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Cultivating Calm: The Nutritional Role in Reactive Dog Behaviour

Anna Bain, Canine Nutrition expert and writer at ProDog Raw, has personal experiences with reactive dogs. In this article, she shares valuable insights into the connection between nutrition and canine behaviour.

Anna Bain

Author: Anna Bain

Cultivating Calm: The Nutritional Role in Reactive Dog Behaviour

There’s no doubt reactive dogs come with their share of difficulties, but they also bring opportunities for personal development and the chance to foster a deep connection with your dog. Embracing a mindset of continuous learning and committing to become the ideal human companion can transform the challenges into rewarding experiences.

When our dogs behave in ways we don’t understand, it’s frustrating, overwhelming, and sometimes even scary. It’s important to remember, though, that a reactive dog isn’t being naughty or behaving this way by choice; in fact, quite the opposite. 

When I brought Rudi home, the first days seemed fine, but after the settling in period soon his behaviour overwhelmed me. I’d fully expected rehoming a 13-month-old Northern Inuit would not be plain sailing, turned out to be more like navigating rough seas than a tranquil lake. 

Nevertheless I recognised his need for guidance in a world that frightened and confused him and dedicated myself to providing just that. Thanks to my experience in canine nutrition, I knew that his diet would play a crucial role in helping him to feel calmer, safer and happier. In this article, I’ll discuss how you can do the same for your reactive dog, as well as some other helpful insights on canine reactivity.

Understanding reactivity in dogs

Definition and common signs of reactivity

Reactivity in dogs is defined as “extreme reactions to common stimuli.” A reactive dog views certain elements of their environment as threatening or overwhelming such as people, other dogs, or objects such as bicycles, cars, etc. 

These are known as triggers, and are specific to each dog. Reactivity in dogs can stem from various sources, such as lack of socialisation as a pup, prior trauma, misdirected breed traits, pain or illness, and learned behaviour. Essentially, a reactive dog is struggling to cope with their environment and emotional reactions to certain triggers often result in defensive or avoidant behaviours. 

There are various ways a reactive dog might express their discomfort, and these range from mild to severe depending on the individual.

In case you are wondering “Is my dog reactive?” Here are a few examples of what dog reactivity can look like:

Mild

Hypervigilance — Highly aware of surroundings, looking around constantly, potentially staring at triggers

Mild vocalisation — Whining or whimpering when triggers are in view

Tense posture — Body appears stiff or strained, potentially leaning forward to appear larger

Breaking focus is slightly difficult — Bringing their attention back to you is possible, though it may take a few attempts

Moderate

Straining on lead — Pulling towards (or away from) triggers, no slack on lead

Moderate vocalisation — Louder whining or whimpering, potential for growling and/or barking

Breaking focus becomes more difficult — Bringing their attention back to you takes longer

Severe 

Excessive vocalisation — Louder, more frequent, aggressive-sounding barks, crying, whining, snarling or growling

Physical displays — Lunging, air-snapping, straining against lead with more force, panting, potentially drooling

Breaking focus is impossible — Attention fully focused on trigger, fight or flight response has been activated

Refusing treats or other rewards — Desire for food or play is temporarily offline, removal from trigger becomes the only option 

The difference between reactivity and aggression

Whilst reactive dogs may appear aggressive, reactivity and aggression are not the same behaviour. Reactivity is often based on fear or overwhelm of emotion when presented with a trigger. Feelings of over excitement, uncertainty, nervousness, anxiety, defensiveness or a sense of being unsafe, along with others, can lead to reactivity characterised by many of the behaviours listed in the above section. 

Each dog is unique, with different triggers and reactions. Take Rudi, for example. He’s a prime example of varied reactivity types. He exhibits fear-based reactivity towards strangers invading his space, becomes overly excited and stimulated when encountering other dogs, leading to frustration because he is restrained by a lead. Additionally, he appears to just dislike certain other dogs, and demonstrates territorial behaviour towards those, seemingly warning them to stay away.

