Living With a Reactive Dog…Chill Out!

I’ve always lived with a herding dog.  I love those breeds so much!  All dogs have great things to offer the world, but for me, there’s just something very special about herding breeds and they way that they think.  Maybe it’s because growing up, our family dog Lady, was an Australian Shepherd/Border Collie mix, and she was hands down, the very best dog in the world!

Back in the days when I was showing my dogs, I lived with four Corgis most of the time.  That’s a whole lot of herding, and herding traits:  barking, nipping, frapping, more barking, busy activity, etc.  Herders like to keep it moving, keep it going, always busy….never without something to do!  And they are busy-bodies!  Nosy and  involved in everything!

And with that, brings a whole lot of nonsense….nuisance barking, naughty play biting, rough puppy play, tripping hazards, etc.  When our daughter was little, and playing on the floor, the Corgis would sometimes steal her socks right off her feet!  Standard herders bring their own set of challenges, but a special needs herder takes those same challenges to a whole new level!


Herders, by nature, are reactive dogs.  It’s how they do their job really well.  It’s a lot of work to round up an unruly flock of sheep, and any herder who’s not paying attention will have to do that work over and over, so it pays to be on your toes, and react quickly to keep them in line once they are all originally put in the place where the dog wants them to be.

Even though we have pet herders, that prey drive instinct is alive and well in many of them, and remnants of that behavior can still be seen in day to day life with them.  It can be a blessing and most decidedly….a curse!

Many reactive dogs don’t like surprises.  Doorbells, strangers who appear at a door or in the yard, someone walking past their car when they’re in it, neighbors who come out to play in a nearby yard….vacuums, garbage disposers, people moving around their homes….you name it!  Reactive dogs just react first and ask questions later!

I do think that this can be learned behavior to some extent.  Puppies in homes with kids who have no clear dog boundaries become reactive over the constant barrage of been man-handled.  Dogs who live in a volatile home become reactive to raised voices or quick movements. They often react with barking, nipping, jumping, etc., in an effort to bring things into order and stop the humans from that upsetting behavior.


This is often why I try to teach calm and relaxed behavior to any dog I’m training…especially puppies.  Calm humans and homes create calm puppies and dogs.  I try to teach impulse control early on, because young puppies really need to learn how to calmly wait and relax.

In my own home, Rugby is the king of all reactive dogs.  And, unfortunately, he frustrates very easily, so he doesn’t have much impulse control, no matter how much I’ve worked on that.  When there’s a sight or a sound, he’s very, very likely to respond and react.  On occasion he can hold it together, if I am working on leash with him at the time.  Unfortunately, with Rugby, that would be much like living with a baby or toddler who needs constant supervision 24/7!

So, I have to pick my battles.  Sadly, that’s how we live in relative peace.  I choose and set up the situations where I want to train him and work with him, and the balance of the time, I’ve tried to construct our lives and home to minimize the reactivity.  If you’ve got a reactive dog, try doing some of these things:

  • I keep blinds to the street closed, so that he can’t see what’s going on out on the street.  My blinds will lower from the top, so I can let light in from the top of our windows, vs. the bottom coming up.
  • I don’t allow Rugby to get on furniture in front of windows or lay in front of open doors to become a “window monitor” barking at everything on the planet.
  • I keep a TV or music on at all times with the volume turned up a bit to mask noises outside.
  • I maintain a fairly consistent schedule to minimize change and surprises for Rugby.
  • When he’s in a very barky mood, I put his Thundershirt on him, which has a wonderful calming effect….but I know Rugby hates wearing it.  Still, it’s a very passive, kind way to solve a barking/reactive issue with him, so I use it!
  • Sometimes, just putting a leash on your dog and letting him drag it with him through the house is very, calming and helpful.  They realize that someone else is in charge, and sometimes will use self control that they wouldn’t muster up otherwise.
  • Outings are carefully planned, and I take everything I need with me to be sure I’m well prepared for meltdowns.

Probably the best advice I can give you is that you know your dog, and you also probably know his triggers pretty well.  Be proactive as owners, and head things off at the pass.  Just because your dog likes to look out the front window or door, doesn’t mean that you have to let him do that if it produces behavior that you don’t like or want.  Why give him a platform to rehearse naughty stuff?



  1. says

    Oh, my goodness! I thought I had invented the "Leash Of Calm"! Putting on that leash really DOES wonders around here for the resident Corgis and the grand-Corgis who occasionally visit. It works beautifully, and I always wondered why. Now I know. And thank you so much for the explanation about herding dogs being reactive. Makes sense!

    • Sally says

      So glad you read today's blog!! I'm glad I could shed some light on that pesky herding behavior that we both love and hate in our herders! And I'm very happy that I could validate you for using a leash on your dogs in the house! So many folks think a leash is for outside use only, but it's amazing what kind of great results can come from letting a dog wear and drag a leash inside! Now you don't have to apologize for using a terrific training technique! 🙂


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