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. 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.

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.

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 hundreds 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.

Recommended Reading: How I calmed my overexcited go on walks

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.

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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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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