Whilst at times his behaviours can appear aggressive they’re rooted in fear, emotional overload and frustration. Understanding this helped me empathise with him better and develop strategies to support him. True, unwarranted aggression is rare; most animals prefer avoiding confrontations when possible.

What many people deem to be aggression is generally the last resort of a dog whose previous warnings have been ignored: subtler behaviours such as looking away, licking the lips, yawning, tense body language, or possibly a low growl. A reactive dog may resort to certain behaviours if they’re continually exposed to triggers, having learned that behaving this way helps them stay safe. The opportunity to repeat such behaviours deepens existing neural pathways in the brain, making dogs more likely to resort to these in the future.

Over time, you’ll likely become adept at reading your dog’s subtle signals. Adjusting the environment early on during a reactive episode can help avoid intense outbursts. Cultivating a sense of calm, both indoors and outdoors, forms the cornerstone of harmony for both you and your canine companion.

Discover more tips from expert dog trainer, Kamal Fernandez in his article, How to Help Your Dog Navigate the Social Scene.

Seeking professional support

The importance of involving a behaviourist or trainer

Living with a reactive dog can be extremely overwhelming at times and can make people feel isolated from the rest of the world. It’s important to enlist the help of a professional, such as a behaviourist or trainer, to help your reactive dog as well as yourself. These experts can help you to decode what’s causing your dog’s reactivity, what their triggers are, and offer strategies to help them. 

How professional support aids in effective reactivity management

The support of a professional who understands and reads canine behaviour on an expert level is key for getting to the root of reactivity issues. An outside observer who is trained to notice subtle body language cues can teach you what your dog is trying to convey, and how you can help them. They’ll also help you to see how your own behaviour might be modified to help the situation, as the way you’re feeling has a direct impact on your reactive dog’s emotional state.

Certified canine behaviourists offer comprehensive evaluations of behaviour and provide tailored strategies to assist your dog and enhance communication between you both. With formal qualifications in canine education, they possess a deep understanding of overall dog health and its relation to reactivity. 

Alternatively, trainers specialising in working with reactive dogs serve as valuable resources for reactive dog training. They empower you to explore methods that can significantly impact your dog’s emotional well-being and consequently, their behaviour.

Regardless of your choice, it’s crucial to collaborate with a professional who understands both your dog and you, ensuring personalised support. Don’t hesitate to switch professionals if you don’t observe desired results or progress.

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The role of nutrition in dog behaviour

The impact of diet on canine behaviour

The adage “You are what you eat” might sound like a cliché, but in nutritional science, it’s a proven fact. Every cell in the body is constructed and powered by the nutrients ingested. Eating foods that provide little to no nutritional value or that contain unnecessary additives, fillers, and preservatives has an effect on mood in a big way; for humans and dogs alike. 

To understand this, it’s helpful to consider how children behave when given too much junk food: their energy and mood is all over the place. The same principle applies to dogs; their brains require adequate nutrients to perform at their best, just as the rest of the body does. Therefore, a high-quality, nutrient-dense diet holds far more promise of positively impacting behaviour.

When a dog’s body is receiving the nutrients it needs to maintain overall health, they feel better in general. Also, when nutritional balance is present, dogs’ hormones, digestion, brain chemistry, and other systems can function cohesively, reducing the likelihood of mental confusion, anxiety, and various other contributors of reactive behaviours in dogs

The state of dogs’ gut health is largely responsible for how they feel, both physically and emotionally, due to its influence on so many other systems, organs and functions. The connection between the gut and the brain is also largely responsible for regulating behaviour.

The connection between nutrition and reactivity

The two-way connection between the gut and the brain is known as the gut/brain axis, which largely consists of the vagus nerve; though various other transmitters and cells also play a role (I’ll discuss these in more detail in a moment). 

The gut/brain axis contributes to multiple key processes within the body, including the regulation of mood, behaviour, and cognitive function, which all relate to reactivity in dogs. In a nutshell, if the gut is healthy and balanced, it can send “healthy” messages to the brain, and vice versa.

