Training a Reactive Dog

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Contrary to popular opinion that gets aggression mixed up with being reactive, your dog may already be called “reactive” when he displays one of the following actions when interacting with humans or other animals:

  • Lunges
  • Barks
  • Growls
  • Snaps
  • Chases bikes
  • Even heavy pulling is reactiveness if it has an external trigger

The behavior may look like aggression but it’s not in many cases.

Reactive dogs are often driven by fear and feel trapped on a leash. That doesn’t mean that you should take your dog offleash though.

Reactive dog ≠ Aggressive dog

It’s a common pain point for many dog owners. But how do you train reactive dogs?

First, it’s important to identify if your dog is fearful or overexcited. Dogs can also be reactive by being overstimulated or too excited.

My Rottweiler was very excited when seeing people or other dogs as a pup.

She loves them and would pull herself to death to be petted by them. Even though she’d never bite or snap, this is also a form of reactivity.

Right now your dog is hypersensitive towards his environment and overreacts to certain triggers. But we want a calm, gentle dog who is not influenced by his environment, right?

Impulse Control

If you haven’t already implemented impulse control exercises into your daily routine then you should definitely start with it.

Teaching your dog to control his arousal and instincts is key. That way, he might think twice the next time before snapping.

A few basic exercises would include laying a treat on the ground in front of your dog and keeping him from getting to it by putting your hand above it.

Then ask him to “sit” and “look at me”. If he does, release him (such an important command!).

You can also try to make him “sit and stay” and then try to distract him by throwing his favorite toy and praise him if he doesn’t move.

If your dog has problems with that, decrease the distance and start with a little wiggle of the toy in from of him.

This also ties back to my article on basic obedience commands. We want to get our dogs to focus on us, not the external world.

Teaching impulse control might be seen as unnecessarily putting stress on the dog but remember when your dog is growling, barking or increasing in size, these are all desperate attempts to get away (or towards) from his fear trigger as quickly as possible.

So teaching how to handle that kind of stress and how your dog can redirect the energy towards movement and physical exercise can be very helpful and brings relief from stress.

Distracting a Reactive Dog

Before a trigger occurs, start distracting your dog. This can be as simple as a stick on the ground, his favorite toy, or a special treat. Do your best to be really exciting.

Sometimes, I start to jump a bit and my dog thinks “heck, what are you doing?” with the surrounding people probably thinking the same but it helps.

Start with a great distance between you and the trigger and try to distract your dog. If it doesn’t work, increase the distance to the point where you can get your dog’s attention.

You will have to be really consistent with this training to establish the environment as not exciting.

Chasing bikes can be really dangerous for others but also for your dog if he suddenly runs into traffic. Make sure you’ve got your dog under control.

If your dog starts to ignore or look away from the person or animal, quickly praise him for doing that even if it was only for a second.

Oh, and owners of small dog breeds: Do not pick your dog up when he is being reactive.

It might be tempting to do that to avoid uncomfortable situations but training will pay off in the end and result in a calm and relaxed dog.

Keeping Distance

You should write down the triggers your reactive dog has, like men with hats or children on bikes and be sure to avoid these for the first few weeks as much as possible.

You can face your dog’s nemesis again once your dog has been trained.

If you come close to a person or another animal and your dog is only focusing on them, stop immediately and ask for a simple “sit” or “look at me”.

If this doesn’t work or your dog won’t take any treats then bring distance between you and the trigger until your dog can focus on you again.

I applied this method to training with my own Rottweiler and it worked wonders.

I will simply put her into a “sit” between my legs before the dog is too close. That way, I have much more control over the situation so she cannot lunge or pull towards the dog to play.

Just wait until the other dog passes and quickly start walking with your dog again. Good way to teach basic leash-walking skills too.

To heck with the days when you were switching the side of the road because other people or dogs got intimidated. This only builds up anger, frustration, and disappointment which ultimately leads to an unhealthy relationship.

Walking with an eye open may seem frustrating at first but it’s much better when you know you’re actually contributing to your dog’s training instead of just avoiding the problem’s root.

