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Help! My dog is barking at other dogs!

Why now are we seeing an upsurge after lockdown? Now, don't get me wrong; some of you may have had this issue before lockdown. My guess would be that it's probably got worse since lockdown started to be lifted, and some of you, it will be because of lockdown.

But let's look at the real reasons. Understanding and being able to make progress, we need to figure out why. If we don't understand the why, then we're never going to get to the how and reach our dreams. All of these things, so changes in routine, changes in your emotions, changes in lifestyle, are absolutely at the top of the list at the minute for many people, especially over the last three months. People are at home more, or if you're a key worker, then you've been working more, more than likely. Things have changed a lot, and our dogs have kind of been like, "What?"

In some ways it's been nice for them that we're home more, and they can become over-attached to us because of that. I think in a lot of ways, us being at home more than before will have affected ... We will have not allowed them to have the same amount of quality sleep. Dogs like to sleep a lot, so that can put them on edge. Just like us, if we're without sleep, we get a bit ratty.

Uncertainty, uncertainty around what's happening. This is for you and the dog, as in you will have felt uncertain about what the future holds, about your career, your job. You may have totally changed careers because of COVID, and you've took a step back and gone, "I don't want to do this any more. I need to look at something else."

Your anxiety, anxiety about the uncertainty and what the future holds, all of this, our dogs pick up on it in a massive way. Their anxiety of what's happening now ... Things have changed, so their safety and what was pretty much a routine before has now totally changed. It changed for lockdown, and now it's changing again.

Socialisation: so if you've had a puppy that during lockdown, just before lockdown, or really if you've got a dog that is anything under a year old, the lockdown will have definitely affected their socialisation. When I say that, I don't necessarily mean with other dogs. I just mean with learning about the world and us. It will have had a negative impact, because things haven't been normal. We haven't been able to take them to places like cafes and pubs, and get them used to the world going by and busy high streets. Yeah, especially if you've got a puppy during lockdown and now they're becoming reactive, that is really, really common, and I am doing lots of puppy-specific stuff at the minute too to help with this.

Life stages, so I don't just mean puppies here. Dogs are at their most sociable naturally when they are young, and then when they start to mature, they're accepting of whatever they've been socialised with previously in a positive way. But then as they start to age, and I'm talking about middle age, so for a medium-sized breed, let's say seven years old, they get less tolerant. They're not as sociable with other dogs as what they were before. This is a natural stage for them, and the lockdown will have affected this slightly, because they've suddenly not seen lots of other dogs, so it's kind of sped up that process.

If you think about it in people and human terms, when we're younger, we will tolerate a lot more from other people, even if we don't necessarily like them or agree with what they're doing. As we get older, we get a lot more specific in the kind of company we want to keep, less tolerant of rubbish and taking crap off others, and we surround ourselves with the people that we know we like. Dogs are very much the same, so they're less tolerant as they get older.

Trauma. Dogs can become reactive because of trauma. When I say trauma, it doesn't necessarily need to be a big dog fight where damage is done and skin is ripped. It could be just that they were scared by another dog, or felt uncomfortable around another dog at a key point in their development.

I experienced this with one of my own barky dogs of the past, Bella. The first thing in her steps towards her downfall let's say, was around eight months of age, which is when what we call the second fear period happens, i.e. the brain starts to just decide what's important and what's not. And they go through this period where they're fearful of things that they weren't before. It could just last a couple of weeks, but you just see a brief change in them. If something bad happens during that time, then it stays with them for life.

With Bella, it was about eight months old. We were at a fun dog show at the local park, and a black dog came bounding over as we were about to leave the ring, and barked and growled in her face. Didn't make any contact, didn't touch her, but that was enough for her to not like that kind of situation, i.e. busy, with people and dogs, and that type of dog. She made that association instantly, and it was something that we had to work with quite intensively after.

Months after, when I took her to group training classes, in her mind it was the same thing because there's lots of dogs and lots of people, and she didn't like that. We did get over that, but then my life went to pot. A lot of this is down to trust. It can be broken trust. If something's happened while you're on the other end of the lead, the dog can start to associate that with you. You've not kept them safe. We need to start looking at building up that trust again, so they can look to you to say, "Can you help me, please? Can you get me out of this situation?"

This is quite a key thing, and what a lot of people don't realise is that when you get annoyed, when you get anxious, frustrated, you've seen another dog, you think they're going to react, you take that intake of breath, that, "Huhhh!", and it might not be quite as overt as that, but you almost freeze, or your heart rate starts to increase. The dogs can hear that, so the old way of explaining this would be ... I'm sure years ago, in dog training classes, they'd feel the tension down the lead.