Research on this topic is continually evolving, in both the human and canine health fields.

Studies show that healthy gut microbiomes affect mood positively, whilst imbalance ones correlate with anxious, nervous, and reactive behaviours. Therefore, the nutritional component is crucial when considering support for reactive dogs.

Feeding dogs a healthy, natural diet that contains biologically-suited foods positively impacts their mood and behaviour, whilst increasing the potential for reduced reactivity. 

To learn more about the immense health benefits of biologically appropriate diets  for dogs read my article, Benefits of Raw Dog Food.

Influence of the gut microbiome and neurotransmitters

The role of the gut microbiome and neurotransmitters 

The gut is a multifaceted environment. Aside from its core function of digestion, assimilation of nutrients, and communication with the rest of the body’s systems, the gut is also home to a wide variety of bacteria; some friendly, and others harmful. When the gut is in good health, the friendly bacteria outweigh the harmful population, and balance is achieved, allowing the body to maintain optimal health and a balanced emotional state.

Some of these bacteria are responsible for the production of neurotransmitters, which send various chemical messages to the brain via the gut/brain axis. When it works as it’s designed to, this is a fantastically clever communication mechanism. Without the correct nutrition and a balanced gut microbiome, this system can be disrupted, leading to emotional and behavioural issues such as those experienced by reactive dogs

How they affect behaviour and reactivity in dogs

Neurotransmitters are fundamental to mood and in turn behaviour. For example, serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of contentment and balance, and most of its production occurs within the canine gut. Within a balanced, healthy gut, serotonin can be sent to the brain in adequate levels, keeping a dog’s emotional state within acceptable parameters [1]. If a dog’s gut biome is knocked out of balance, this communication can be impacted negatively, leaving dogs’ brains without the serotonin they need to maintain a happy, balanced mood. 

The serotonin example is just one of many processes that affect the canine brain and emotional state. Each individual dog possesses unique chemistry within their gut, brain, and entire body; much of which can be influenced by the foods they’re eating, as well as other factors such as environment, pre existing health issues, stress levels and genetics. However, nutrition is the one element amongst these that is the easiest to rectify, and that carries the potential to aid in mitigating the effects of the others.

The connection between digestive health and behaviour

As I’ve discussed, the gut and brain share communication on many levels. Along with the work of neurotransmitters, the gut/brain axis is constantly sending messages back and forth, with the health of each organ influencing the context of information sent. The gut also sends messages out to various other bodily systems, including the immune system, the inflammatory response, and the endocrine system. These all then influence behaviour accordingly, depending on the messages received.

When dogs’ gut health is imbalanced, the potential for widespread miscommunication is possible, and can affect all of the above systems, as well as the central nervous system which includes the brain. When the brain operates ineffectively or does not receive the chemical messages it needs in order to maintain balance, certain functions can become compromised. This leads to changes in behaviour, emotional state, and mood, increasing the potential for any dog to become a reactive dog, such as Lily. Read her story here.

Potential effects of digestive issues on behaviour

It’s widely known that emotional states such as anxiety and depression can affect digestion. Butterflies in the stomach, lack of appetite, feeling nauseous, or even diarrhoea and vomiting can occur, often being referred to as a “nervous tummy” or something similar. These same issues can present themselves in dogs, and often do so in the case of the reactive dog.

Less commonly known, however, is that this process also happens in reverse. Issues that originate in the digestive tract can create feelings of anxiety, fear, nervousness, and mental confusion. This is all related to the gut/brain axis I discussed earlier, and is a perfect example of how this line of communication operates in both directions: if the gut is upset, so will be the brain, and vice versa. Thankfully, gut balance can be restored through the appropriate dietary changes, and as a result, brain health can as well.

The canine nervous system and reactivity

The canine nervous system

The canine nervous system is much like the nervous system of humans, in that it contains multiple parts that work together. The central nervous system includes the brain and spinal cord, whilst the peripheral nervous system involves the various nerves throughout the body. The enteric nervous system is housed within the digestive tract, and is the primary source of communication from the gut to the brain [2]. The enteric nervous system is also often referred to as the “second brain.”

