By Courtney Emken
co-written by Jen Larson, KPA-CTP, and Bart Emken, CPDT-KA
Reactivity comes in many forms. For some dogs, wearing a leash is all it takes to trigger the urge to lunge and bark. Some pups with react fiercely when other people approach their owners, or enter their homes. For others, they may get along famously with humans, but they’ll growl and snarl at first sight of other canines.
Today we’ll be discussing barrier reactivity, also known as fence-fighting or fence-running. We’re going to detail the behaviors associated with barrier reactivity, the dangers it poses for your dog, and how you can put a stop to it— even if you’re not home. Let’s get to it!
So What Is Barrier Reactivity? What Makes It Different?
Barrier reactive dogs suffer from overstimulation, anxiety, and frustration when faced with obstacles like windows, doors, and fences. They’ll act this out by:
It can be easy to assume that the dog is just entertaining themselves or playing, but these activities actually release stress chemicals into their body. Chronic stress weighs heavily on dogs and humans alike. When left untreated, it can cause a host of problems, including:
- Weakened immune system
- Accelerated aging
- Increased risk for heart attack/stroke
Simply put, this kind of anxiety shaves years off of your dog’s life. That’s why we highly recommend tackling issues like barrier reactivity as soon as possible. In the following section, we’ll show you how to reduce these stressors through training and management.
How To Reduce And Eliminate Your Dog’s Barrier Reactivity
First, you’ll want to focus on minimizing your dog’s reactivity triggers through management. You’ll accomplish this by setting their environment up for success instead of stress. This may take a little creativity, but you can virtually eliminate barrier reactivity with careful planning.
For instance, let’s assume your dog can’t help but bark out the front window. Your goal should be to block visual access to that window. Now there are several ways to achieve this, such as:
- Installing an opaque window cling
- Blocking access to the front area
- Setting up a “play-den” in another room
This separates your dog from the visual stimulus that overarouses and/or frightens them. However, many dogs are reactive to sounds from behind barriers. Obstructing the barrier may do little to prevent their reactivity. Instead of blocking their sight, you’ll want to drown out the noise that’s bothering them.
Luckily, there’s music tailored to dogs that you can play to relax them. Through a Dog’s Ear was designed and composed by a psychoacoustic expert, a concert pianist, and a veterinary neurologist in order to reduce anxiety in canines. Clinical studies have also shown that dogs react positively to “soft rock and reggae” as well.
Once you’ve optimized their environment to reduce reactivity you can start training positive replacement behaviors. Train simple recall and redirection cues like:
- “Go to mat”
- “Go to your place
You can use these calls to direct your dog’s attention towards you and distract them from their trigger. Here’s where having a comfy cave comes in handy. This gives your dog a little safe zone to hang out in away from the the bothersome barrier.
You should also take a close look at your dog’s daily regimen and identify areas where they’re lacking in exercise and/or enrichment. For example, dogs left outside all day with nothing to do are at a high risk for developing barrier reactivity. While fence-fighting and fence-running are stressful, many dogs also find it rewarding and will do it to alleviate boredom.
To combat this, owners need to tire their pets out with regular exercise and use enriching toys while they’re alone for extended periods of time. As we mentioned in our digging article, you can buy or build a backyard sandbox and bury toys for them to find. You can also hide food and treats across the house or backyard, giving them a day-long scavenger hunt.
While management and training can control barrier reactivity, it’s important to remember that you have to be consistent or it’ll come right back— and with a vengeance. Reactivity has a strong positive feedback loop, and each instance will encourage further misbehavior.
If left unchecked, normally well-behaved dogs can get worked up into a nearly frenzied state, especially in a rewarding environment like a boarding kennel. What may have begun as “innocent” fence-running can grow into full blow aggression towards staff, dogs, and strangers.
At DogBoy’s, our highest priority is our client dogs’ safety. That’s why we’re always ready to proactively prevent and reduce barrier reactivity before it escalates. If you’re having trouble with fence fighting, please contact us today. Our trainers will show you how to train replacement behaviors, use redirection cues, and much more. Happy training!