Is There A Difference Between Reactivity & Aggression?

January 25, 2022
January 25, 2022

Aggression. Reactivity.

They’re all words that get banded around when a dog acts in a certain way. That way? Is usually barking, lunging, growling or “Picking fights” with other dogs, which can sometimes escalate into full fights.

Which is totally understandable why we look at these dogs and get scared.

Typically, there is a quick label that gets put on there.


But is that dog truly aggressive?

I don’t think so.

To me, it’s basically just nomenclature.

A reactive dog will potentially show aggressive displays. But it’s not necessarily that the dog is aggressive.

To me an aggressive dog, as opposed to a reactive dog, is doing it with no reason, as such.

Analogy: The Playground Bully.

I often describe a reactive dog is that kid in the playground who uses their fists before they use their words.

They will hit the other kid before using their words, before heading for conflict resolution — because they’ve learned it works.

And what do you do with a child like that?

You talk to them, you explain to them that that’s not how we shouldn’t hit people, and that the way we tell others that we’re uncomfortable is by using our words, not our fists.

That Kid? Is your dog.

The kid isn’t aggressive. They’re not dominant or stubborn. Usually it’s just because they’ve found a way that works, it’s a strike first kind of mentality. But, it’s almost always routed in fear.

The fear that the other kid will tease them.

The fear that the other kid will pull their hair.

The fear that the other dog will hurt them first.

That’s reactivity.

Right there.

Your dog has learned, in a cycle of self reward, that a dog (or any trigger) represents a threat to their safety. They have learned that the best way to deal with that threat is to act in the most scary way possible to ensure that they remain safe.

Is that aggression? Or is that fear?

If it’s routed in the desire for safety, why would we label it aggression?

Reactivity cycle of self reward
Reactivity cycle of self reward – this is what your dog has learned is an appropriate behaviour. This is what they’ve reinforced. This is what they’re doing to ensure that their safety is restored. That restoration of safety results in a rush of endorphins that becomes their reward.

So, Does An Aggressive Dog Exist?

Do you know? I don’t think so.

I’ve yet to meet one of all the dogs I’ve worked with, and I don’t think so. I’ve yet to be proven wrong on my theory that:

Reactivity is always fear – unless it’s medical.

Ali Smith, Rebarkable

To me, “Aggressive” is a label that people use when they don’t want to understand their dog.

It’s a label that pre-dates modern training and any trainer that says your dog is aggressive? Is someone you should actively avoid.

It’s a note of a bygone era used by people who need to learn better things.

You Can’t Fight Fire With Fire

Because of the fact that there is an underlying fear, means that your dog will not respond to ‘dominant’ style training, or even training based on punishment (because, the way to get you over your fear is to punish you for showing fear? Uhm, nope).

Instead we fight fear with confidence. We show them that instead of their fear being compounded – that we create a positive association with new dogs. We do that with counter conditioning and desensitisation.

Training Takes Time

Remember, whether you’re doing it alone, or doing it with me (or another trainer), the only way forward is together, with patience, consistency and repetition.

There is no overnight solution.

It’s all about hard work.

Hard work pays off though. With plenty of practice and gentle exposure, with boundaries that are pushed slowly, and step by step, your dog can get over their reactivity. But it’s a process. Why not read Neo’s story for a little inspiration.

If you need help with your reactive dog, why not check out our Rebarkable Reactives course? That way we can work you and your dog through this together.

Author, Ali Smith

Ali Smith is the Positive Puppy Expert, dog trainer and is the founder of Rebarkable. She is passionate about helping puppy parents get things right, right from the start. To help create a puppy capable of being a confident and adaptable family member and keep puppies out of shelters.

Ali has won multiple awards for her dog training, and has had her blog (this blog!) rated as 2021 & 2022 worlds’ best pet blog!


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  1. martha ortmann

    I have a reactive dog. He is not fearful. Of leash is is friendly and lives to play with other dogs He responds appropriately to dogs who don’t want to engage with him. If overaroused he can be aggressive—all noise no biting. A collar grab around other dogs is a big trigger I do not see him as fearful. How does your statement all reactivity is fear based fit here

    • Ali Smith

      Hey Martha, if this is the case then your dog is not reactive. If he is playing with other dogs happily, then takes it too far? He is essentially lacking dog manners and needs to be shown how to nicely interact with others.
      This would fall into socialisation in my opinion, not reactivity.
      If you want to chat about it, I’d be happy to help!

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