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Best Books For Treating Dog Reactivity

Updated on June 3, 2013

Which is the BEST book?

Although there are now many amazing books and DVDs available to help with reactivity issues, I have yet to find a single book that is THE complete resource. They each provide important information, a new perspective, new techniques, or new tools to use for addressing reactivity but none are totally complete.

All of the books are best served as sides to a main course of working with a skilled and qualified positive trainer, behavior consultant, or veterinary behaviorist. A lot can be learned from these books about techniques to use for resolving reactivity but having a skilled trainer on hand can help make sure the handler's mechanics are correct and to help pick which methods will be best suited for the individual dog or the situation. Skilled professionals can also help problem solve situations--they know when to keep working with a method and when it may make sense to try something new, they know how to modify a technique to best fit a situation, and are a there to coach handlers through the process.

For people who are in areas that do not have skilled positive trainers or whose finances make hiring a private trainer challenging, these books can provide much needed help and guidance for working through reactivity. Which books to get largely depends on your dog and your situation--some of the books are more geared toward dogs who are overly aroused or frustrated while other books focus more on behaviors based in fear. Some of the books have overlapping skills or mechanics and some are very intensely focused on just one or two training techniques or skills but they are each valuable resources.

While there is no single "best" book, there are a handful that I find myself frequently suggesting to people or going back to for ideas (below in alphabetical order).

Behavior Adjustment Training - By Grisha Stewart

Even though Behavior Adjustment Training is largely about a single technique used to treat reactivity, it is a rather comprehensive book. The opening chapters tell the story of how BAT evolved, the main concepts of BAT, and goes into detail about important management and safety tools (crates, gates, muzzles, harnesses, leashes, head collars, spay shield, anxiety wraps, etc).

One of the best features in this book are the fantastic illustrations by Lili Chin. She has created beautifully detailed, yet light and fun, illustrations of body langague, BAT set ups, and much more. These visual representations of BAT, body language, and more are really helpful since many times seeing what all the words are describing can be incredibly helpful.

BAT is a technique that uses functional rewards for desired behavior--the dog gets what it wants (for the other dog to go away, for the dog to go away, to go closer to the dog, etc) by offering behavior other than barking/lunging/etc. Dogs work below threshold and learn to make good decisions and control their environment using more desirable behaviors. The book provides ample variations to accomodate the various needs of dogs and provides examples of how to move forward with training as it is going well. It addresses reactivity that is based in fear and reactivity that is based in frustration/arousal (frustrated greeter, friendly dog who just REALLY wants to see the other dog)--it even would work for dogs who aren't really reactive yet, just fearful or over-aroused.

This book also has an extremely extensive appendix (actually 4) in the back of the book that go over a wide range in topics from novice clicker training information to a more advanced discussion of the learning quadrants.

The book is easy to read and has a lot of information packed in its pages. There are stories, anecdotes, fantastic cartoons, clear photographs, along with some very clear "how to" sections. Even though it is packed with information about reactivity in general, it only explores a single technique for dealing with fear/aggression/reactivity and while it's a tool I use frequently, it's not right for all dogs in all situations.

Civilizing the City Dog - By Pamela Dennison

Although this book's subtitle says it's about rehabilitating aggressive dogs, much of it is really applicable to dealing with reactive dogs in urban and suburban areas. Do you have a reactive dog living in an apartment in a city--you know that there are very few viable options for preventing the dog from rehearsing the reactivity, and this book really focuses on that aspect.

One of my favorite pieces in this book is that it opens with a bunch of fantastic suggestions for managing situations while out in the world. She talks about using cars, benches, light posts, and umbrellas as visual barriers while pairing them with other evasive maneuvers. These tools and tips are so important when living with a reactive dog in any type of urban or in some suburban environments.

The book talks about the pros/cons of using a muzzle and talks about how to condition a muzzle appropriately. It also describes how to use your environment to your advantage when working with neutral dogs. A super bonus feature is that the book has a great appendix that lists possible reinforcers, helpful tricks to train that can be used to help, foundation training behaviors, sample log sheets for tracking your progress, and a great reading list.

The book is written a little bit more like a how-to guide so it is very easy to read and has great stories in little side-notes throughout. It's not incredibly detailed in terms of progressing through things and troubleshooting but the evasive maneuvers and how to use your environment to your advantage is so helpful!

Control Unleashed - By Leslie McDevitt

Control Unleashed has long been one of the go-to suggestions for reactive dogs. It was written with agility and competition dogs in mind, for building focus on the handler and ability to work even in highly distracting environments (even for reactive dogs). Dogs can take in and notice the environment to an extent but it's largely about building focus and the ability to work in the face of great distractions. Whether your dog is a competition dog who struggles to focus while working or a dog who is just a dog who struggles with reactivity, this book is a great resource.