Provide a Calm Environment

Don’t try to baby-talk to your dog that everything is okay or mumble to yourself if you’re annoyed and already think your dog is going to fail.

Just walk confidently.

You have to give your dog the illusion that it’s totally normal when a person or animal walks by.

If you’re slipping into a routine a couple of hundred yards before the trigger, your dog will recognize that negative energy.

Become aware of how you walk with your dog. If you say “come” when they stop then do that.

If you praise them often, you should also do that. Keep the same pattern even in trigger situations.

I know that owners with reactive dogs tighten up and get nervous when they know that their dog will start lunging or snapping in a second.

But try to stay as calm as you would on a normal walk because your dog can sense any difference in your mood and emotions.

If you are confident and walking straight, this will provide your dog with a solid base and support.

Try to not stand still for too long because that gives the sensation of a “special moment” that your dog will remember.

Do not yell at your dog.

Do not yank on the leash out of frustration.

Do not use any physical punishment as it will not solve the problem.

Recommended Reading: How I calmed my overexcited go on walks

Get 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.

What are your tips on training a reactive dog and what are the problems you have encountered? Let me know in the comments.

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Danielle
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.

2 thoughts on “Training a Reactive Dog”

  1. I dog sit my neighbors dog once in a while, and really appreciate you sharing your expertise on aggressive dog behavior and tips for training. I don’t have any experience with aggressive dogs, although maybe that is because my parents were good dog trainers when I was a child and don’t recall.
    I am wondering about how the dog perceives me as a visitor and if I am to behave as the pack leader when I go into the home. We have known each other since the dog moved in (at least 5 years) but he seems to become more aggressive as he ages.
    I’ll keep reading your blog for more information, but I’m wondering
    Should I leave earlier when he is aggressive towards me, or stay longer to help him get used to my presence. I perceive that he is lonely and missing his family, so am inclined to hang out longer at the house and try to interact with him more. I pet him, scratch his back, and was using a mitt to help which he liked, and he sits on my foot and I can tell he’s happy, but then he will suddenly growl and look back at me. So I will stop petting, and he will walk away.
    It’s hard not to make eye contact when I’m trying to look at him to see what’s wrong.
    He is aggressive with his food, and the door to let him outside is by his food dish. I usually enter house through garage door and great him using his name and friendly voice. He’s happy to see me. I let him outside to do his business, then if it is meal time, I take his dish while he is outside and put food in it and put it where it is kept (by the door) . Then I fill his water dish. Then I let him in, shut the door and go sit in the couch while he eats. He stands with his back directly at me while he eats, and low growls once in a while. I try to stay away until he finishes (because he is a big, muscular dog ) . He seems to eat slowly though, and I wanted to try and let him out to potty again.
    Later he starts whimpering and I thought he was sad, but I think he just wanted out again, so I let him out. He does growl a little , but the handle to back door is right above his food dish, which is now empty. He has snapped at my hand when I reach toward to handle, and I try to talk naturally snd tell him to stop being silly, that I have to lower the latch to open the door.
    I do feel nervous inside, but try to hide it from him.
    Not sure if I should come more frequently for less time, or less frequently and stay longer.
    Or try to bring a treat so he will associate me with positive things.
    Or even if I should try to play with him. (I have outside in the past – he has a rope knot pull toy). I love his family and him, and not sure what is best in this dog-sitting situation.

    Reply
    • Hi Maureen,

      I actually have an article on all the possible reasons why dogs growl (even when petted). Have you talked to his owners? If your incidents are not isolated, it could be that he’s showing similar behavior with other people as well.

      What you’re describing around the feeding time sounds like resource guarding, but it’s hard for you to train him if he has that problem with the owners too and they’re not actively working on it. There are steps to get rid of that, as outlined in the linked article.

      Naturally, bringing him positive stuff (treats, toys, happy voice, etc.) makes sure he connects you with something positive (and he seems to accept you inside the house) and the more time you spend with an unfamiliar dog, the better it usually gets (he’s not unfamiliar to you, so there’s that). But underlying issues need to be treated if it turns out that this behavior has nothing to do with you specifically.

      Hope that helps,
      Danielle

      Reply

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