Reactive Dog vs Aggressive Dog

Do you have the most docile, loving and gentle dog when they're just with you?  But then, when they are on walks and see people or dogs they change, like you've flicked a switch?

They may jump, bark, lunge on the leash, or if perhaps when a guest visits you, they bark relentlessly?  It can be stressful for you to deal with that but also stressful for the dog.  You know it isn't what they're usually like but others don't see that.

Occasionally, this type of behaviour could even lead to the worst-case scenario - biting.

How do you tell if its aggression or reactivity?  It can be hard to tell the difference.  So here's a simple guide, but with all dog training, it does depend on the dog, the circumstances and environment.


A reactive dog means that they are nervous and over-reacting to stimulation.  This can lead to frustration and fear. Perhaps this behaviour starts with a past experience or they haven't been introduced to everyday things or experiences correctly.  Some dogs pull on their leads, lunge and bark on walks because they have not had enough training and this is how their excitement shows.  They need to be taught how to respond appropriately to people/dogs/bikes etc. Another reason for this type of behaviour is fear.  The dog  may be fearful and know no other way but to react like this.  They are telling other dogs/people/objects "I'm a very big, brave dog ,so you better be careful".  This is the type of thing you'll see with reactive behaviour:

  • whining
  • barking
  • lunging
  • staring or hyper-vigilance
  • growling
  • shying away

There are usually events or things that trigger reactivity in dogs.  For example, one dog I'm working with at the moment, reacts to tall men carrying things and another dog reacts to small fluffy white dogs and then there's lovely Coaimhe who reacts to bicycles. Sometimes the dogs can feel that they have no escape when they're on a lead and that's what makes them reactive.  In most cases, training on how to maintain self-control and changing their attitude to the person/dog/objects can really help both you and your dog cope in these situations.  


The difference between aggression and reactivity is difficult to identify and sometimes reactivity is left for too long and that turns in to aggression.  So, if you are concerned about your dog's behaviour get in touch with a trainer or behaviourist as soon as you can!  These are the types of things to look out for with aggression:

  • biting - whether its just a bit of a scrape or if it draws blood, please get in touch with someone!
  • stiffened body
  • snarling
  • lifting of lips
  • snapping

The main difference between reactivity and aggression is that aggression is triggered by fear whereas reactivity is over-excitement or arousal. 

Be aware, when you're dealing with reactivity or aggression, of your dog's body language.  If you understand their body language, then often you can prevent aggression.  For example, these are all signs of your dog feeling stressed:

  • flattened ears
  • tail tucked well in (please don't sniff my bum)
  • yawning or licking their lips
  • slow tail wagging (contrary to what people think, a wagging tail doesn't always mean a friendly dog!)

If you're concerned about your dog, don't be afraid to tell strangers or even friends not to approach your dog.  I often say "This dog is unpredictable, please don't come near it."  (I used to be polite but when you're saving someone from stressing your dog out or from a bite, you often forget your manners and that's ok!)

And as for those friendly folk in the park that say "Its ok, my dog's friendly".  Consider a response like "Well mine's not, please remove your dog from my dog's face."  Unfortunately, being polite when your dog's wellbeing is at risk is not an option!

A muzzle may be required for a walk and never let your dog off a lead if you're concerned.  It is your responsibility if your dog bites someone.  

And finally, please don't ever punish your dog for reactivity or aggression. Imagine if someone scary jumped out of a bush and gave you a fright and instead of being reassured by your family that everything was ok, you were forced to hug the scary person.   Would you trust your family again when you were scared of someone?  And that's how your dog feels.  They look to you for comfort and assurance, not being forced to do something they've already found scary!

Please get in touch with me if you would like help with your dog.  I help dogs who have these type of problems so check out how I can help you out on my How I do it page.

I offer several packages to help with behaviour and training.  And most importantly, I want to make sure that you're getting what you and your dog need.


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