The various parts of the canine nervous system work together in synchrony in healthy dogs. However, when there is disruption in the gut microbiome, balance is thrown off throughout the body via the enteric nervous system, creating the potential for any number of health issues. This  includes behavioural changes, such as those seen in reactive dogs.     

The amygdala and its role in reactivity

The amygdala is the part of the brain that controls the stress response in dogs, otherwise known as the” fight or flight” response. It sits within the brain’s limbic system, and is essential for canine survival. When a real threat to safety presents itself, dogs are alerted by the amygdala giving opportunity to confront or escape it: valuable energy resources are channelled to the parts of the body that require them, such as blood supply to their limbs to enable them to run away.

When the fight or flight response is activated, the problem solving parts of the brain go offline temporarily, as the energy is required for these survival functions. This is why reactive dogs generally refuse food or appear oblivious to their owners’ commands while in a triggered state.

Whilst the amygdala is a helpful part of the brain for the purpose of survival, it can become a problem if it triggers the fight or flight response unnecessarily [3]. The reactive dog sees normal, everyday stimuli as a threat, which is often a sign of an overactive amygdala. This can happen for a variety of reasons, with trauma being among them. However, it’s also a symptom of gut biome imbalance, which sends incorrect messages to the brain and contributes to reactive dog behaviours.

Nutritional strategies for managing reactivity

How nutrition can help

Considering all I’ve discussed so far regarding the gut and its influence on brain function and overall health, it’s no surprise that nutrition has an impact on canine behaviour. A biologically-appropriate diet, such as raw dog food and natural whole food ingredients are highly digestible, allowing the gut to absorb and utilise their nutrients; thus providing the body and brain with the balance they require to function optimally. Foods that are highly processed and include low-quality ingredients have the opposite effect, and can even contribute to the behaviours that we see in reactive dogs.

Providing dogs with their instinctual diet brings their bodies back to balance, starting with the gut and rippling out to other systems, organs and functions. This obviously has a positive impact on cognitive functioning as well, which increases the chances of a calmer, more balanced emotional state in reactive dogs. Appropriate ratios of raw, lean animal protein, high-quality fats, bones and organ meats provide dogs with all their required essential nutrients, aiding in the process of healing, restoration, and maintaining balance throughout the body and brain.

If you’re new to the concept of raw dog food diets you may find our articles, Raw Dog Food For Beginners and How to Switch To Raw Dog Food helpful.

Foods and ingredients for calming reactivity

A whole food, species-appropriate diet is a great starting point for your reactive dog, as certain ingredients contained within a balanced raw meal are especially helpful in calming the nervous system. Thankfully, this makes it even easier to provide your dog with the nutrition they require to both maintain their overall health and contribute to a balanced mood. Here are a few elements of quality raw meals that can contribute to supporting reactive dogs:

Tyrosine — An essential amino acid that has been shown to reduce stress. Found in protein-rich foods such as raw animal meats.

GABA –  A raw food diet increases GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) levels in dogs. GABA is a neurotransmitter that is highly impactful to the central nervous system and the communication network between the gut and brain; it decreases certain brain activity, bringing about a state of calm. [4]

DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) — An Omega-3 fatty acid that aids in brain function and calming inflammation. Found in fatty, freshwater fish such as mackerel, sardines, and salmon (or salmon oil). 

Collagen — A naturally-occurring protein within the body, responsible for building and repairing connective tissues such as the gut lining. Found in high concentrations in ProDog’s bone broths (which can be easily added to raw meals for extra nutrient support).

Magnesium — An essential mineral that contributes towards lowering stress levels. Found in raw bones, along with other minerals essential for canine health. 

Prebiotics — Ingredients made up of indigestible fibre, known for their anti-inflammatory, gut-supporting properties. Found in pumpkin, flaxseed and other whole foods.  

