Punishing a Reactive Dog

Picture this: you’re walking your dog on a typical day and everything is going just fine. Suddenly they spot a trigger and the explosion can be heard three blocks in every direction. The lunging, barking, snapping, thrashing about - it draws attention from passers-by who watch in horror or walk away quickly, avoiding eye contact. You feel a surge of heat as your blood starts to boil and you tighten your grip on the leash.

Our first instinct as humans, is to punish what we don’t like. Make it stop, and make it stop fast. We yank the leash, we holler at our dog to “stop it", we force them into a sitting position by pushing down on their bum and pulling up on the leash, we try to force them to look at us to see that we’re serious. It’s all about control.

How often we hear people yell “control your dog!” when they’re witnessing an outburst! As if we’re not already doing our best.

When our dog loses control, we feel as though we too have lost control and that it reflects poorly on us. We scramble to regain control and our own dignity. We want to show that we are “dealing with it” so that we can avoid a confrontation and the judgmental look with which we are often faced.

Embarrassment causes us to act out of DESPERATION and out of CHARACTER.

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You haul your dog off and keep walking, perhaps even scolding your dog as you go, just loud enough for witnesses to hear. You might even apologise and toss out random excuses - “he’s a rescue”, “she was abused”, or “he’s never done that before!” The leash is short and tight and the heat of your embarrassment fills your cheeks.

When you get home, your heart is still pumping and you are tempted to punish again, to remind your dog to behave nicely on walks. You might even give them the silent treatment for a few minutes, thinking you’re “cooling off”.

If we look at this scenario from a dog’s point of view, we will see something very different.

My human and I are taking a nice walk and suddenly I spot a dog who is staring me down, glaring at me, and I am scared. My human doesn’t seem to notice as I slow down. I don’t want to get closer - that dog seems dangerous. We keep moving forward and I don’t have a choice - I am attached to this leash. We’re getting closer and my heart is pounding. I’m looking for an escape route, but my human keeps saying “heel” and pulling me closer to her side. I start to panic. We’re getting close now. Too close for comfort and I have to say something. “NO! STOP! GET AWAY FROM ME! YOU’RE FREAKING ME OUT!” I scream. The dog keeps staring and I can’t get away. I start thrashing around - I want to seem bigger and scarier so they get away from me.

Suddenly my human takes notice and is also freaking out, yelling and handling me roughly. I don’t understand! Doesn’t she see that I’m in danger? She’s making me sit and the other dog is still getting closer. I’m freaking out and I don’t know if I’m causing the yanking around my neck or if she is, but it feels awful and reminds me that I can’t get away.

She finally takes the hint and moves me off to the side and the dog walks past, sneering at me. “THAT’S RIGHT!”, I yell, “YOU KEEP MOVING, BUDDY! DON’T COME BACK HERE AGAIN!” Another yank. My human is yelling something - she seems upset too. I wonder if she’s scared of that dog like I am.

The walk home is difficult. I can’t reach the ground to sniff because the leash is so tight. My human seems very tense - we must be on the lookout for more dogs like this. I’ll keep a close eye on the environment as we walk and I’ll notify any dog that comes close that I am not to be messed with.

You get the picture. Punishment might work in the moment but it may be interpreted by the dog, very differently from what we intend. Punishment is also very satisfying for us as humans. (I mean, look at our justice system!)

The downside is that your dog is not barking and lunging because they’re “bad” - there is a very good reason behind this behaviour and it all stems from an emotional response.

it all stems from an emotional response.

If we punish a dog for their emotional outbursts, they learn to suppress the emotions and the outburst to avoid the punishment. This is akin to humans bottling up their feelings, only to explode later on some poor, unsuspecting soul.

Punishment feels good when we’re doing it because it often appears to be immediately effective, however none of us would ever sign up for the fallout it creates if we knew. “Silent Biters” top that list. If we punish the reactive behaviour effectively enough, the barking and lunging stops altogether and we start to feel confident that we can perhaps pass or approach the trigger now that the “noise” has stopped. It creates a false sense of safety.

We pass or approach the trigger and the panic inside the dog still exists despite the quiet, calm exterior. When they are close, this is when the dog bites “out of the blue” and “without warning or provocation”, surprising us all.

For other dogs, the punishment is enough to suppress the emotions deep enough to create a feeling of “shutdown” where they simply don’t react to the trigger. This can be equated to a similar type of shutdown that victims of abuse suffer in order to protect themselves from further trauma.

Neither is ideal!

So, you ask, what is it that I should do when my dog is barking and lunging?

Let’s talk about that! Click here to learn how to stop the barking and lunging on walks.