceiving these interactions.

2.      How the individual puppy’s genetics will affect their sociability.

It also completely failed to account for environmental exposure, which is just as – if not more – relevant than social experiences. But that’s a topic for another day.

Socially gregarious puppies would often become obsessed with others. Because other dogs invariably = play and fun. And strangers often gave food and cuddles.

These dogs are called ‘over-socialized’ by some trainers, and they are brought in by owners who are lamenting over their dogs behaviour, and claiming; he’s well socialized! I don’t know what happened! 

The signs of a genetically gregarious dog being incorrectly/overly socialized are:

-          They are unresponsive to known commands when in the presence of others

-          Are unable to read or respond appropriately to other dog’s social cues. They often perceive ANY behaviour from others as a signal for play, and their version of ‘play’ is entirely inappropriate for most socially competent dogs.

-          Can become so excited on leash that they become reactive, which can look like genuine aggression. This can be super confusing to owners, because their dog ‘just wants to play’.

-          Become so excited that they are uninterested in food, are not capable of making good choices or of taking direction from their owner.  

Socially aloof puppies actually become sensitized by attempts at ‘socialization’.

These puppies can present in a range of ways, from the super avoidant that hides, to the very forwardly obnoxious puppy. Their behaviour stems from concern, and they develop defensive and/or offensive strategies with others to keep themselves safe.

What’s tragic about the aloof puppy, is that many owners and even trainers will look at them and conclude that they need more socialization! They need to come to more puppy play parties and they need more strangers to pet them! 

It can be difficult for some to comprehend that most dogs are not gregarious like a stereotypical labrador. That they’ve actually been selectively bred for generations to be aloof, and that having them play with other puppies or get food from strangers isn’t going to change that. Instead, it will sensitize them.

The genetically aloof puppy may:

-          Initially appear ‘social’, but will suddenly or gradually become increasingly antagonistic between adolescence (9months) and social maturity (2-3yrs).

-          Use the most impressive displays of reactivity, as they learn that the bigger and scarier they appear, the more likely it will be that everyone will leave them alone.

-          Are so in fight/flight mode that they cannot take food, direction, or make good choices. Some dogs might redirect onto their handler too, especially if they incorrectly use aversives.

There are, of course, many variations of ‘gregarious’ and ‘aloof’ puppies. Plenty of dogs appear like a mix of the two, depending on where they are, who they’re with, their perceived ability to move away, their trigger’s behaviour etc. Not to mention the dogs that may have started out on either extreme, only to develop a genuine enjoyment from their reactivity and the power it gives them over others (I'm looking at you, cattle dogs).

We might not see exactly how conventional socialization effects a dog until they’re adults, and by that point the damage is done.

Note that it’s not the emotion that’s the problem, it’s the intensity of that emotion. The closer to red the dog is, the worse their behaviour. The closer to green – even if they’re in the negatives – the better.

Unfortunately for a lot of dogs, the very thing that was supposed to help with their future behaviour, may have irrevocably harmed it. Which is why so many ‘well socialized’ dogs become reactive.

Now, the question is: WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT? 

Thankfully, there is a solution. Neutralization.

The process of neutralization aims to move a dog from the RED zones more towards the green (see picture above). Because, again, it is not the emotion itself that’s the issue, it’s just how extreme it is.

Neutralization is both a preventative for social issues, and a treatment for it.

It aims to respect every dog’s genetic makeup.

Aloof dogs are not forced to be ‘made’ social, because such a thing is not possible in much the same way I – an introvert – cannot be made into an extravert.

They are, from the outset, shown that they do not need to advocate for themselves. They do not need to use aggression to make people/dogs stay away. We, as owners, will take that burden from them and ensure that no one invades their space. No matter how awkward it is.

Social interactions may be minimized, but ‘changed’ is a better way to see it. Rather than focusing on quantity – on forcing them to deal with manhandling by strangers and having their space invaded by random dogs – they will get their social needs with orchestrated events. They are paired with likeminded dogs, and humans that understand their need for space and don’t push them on it. Their social circle is carefully expanded.

They’re given adequate time to recover from stimulating situations, because they often need it. If they don’t get it, then they can become more sensitize to perceived pressure.

Gregarious dogs have their access to most others restricted until they show a capacity for good decision making. That means, no dog park visits, not allowing them to play with the neighbours dog until they’re both too exhausted to keep going, etc.

This may seem cruel to some, but the entire reason that these dogs develop issues with others is because they are not getting what they need from their relationship with their owner. These dogs are bred to work for their person, to provide companionship to their person, to play with their person. If they don’t get that from you, they will get it from somewhere.

The logical solution to the social dog problem, is to focus on your relationship while restricting access to their addiction (e.g. dogs). This can be done in an inducive manner, where owners become a conduit to all of the things that the dog wants. It can be done in a compulsive manner, where the dog learns that proximity to their owner is the safe-zone, and distractions should be ignored. It could be done by building a high degree of reliability in their obedience skills with either or both approaches.

Eventually, these dogs are put back in ‘triggering’ situations, and they normally opt-out of interacting with others altogether. It is simply not interesting anymore, because they’re getting what they need from their human.

There are lots of misconceptions about neutralization.

One such fallacy is that dogs aren’t allowed to ‘play’ with others, or to ‘say hello’ to anyone. But it is just as harmful to prevent all interactions with others as it is to encourage it.

While one goal is certainly to encourage our dogs to ignore others, they also do need to learn how to interact properly and safely. And with an eye to how these experiences will affect their future behaviour, off leash reliability, and intensity of their emotional association.

For the socially sensitive, that might mean that they’re always given an option to interact. My own Shepherd is aloof in the typical way that most of them are, and I’ve avoided any social issues simply because she’s rarely been forced to deal with others. If someone wants to interact with her, I tell them to call her over. If she comes, they can pet her. If she doesn’t, they need to respect her space.

For the gregarious, it’s best to pair them up with very neutral dogs for a while. Their constant summons to play will be ignored, which gives us precious opportunity to reward engagement and to teach them where they should find value.

Above all, Neutralization respects the dog. Who they truly are and what they truly need. The fact is, dogs don’t need to enjoy interacting with strangers and random dogs. Though that is how society views ‘good dogs’, it is not the reality. Dogs can quite happily go through life with a small social circle, a handful of ‘doggy friends’.

Dogs need YOU, though. They need you to recognize their distress and advocate for them. They need you to identify their excitement and work them through it so that they can read the room and remain socially competent. They need you to provide social feedback, and to play with them.

They DO NOT NEED to go to a dog park to be happy. They DO NOT NEED to attend puppy-mosh-pit-style classes to receive adequate socialization.

If you're looking for practical solutions to overcoming your dog's leash reactivity, check out my book: The Dog Park Antidote

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