Most of these ingredients are readily available within a balanced raw diet. For reactive dogs, the above listed nutrients are especially helpful thanks to their influence on healing the gut lining, calming inflammation, and balancing brain health [5]. 

Discover ProDog’s range of quality, balanced raw dog food

Herbs and supplements for wellbeing support

Alongside a balanced, biologically-suited diet, certain herbs and nutritional supplements can provide additional support in the areas reactive dogs need it the most. For example, turmeric is a fantastic anti-inflammatory ingredient and slippery elm is wonderful for its gut support properties. Meanwhile, rolled oats and chamomile can help to soothe the nervous system. 

Nature provides many ingredients supportive to gut, brain and nervous system health, but if you’d prefer ready made blends formulated by canine nutrition experts then ProDog’s targeted dog nutritional supplements are designed to provide concentrated boost of specific nutrients, and are a great compliment to a healthy diet.

Here are a few helpful supplements that I recommend: 

Colostrum 

Colostrum is a fantastic supplement for so many reasons, and is super beneficial for reactive dogs. Along with the balancing and restoration of the gut, colostrum also contributes to healthier immune systems, balanced brain chemistry, and the regulation of the inflammatory response, which is key for cognitive function. Whilst colostrum is a single-ingredient supplement, it’s packed with nutrients: growth factors, proline-rich peptides, immunoglobulins (antibodies) and more are all contained within this nutritional powerhouse.

To discover more about the health benefits of colostrum i suggest reading our article, 10 Benefits of Colostrum Supplement for Dogs, written by ProDog nutritionist Alison Frost.

Digest 

As mentioned earlier there’s an intrinsic link between digestive disorder and reactivity. Focusing on supporting gut health is crucial and ProDog’s Digest supplement is specially formulated to provide powerful whole food ingredients that do just that.

Check out our article, Dog Poo:Unveiling the Clues Into Canine Health, to discover whether your dog’s digestion requires some TLC. If your reactive dog has frequent episodes of diarrhoea, constipation or acid reflux then the gut nourishing components in this supplement, including chamomile, slippery elm, aloe vera and liquorice root will help calm and soothe your dog’s digestive system.

Boost

Our Boost supplement is a great addition to all dogs’ diets, but can be especially helpful for reactive dogs. Packed with essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and healthy plant protein, it’s an excellent way to ensure your reactive dog receives nutritional reinforcement from the inside out. The antioxidants work to counter the impact of oxidative stress which is heightened during times of anxiety or emotional overload, whilst the probiotic component promotes healthy gut function, thereby supporting balanced immune response for optimal overall health.

Muscle+

Many reactive dogs struggle to maintain their ideal weight which is where Muscle + can be helpful. Designed to support healthy weight gain, whilst also promoting gut health and nourishing the nervous system, ProDog’s Muscle+ is a great choice for improving the health of reactive dogs.

Its formula includes whole food ingredients such as fish collagen and oil, rolled oats, pumpkin seed powder, a blend of healthy plant proteins, and amino acids such as L-Taurine and L-Glutamine, all of which contribute to healthy gut and nervous system.

Need help with your dog’s diet?

Contact ProDog’s expert team today for FREE tailored canine nutrition advice
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Reactive dog nutrition: Helping your dog navigate their struggles naturally

Though dog reactivity is a complex topic, with the right support the resolution doesn’t have to be so overwhelming. Getting to understand your dog’s unique personality, appreciating their strengths and learning what your dog needs from you as an individual are great first steps, all of which can be easier when you recognise their unique triggers, limits, and capabilities.

While training and help from canine behavioural experts is essential, it’s also important to consider what’s happening within your dog’s internal environment. I encourage all reactive dog parents to consider what they are feeding their dogs. What they eat is fundamental to how their gut and brain operate, and their general health.  

For more guidance contact us today. ProDog’s expert team are on-hand to provide FREE tailored nutrition advice and behaviour support.

Reactive dog nutrition FAQs

How does nutrition affect a dog’s reactivity?

