7 Steps to Train a Growly & Reactive Dog

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Taking your dog out for a quick and relaxing stroll through the park is a day to day situation to some and a nightmare to others.

Your dog might be the sweetest and most perfect family companion at home but once you set a foot outside the door, he turns into a growling little devil. But you are not alone!

Plenty of dogs show reactive signs, especially on a leash. This behavior mostly emerges out of fear from past trauma and while it’s not abnormal for a dog to show warning signs, the growling and lunging need to be dealt with to keep others safe and your dog healthy.

Reactivity puts an immense amount of stress onto your dog which demonstrably shortens his lifetime.

Understanding Reactivity

There are different types of reactivity in dogs that may or may not lead to aggressive behavior. Contrary to common belief, dominance is rarely the root of aggression and reactivity.

While your dog might be displaying aggressive signs like snarling, growling or lunging that seem to be of dominant nature, fear is probably causing all of these reactions.

It really makes sense if you think about it. When we are feeling very anxious or afraid in a certain situation our body activates our survival instincts: fight or flight. When you are putting your dog on a leash, the only choice he has is “fight” because “flight” has been restricted.

Now not every dog wants to get into a vicious and gruesome fight so they will take advantage of their very clear signals and body language to protect themselves.

Growling, barking or increasing in size are all desperate attempts to get away from his fear trigger as quickly as possible.

The fear trigger could be anything from bikes to tall men or other dogs. Every dog has its own triggers that he will react aggressively towards in an attempt to scare them away. And it works most of the time.

Other dogs are getting intimidated, owners are quickly switching to the other side of the road and you are angrily pulling your dog away. This embarrassment makes you upset and your dog which only builds up to an unhealthy relationship with these triggers.

Every time you are walking past a person or a dog, you are tightening up and getting nervous, emotions that can be easily sensed by your dog. He knows that he is uncomfortable with this situation and your own fear only feeds into his effort to scare them away.

Research as much as you can about dog body language to understand your dog’s signals precisely. There are a lot of resources on the internet, Youtube and Google Scholar.

Focus on fear aggression and reactivity and soon you will have gained a lot of knowledge on canine behavior.

Why Is My Dog Reactive?

Trauma or lack of socialization are the two main causes when it comes to reactivity. Rescue dogs that have been abused by their previous owners or used to live on the streets are more prone to develop reactivity at some point in life.

Trauma can come in many forms and doesn’t have to be explicit.

Little events that we don’t even remember can drastically influence a dog’s behavior. Dogs and humans process information differently and react accordingly to that. A canine’s unique sensory perception experiences the environment on a whole other level.

Bad timing of focus and shock can set off a clear aversion towards the trigger. Maybe your dog was strongly focused on smelling the ground and a motorcycle nearly ran him over.

The loud sound of the tires drifting on the ground and maybe an angry driver shouting at your dog can leave a lasting impression.

More severe types of traumatic situations include injury, physical punishment, or dog fights. The fear that emerges from those kinds of situations will create a strong aversion toward that specific place, person, animal, or sound in the future.

Your dog will do anything to avoid a confrontation with his fear trigger.

Poor socialization is also a big issue and many dog owners underestimate the impact of it. During the socialization period between 3 to 16 weeks of age, your puppy learns to react appropriately towards his environment by letting him positively experience as many situations as possible to boost his confidence and prepare him for life.

If this period has been missed, it’s really hard to rewire his brain. If he doesn’t trust cars because of few or negative exposer then it will be difficult to convince him otherwise.

Dogs that lack this socialization training also lack tolerance and confidence making them prone to developing reactivity.

Choosing the Right Gear

Before you are jumping right into the training, you will need to gear up with the right tools. For walking, you will need a strong leash such as the BAAPET 5 FT Strong Dog Leash which I am owning myself and a front-clip harness like the very affordable Rabbitgoo Dog No-Pull Harness.

When in rage your dog will probably yank at the leash and a back clip harness actually promotes pulling. I also do not recommend a collar with a pulling dog because he will only hurt himself in the process.

