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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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About Danielle
I am the founder of PawLeaks where I share weekly tips on dog training and behavior. Sharing a passion for dogs and helping owners to solve problems through understanding canine behavior and modification is my number one goal.