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The Reactivity Bubble

That barking, lunging, freaking out dog you saw on your dog walk. You know, the one with the embarrassed apologetic human on the other end of their lead. They looked really aggressive and out of control, right?


Actually, chances are they’re scared.


Chances are their human would like to help them but doesn’t know how yet.


OR their human does know how to help them and they’re still working on it, but you and your dog took them by surprise and got too close before they could get their dog to a distance they felt safe at.


Perhaps the human was attempting to distract their dog with a yummy treat but the dog was taking no notice whatsoever


Let me say this right now, distraction is not the aim of the game here. Whilst distraction can sometimes help to get a dog out of a tight spot by luring them to a safe distance before they see the thing they’re scared of (in this case another dog) or it gets too close, it will not tackle the cause of issue. It will not change the dog’s behaviour. Nor will it work AT ALL once the dog has gone what we call ‘over threshold’ and is already barking, lunging etc.

In order to change the dog’s behaviour, we need to change their emotional response to seeing another dog. This is where a behaviour modification plan comes in. It takes time, dedication and patience but it does work.



One of my dogs, Arri, used to put on a huge display of barking, lunging and snapping at the sight of another dog (his trigger is unknown dogs out and about, he is fine with dogs he knows). It took time and he’ll never be happy if an unknown dog gets too close for comfort but we can happily pass other dogs on the street now as long as I am aware of how close he is happy for them to be. The point is, I am aware of the size of his ‘bubble’ and I don’t let the trigger end up entering it. His bubble used to be A LOT bigger though. We shrunk it.


When we walk our dog with reactivity issues, we are actually walking them AND their bubble. Imagine their bubble around them. The dog is in the centre of the bubble. If we begin to get too close to the dog's trigger, it enters the bubble, the closer to the dog the trigger gets the closer to being over threshold/triggering the fight or flight reaction (danger, warning sirens and red lights go off, everything else can't be seen, heard, smelt or tasted) and creating that reactive behaviour.



However, it’s not just about avoiding the trigger and keeping your dog at a ‘safe’ distance.

In order to work to change their emotional response we need to find that sweet spot where the dog can see the trigger without reacting and in that ‘green zone’ we can work to change the emotional response and decrease the size of the bubble (meaning that the dog can get closer to the trigger without freaking out). How small we can make that bubble depends on each dog. Like humans, every dog has a ‘personal space’ that they’re not comfortable having invaded, especially by a stranger.

If you want to help your dog to shrink their bubble, please get in touch with me or another appropriately qualified, force free, behaviour practitioner in your area.

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