Reactive Dog: Coping With Reactivity in Dogs

Two reactive dogs receiving treats during reactivity training

Some dogs are reactive toward other dogs when they are on lead: They whine, bark, snarl, growl or lunge at other dogs. It can be scary or embarrassing — and take all the fun out of walking your pup. Dogs can also be reactive toward other things: men, people on skateboards or bikes, cats or other animals.

Reactive dog training

One of the great things about dogs, though, is that they frequently guide us to the best way to address a problem. We just have to remind ourselves that the behavior we object to is not the problem; in fact, it is the dog’s solution to a problem. For the dog who is frightened, insecure, or trying to keep other dogs away from his people (whether it’s to grab all of their attention for himself or protect them from harm), barking, snarling and/or lunging are usually successful solutions to the problem. In the dog world, these are distance-increasing behaviors designed to keep the unwanted dog (or male person or skateboard) away. If the other dog doesn’t get it, the people on the end of the leash usually do — they retreat and take their dog with them.

Whether your dog is reactive toward other dogs or someone riding a bike, the training technique to eliminate the behavior is the same. You can use the dog’s desired outcome (moving away from the other dog or the scary bike) as the reinforcer to teach an alternate behavior.

We’ll use reactivity toward other dogs to describe the training technique. Begin by setting up structured sessions with the assistance of some helpers — a person with a calm, non-reactive dog on lead. Here are the steps to follow:

  1. With your dog on leash, approach to the point that your dog notices the other dog but has not yet started to fuss at the other dog. Immediately and calmly say “Let’s go” and walk your dog away from the helper dog.
  2. When you are far enough away that your dog can focus on you again, have fun with your dog using praise, toys or treats.
  3. Repeat the exercise a number of times: Approach the other dog and then lead your dog away before he reacts to the other dog, keeping it positive and fun.
  4. When your dog begins looking to you in anticipation of moving away at the end of the approach, you can use that behavior (looking away from the other dog) as the cue for moving some distance away.
  5. As the dog builds positive experiences with other dogs on leash, you can begin decreasing the distance between the dogs on the approaches. This will be possible because your dog will be more relaxed and more confident in his new solution to the stressful situation.

Other tips

While you and your dog are building these new skills into habits, avoid walks where unpredictable encounters may occur. Even after your dog is comfortable on lead around other dogs, be aware that your dog doesn’t have to approach and meet every dog who comes your way. Other people may be working on similar challenges with their dogs, and not approaching them may be of great help with their training efforts.

Read a step-by-step training plan for teaching your dog the Look At That (LAT) technique.