When dogs receive the nutrients they need, their gut, nervous system and brain health can be improved. This leads to better nutrient absorption, more balanced brain chemistry and better health overall, which has a positive impact on their behaviour.

What are the best foods to feed a reactive dog to help calm their behaviour?

High quality, raw animal proteins, healthy fats, bone and organ meats, with a little vegetable fibre holds the most nutritional benefits for dogs. This diet promotes canine health in all areas, including the health and function of the brain. For this reason, I recommend a raw, whole food diet for reactive dogs (and all dogs). 

Are there any specific dietary changes I can make to help reduce my dog’s reactivity?

If your dog is fed a processed food diet, switching to raw is a great first step. If your dog is already eating raw, adding some nutritional supplements can help, such as those listed in the “Herbs and supplements for wellbeing support” section above.

How can I tell if my dog’s reactive behaviour is related to their diet?

It’s possible that other causes are to blame for reactive dog behaviour, though it never hurts to improve your dog’s diet. If your dog is eating a processed food diet and/or has regular symptoms of digestive upset and/or struggles to maintain a healthy weight, it’s very possible that their diet is contributing to their reactive behaviour.

Are there any supplements that can help manage a reactive dog’s behaviour?

Yes, there are numerous herbs and natural ingredients that provide dietary assistance for reactive dogs. The supplements listed in the “Herbs and supplements for wellbeing support” section above are beneficial for reactive dogs.

What role does gut health play in a dog’s reactivity?

A big one! Gut health is the foundation of all health, and that’s just for starters. The gut and the brain share a direct communication pathway called the gut/brain axis, which lets the brain know how the gut is feeling, and vice versa. This contributes to dog behaviour either positively or negatively, depending on how healthy the gut is. Discover more in the article above.

Should I consult a veterinarian or a behaviourist for dietary advice for my reactive dog?

A behaviourist and/or canine nutritionist would be the best people to contact for dietary advice pertaining to behaviour, though do contact your vet to rule out any heath conditions that could be impacting your dog’s behaviour. ProDog’s nutritionist team is also available to provide free nutrition advice if needed.

Can breed-specific diets help with managing reactivity in certain dog breeds?

All reactive dogs can benefit from a raw, whole food diet, regardless of their breed. However, certain breeds are prone to genetic health concerns that may require their diet to be more customised. ProDog’s nutritionist team can help you figure out what the best options are for your dog’s unique situation.

Are there any natural remedies or herbs that can help calm a reactive dog’s nervous system?

Yes, I’ve listed these in the “Herbs and supplements for wellbeing support” section in the above article.

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References

  1. Jenkins, T., Nguyen, J., Polglaze, K., Bertrand. P. Jan 2016. Influence of Tryptophan and Serotonin on Mood and Cognition with a Possible Role of the Gut-Brain Axis. Nutrients;, 8(1):56. Doi: 10.3390/nu8010056
  2. Wood, J. Mar 2018. Chapter 15 – Enteric Nervous System: Brain-in-the-Gut. Physiology of the Gastrointestinal Tract;, 6:361-372. Doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-809954-4.00015-3
  3. Xu, Y., Christiaen, E., De Witte, S., Chen, Q., Peremans, K., Saunders, J., Vanhove, C., Baeken, C. Mar 2023. Network analysis reveals abnormal brain function circuitry in anxious dogs. PLoS One;, 18(3):e0282087. Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0282087
  4. Pilla Rachel et al. 2019. Administration of a Synbiotic Containing Enterococcus faecium Does Not Significantly Alter Fecal Microbiota Richness or Diversity in Dogs With and Without Food-Responsive Chronic Enteropathy. Frontiers in Veterinary Science. VOL 6. Doi: 10.3389/fvets.2019.00277
  5. Sandri, M., Dal Monego, S., Conte, G., Sgorlon, S., Stefanon, B. Feb 2017. Raw meat based diet influences faecal microbiome and end products of fermentation in healthy dogs. BMC Veterinary Research;, 13(65). Doi: 10.1186/s12917-017-0981-z

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