For the maximum amount of control, I chose the PetSafe Gentle Leader. In general, if you have control over your dog’s head, you will have control over his whole body making it easy for you to redirect him.

Depending on how much aggression your dog is showing I would recommend muzzle training him. Read more on my muzzle training guide and which muzzle would be the best fit for your dog. Every dog should be comfortable wearing a muzzle whether he is reactive or not.

My dog is used to wearing the classic Baskerville Ultra Muzzle which enables your dog to pant, drink and eat treats. It not only protects other people and animals from harm but it also functions as an effective repellent against unwary and pushy owners.

If you want to set an easy and clear warning then choose the DO NOT PET Dog Vest Harness with embroidered text. This way you are able to automatically alert other people that your dog doesn’t want to be approached by them or their dogs.

How Can I Walk Calmy With My Growly Dog?

It’s definitely possible to help your reactive dog be calmer on walks but it will take a lot of practice, patience, and understanding. Your dog is genuinely scared of his trigger and doesn’t growl to embarrass you. When starting the training opt for quiet trails at the beginning where your dog will have minimal exposure to his trigger.

Before you go on a walk, work on building a great relationship with your dog first. The more your dog trusts you the more confidence he will have when facing his fear. Read my tips on how to bond with your dog and also work on your own reaction and attitude when being confronted with your dog’s reactivity.

Follow the steps below and really work on creating a positive experience. For the sake of these training tips, I will use another dog as the trigger (inter-dog aggression) but you can replace it with whatever aversion your dog might have.

  1. Choose an extremely desirable treat for the training that you will only use when your dog is facing the trigger. This could be chicken, cheese, hotdog, or anything that your dog loves.
  2. Start training in a low distractive environment like your own living room and slowly move to more distractive areas. Work on basic commands and perfect them before stepping outside. Your dog should have a strong “look at me” that really channels his focus on you.

If you don’t know how to teach “look at me” or “watch me” then please refer to this instruction video below:

How to Get Your UNFOCUSED Dog to LISTEN to You RIGHT NOW! ("Leave it"/"Look at Me" Combo)
  1. Once you are ready to go outside, continue on training obedience and focus. Start with simple commands that your dog can easily perform like a “sit”.
  2. Look out for other dogs and make sure to see them before your dog notices so you can act and prepare your dog for the trigger. Keep your distance at first. The more distance you create the more your dog will listen to you.
  3. Approach the other dog and perform your training to distract your dog. If your dog doesn’t pay attention or even fixates the other dog, turn around immediately and increase the distance. Don’t wait for him to react! You will want to remove your dog from the situation quickly to prevent any barking, lunging or growling.
  4. Only use the treats that you have set aside for this training and pull them out when you approach the dog. Once the other dog has passed you, put the treats away. This way you will create a positive association between the presence of other dogs and something yummy. Your dog will actually fancy having other dogs around because this means that he will receive his favorite treat.
  5. Always try to stay calm and don’t overreact to any setbacks. The more comfortable you are in this situation the more your dog will adapt to your calm emotions.

What Not to Do

Don’t yell – When your dog growls or lunges at another dog or human, he is in deep fear and insecurity. Yelling at your dog when the trigger is present will only feed into the anxiety and will eventually make encounters worse.

Don’t yank at the leash – The leash is a tool to control your dog not to punish him. A strong yank at the leash is a correction no dog will understand and he could get extremely scared because of it.

Rushing it – Dog training takes time and commitment. You won’t turn a reactive dog into a lovebug overnight. Approach your dog with kindness and understanding and be proud of his accomplishments no matter how small they are.

If you are severely struggling with your dog and he is becoming a serious threat then please consult a professional trainer that is able to work with aggressive and growly dogs.

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In love with dogs, their behavior and psychology. I am writing on this blog since February 2019 to provide you with valuable information on everything dogs. When I am not working on my blog, I study research articles and enjoy the time with my beloved Rottweiler Amalia.

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