The book details a wide range of exercises that I am frequently using during my work with reactive dogs. It teaches a go to and relax on a mat protocol (or just a relaxation protocol), teaches the Look At That game, discusses default behaviors and re-orienting (refocusing) points, and goes into a bit of detail about thresholds and the optimal place on that spectrum to work.

The book teaches foundation skills to increase focus--instructing (as best a book can) how to teach a default mat behavior, how to teach a target, a whiplash turn, and other games/activities to help a dog learn to focus in the presence of a trigger or distraction. It then goes on to describe how to make things more challenging by decreasing the distance, increasing arousal level, or otherwise making the game more challenging for the dog when the dog is succeeding at an easier level.

The book is written sort of like a class curriculum, going lesson by lesson through the process of helping dogs learn to focus and think even when in the presence of a trigger. This set up is not necessarily ideal for the average dog guardian, since they will not be running classes and extrapolating the way the book is structured into the real world can be a challenge. It doesn't have an appendix to talk about the most introductory of terms or ideas so it may not be the best choice for an extremely novice dog guardian as a first book. It's a great resource but can be a bit hard to read, especially without some background (though this shouldn't scare off novice handlers who are willing to learn and look up things they don't know).

Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out - By Laura VanArendonk Baugh

Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out's first selling point is the title--there are so many dog guardians who can relate to those descriptive words that they tend to feel a bit of a connection right off the bat. The same can be said for the subtitle, "training crazy dogs from over-the-top to under control"--so many people can relate to that statement.

This book is all about teaching dogs to settle and relax (an important skill for many dogs). The book focuses on using a mat as a place of conditioned relaxation and how that can be used to address reactivity by adding the trigger to the environment (can you relax on your mat at the park... can you relax on your mat at the park with a dog 100yds away... can you relax on your mat at the park with a dog running at 50yds away?).

One of the things I love about this book is that it has just enough science in it to be rich with information but it is not so laden with it that novice dog handlers get bogged down in technical language. It is extremely easy to read and is a very fast read. I have suggested it to a handful of students and each of them had mentioned how helpful it was for them and how easy of a read it was. They were able to implement the mat work training independently while we worked on different techniques because of how well it is written. If you encounter some technical language that you don't know, fear not because there is a small glossary in the back of the book behind a small but helpful appendix!

The information in the book is fantastic, the how-to instructions are really well done and provide lots of problem solving solutions, and the writing is just so easy to follow and enjoy that this book is a great place to start. It only really goes over one technique for working on reactivity which isn't ideal and the method isn't necessarily right for all dogs but It's such a great resource for understanding behavior and behavior modification.

Scaredy Dog! - By Ali Brown

Scaredy Dog! is a great book that goes into a bit of detail about the foundation ideas about working with reactive dogs. There is discussion about body language, stress behaviors, thresholds, basic training principles, a great chapter on reinforcers/rewards, and some information about escalation to aggression.

Scaredy Dog is not written like a step by step plan to resolving reactivity, it is more like a narrative about the tools and processes for understanding and working through reactivity. This makes it an easy to read book but it's not necessarily a specific how-to, though it does cover how to progress through the process to move from one challenge to the next as the dog is successful and discusses a range of techniques to use to work through the reactivity .

One of my favorite topics in the book is the information about car-work. It's the same general concept as a reorienting point but it's great to have a dog be able to have such a strong default behavior. Instead of exiting a car and scanning the environment to react at things, dogs learn to give undivided attention after getting out of the vehicle and having the dog exit in a calm manner and more focused on the handler.

The book teaches skills that one can use in the real world like some evasive maneuvers and specific behaviors to train that you can use while out and about with your pup and works up to activities to do with dogs who are in close proximity to their triggers (calming curves between dogs and learning to take treats from friendly people). It's easy to read and provides great examples and training points but it's not a 'how-to', it does, however, contain really great information to help understand reactivity.

Other suggested books...

The titles above are not the only fantastic books available for more information on dealing with reactivity. There are an increasing number of quality books out there that can help guide a handler through working with their reactive dog. Here are a few more that I have read and frequently suggest--some are geared a bit more toward aggressive dogs but they have really great information and are worth the read.

Even including the below titles, there are more books available. If you are struggling with reactivity, pick a few of these or check out your local library to see if they have any of these available and get started learning. Like I mention early on, books are really best served as sides to a skilled professional trainer (or behavior consultant, or veterinary behaviorist), but in the absence of a trainer they can be a great resource!

What do you have to say? - Are there books I missed that you'd add to this list?

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