That's one way of explaining it, but the reality is, the dogs have such good hearing, they can hear the increase in our heart rate, and that can sometimes feed them as in they're like, "Okay, Mum's worried. Dad's worried. I've got something to be worried about." Try and just remember to take that deep breath, and go, "We've got this. It's okay."

Now, I have to put this in there because although I'm saying that there's all these many different reasons that they could be reactive, always do a vet check first. Always take them to the vet. I know it's hard at the minute. I totally get that, as in, you can't go into the vet's with your dog. You can't be there for them. But it's amazing how many dogs I see that are reactive, and it's due to pain.

It could be that they've got an association with a dog that's done something, and then they've got a bad hip or whatever, and the two have been paired together. And if we sort the pain out, then usually they improve. Just keep that in mind with anything like this. If you think about it with us, if we're in pain, if we're uncomfortable, we're more likely to snap at someone. We're not going to react in normal ways, and we're going to be less patient with things. It's exactly the same with the dogs.

A note for multiple dogs, if you've got more than one dog in the household. Very often, you find that the youngest one has this problem. But why? It feels backwards. You can't understand it, because they've always been with other dogs. And they're fine with dogs, they love the rest of your pack, so why would they be reactive towards other dogs? More often than not, it comes down to frustration. They spend all of their time with their dogs, their family, so when they see another dog on the street, in the park, all they want to do is get there and play and interact, because that's what they do all the time, so why shouldn't they do it now?

It's not a case of it comes from aggression. It's more it comes from frustration, i.e. "I'm so excited, I want to get there, I want to get there. How can I express this? Bark, bark." Then it starts to look like aggression, and it looks like we can't control the dogs. It's just them getting so wound up. They're throwing a paddy, as it were. Don't get me wrong; over time, that can become aggression and that can become a real issue, so it's more about teaching them that yeah, actually, you don't get to meet every dog, and I want you to focus on me.

The more dogs you have, the more likely you are to experience this issue, and that's with or without COVID. Another reason why reactive dogs has become one of my specialties, is because multiple dogs is the big specialty, and it goes hand in hand. If you have got multiple dogs and you are seeing this issue with one of them, whether or not it's the youngest one, you need to work on that dog individually first, i.e. solo walks, working on their confidence or them responding to you without the other dogs present, because usually what you'll find is that the others will either join in, or that they feel they have to because they're with the other dogs, so you've got to work on them individually first and crack that one before then you start putting them back together again.

Your emotions: Stress, lack of confidence, lack of confidence in yourself as an owner, frustration, embarrassment, resignation ... I've been there, where you're just kind of like, "Well, they're just going to bark." Anger, anxiety, uncertainty, questioning ... Yeah.

Until you've experienced this with your dog, other dog owners are not going to understand this, that it affects everything in your life, so your reactions, your heart rate will quicken. Breathing starts to change. Yelling: I'm sure we've all done that. I know I have, where you've gone, "Oi, stop it! Stop barking," because it's natural for us to try that. And it hasn't worked, obviously, but what else? We might have yanked them back, and gone, "Oi!" You may have hit them. I don't advocate that, obviously. Anything else you can think of.

Reacting after the fact, i.e. once they've started barking, not only does not help, but it's counterproductive, as in it will not help your bond with your dog. You're not regaining that trust. If anything, by shouting at them to them, you are joining in. You're barking with them. It's about being proactive, so we need to start taking action before they've started barking, rather than as they're barking.

Your body language, if you are kind of slumped over, head down, fast or flippant movements, or just defeatist, or angry, overbearing, aggressive, so both ends of the scale, that's not helping your dog either. Neither will be working. Again, easier said than done; when we have all these emotions going around, then it's really hard not to do this. Totally get that.

A big misconception is that you may think your dog is protecting you. No, your dog is protecting themselves. Now, it's mainly that they're in a position that they feel like they have to take action to keep themselves safe. I'm not saying it's impossible, but I have yet to see a dog that is truly protecting its owner, and even if you find that the dog only does this with you and doesn't do this with other people, when they take the dog for a walk, that's usually because of the dog's lack of feeling safe with you because maybe there's been something that's happened that may be absolutely minor in our eyes, but in their eyes they feel unsafe, so they feel they have to when they're with you.

If you want to know more about how to help your dog then please visit our dedicated page that gives you free training, downloads and options for if you want further support.

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