Reactivity – what is it? What does that really mean?

November 25, 2023

We’ve been in your shoes.  We’ve owned dogs who struggle with reactivity. Those dogs where it feels like they are constantly pushing buttons, just waiting for an excuse to sound off at something in the environment. They react to dogs, people, vehicles, and every little sight or sound.

But here’s the thing.  Without a doubt, your dog’s brain is flexible it can be reshaped.  Brain flexibility is called neuroplasticity.  This flexibility allows humans to change bad habits or learn new skills. A person with brain damage can relearn the skills that were lost. We adapt to all life throws at us. And our dogs can, too.

You can reshape your dog’s brain to think differently and react differently. All dogs, humans, and animals are reactive. We all react to situations around us. What matters is HOW your dog reacts. When your dog’s reaction is excessive or not acceptable, that is when they are labeled as reactive.

Why The Label of Reactivity is a Problem

With decades of helping dog lovers change their dogs’ behavior under our belts, we have found that once the dog is labeled reactive, aggressive, or even fearful, the label sticks and lacks flexibility for change.

Because of misinformation from dog trainers, veterinarians, and friends, dog lovers are led to believe their dog will be reactive for the rest of its life, and the best they can do is to manage it and to never fulfill their dog-owning dream.

How Sad! But I want you to rest ASSURED your dog’s brain is flexible.  Your dog’ brain can be reshaped.  I know because I have owned dogs that others would label as reactive.  And I have helped thousands of dedicated dog lovers like you do the same. How long it takes varies from dog to dog and it is a very specific process.  It’s not about teaching sit, down, leave it.  It’s about teaching Calmness, Arousal Regulation, Disengagement and Confidence.

If your last dog was reactive and now you have a new dog, I know you want to avoid that struggle.  But remember, all dogs and people and cows, etc, are reactive. Just because your dog has reactions you don’t like, you don’t need to panic. Calmness is the path to resolving it.  This isn’t a struggle you caused and you can be proactive to resolve this struggle.


Your dog is normal.  Even friendly, easy-going, laid-back dogs can react excessively under certain conditions. I get it; it can be scary and inconvenient but your dog is not a robot, and we can’t expect it to behave like one.

Action Steps

But we CAN take action and set our dogs up for success by growing the skills that help with reactivity (Calmness, Confidence, Arousal Regulation, and Disengagement). Instead of waiting for the time in which your dog does overreact, we recommend proactive training where you are teaching those foundation skills. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation in which you are saying, “Sorry, my dog has never reacted like that before!”, because your dog just lunged or snapped at a person or dog, you can start teaching them now how to react.

My Dogs Never Done That Before

There are a number of reasons why your dog might suddenly react when it hasn’t in the past

  1. It feels threatened
  2. You missed previous symptoms your dog was uncomfortable (this is so common)
  3. Your dog doesn’t feel well or is in pain
  4. Something startles your dog
  5. Your dog is overly excited or too stimulated

When your dog has an unexpected reaction, don’t panic – think about which cause may apply. Is your dog is sick? Does it feel threatened, or uncomfortable with the situation? Was your dog startled, or too excited? Situations that are usually a breeze become tricky under those circumstances. Those are the situations that cause stress hormones to spike, and situations that are normally a breeze become tricky. It can take 3-7 days for those stress hormones to normalize.  So ideally, you help your dog decompress with calm activities, lots of safe chews and lick pacifiers to dissipate those stress hormones.

Now, you can put in some training to teach your dog new coping skills and in the future, you will better know what situations are too much for your dog.

Why do dogs react adversely?

Wouldn’t be lovely if we could have a little chat with our dogs and ask them what’s going on? Unfortunately, we can’t, but we do know from a lot of studies and research that the most common reason dogs react adversely is the dog is scared. It’s NOT because they are aggressive (wanting to inflict harm) or due to dominance. They are trying to communicate to the dog, person, sound, thing, “your scary, go away.” And they are outwardly displaying that fear.

To avoid the problem of having a sticky label of reactive or aggressive attached to your dog, we encourage you to think of your dog as FEELING scared. My dog feels scared, doesn’t imply something can’t be fixed, instead, it speaks to the present emotion.

All of a sudden that struggle gives us a greater understanding of our dog’s needs.  And instead of getting angry, yelling at the dog, or punishing them (which we know doesn’t help), we can remain calm, be empathetic, and better see their perspective.  The result of that will produce a much more positive impact on both your lives.

Do you want some help to overcome your dog’s reactivity?

Check out our selection of courses and programs that we’d recommend below. You can also grab our free stop barking eBook which goes into some tools you can start to use and help your dog with their reactivity.

Reduce Fear / Reactivity E-book
Chaos To Calmness Program
Transforming Reactivity Course

Is your Dog Reactive? In the comments section, please tell me what questions you have on resolving reactivity struggles.


Brianne Young on May 26, 2024, 3:46 AM
Dallas is extremely fearful when meeting new people. He shakes all over and won’t make eye contact. Too stressed to eat treats. He does better if the person sits but is still very stressed. It takes 5 or 6 times meeting someone before he is comfortable with them.

Debbie Schaefer of The Well-Mannered Dog
 replied on Sunday, April 18, 9:56 AM
Hi Brianne
It sounds like Winston is very much like many of the dogs we see in our Chaos To Calmness program and our Transforming Reactivity Course. You also might want to think about downloading our Reduce Fear / Reactivity E-book.


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Author – Debbie Schaefer

Debbie has been successfully teaching dog lovers how to rambunctious, rude, disobedient dogs into Well-Mannered companions since 1987.

That means there are few bad behaviors Debbie can’t tame or troublesome pups Debbie can’t help turn into well-mannered dogs.

With training, your dog can be a great companion, a fun part of your life.