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How to Socialize Your Reactive Dog

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David Adams

August 05, 2022

Dog Reactivity

How to Socialize Your Reactive Dog thumbnail

* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

Does your dog display reactivity to other pets or people? Maybe they’re a new rescue or were sick growing up so you missed their critical socialization period — or maybe they’ve had a bad experience after growing up as a normal puppy. Whatever the case, don’t worry. Reactivity is one of the most common dog behavior concerns. You can help your adult dog feel better about social situations in the world around them.

Let’s dive into socialization specifics for dogs who display reactive behaviors like barking, growling, and lunging at specific triggers!

You can read more about training through leash reactivity itself in this blog.

What does “reactive” mean?

First, let’s get our definitions straight. Dog reactivity is a big term!

While every living animal is constantly “reacting” to its environment — you might put on a sweatshirt when you notice you’re cold or head to open the door when you hear a knock — “reactive” is used in the dog training world to describe pets who overreact to stimuli in their environments. Reactivity generally encompasses a range of unwanted behaviors (barking, growling, lunging, jumping, pulling, and so on) in situations that typically don’t warrant them (when triggers are behaving normally in a non threatening way).

Basically: Your dog who woofs once or twice when startled? They wouldn’t be diagnosed with reactivity. One who barks, growls, and lunges at every other dog they see out on a walk, on the other hand? They would be considered reactive.

First things first: Make sure you meet your dog’s basic needs

Some reactivity can actually be improved by simply addressing our pets’ underlying needs. It’s possible that your dog is displaying reactive behaviors because they’re feeling ill, in pain, or unfulfilled. Other reactivity is more deeply rooted in fear or frustration and will take more than veterinary care and enrichment to work through.

Regardless: It’s always a good idea to evaluate your reactive dog’s basic needs before starting a socialization process!

Keep a close eye on your pet’s health

Canines are great at hiding discomfort. If your dog is reacting when being touched by people or playing with other dogs — especially if they’re suddenly sensitive in situations they used to tolerate well — there’s a good chance they’re in pain. Pay attention to their subtle body language signals (especially signs of stress like lip licking or excess yawning).

A thorough vet check should help you identify any problems. Even the most careful socialization plan won’t help your reactive dog if their behavior is the result of an injury or illness.

Give your dog enrichment (opportunities to express their natural instincts)

We bred certain traits into dog breeds over generations and generations. Two examples: Herders are hyper-aware of their surroundings, and terriers have an intense desire to chase prey. So if your cattle dog is barking at quick-moving objects or your jack russell keeps lunging after rabbits, there’s a chance their reactivity is caused by unmet genetic instincts rather than a lack of socialization.

How can you help them feel more fulfilled if that’s the case? Provide appropriate canine enrichment!

At its simplest, enrichment provides animals with opportunities to satisfy their innate instincts. Common enrichment activities usually give our dogs the chance to safely dig, sniff, and emulate their predatory sequence (searching, stalking, chasing, fighting, celebrating, and consuming) without causing harm to or disrupting the communities we live in.

You can learn more about fulfilling your dog’s natural instincts in our comprehensive guide to canine enrichment.

Understand your dog’s triggers and emotions

If your dog is still reactive after you’ve met their basic health and fulfillment needs, spend some time thinking about why they bark, growl, and lunge at certain things.

  • In what situations is your dog most likely to react? Does a trigger have to be moving in a certain way (directly approaching versus passing on the other side of the street, for example)?
  • How close does a trigger need to be before your dog barks, lunges, growls, or otherwise reacts at it? This is referred to as their threshold distance. If the trigger is farther away than this limit, they’re under threshold and able to take treats normally, sniff the environment, and respond to you with loose body language. Once it breaks their “bubble,” they go into a panicked fight-or-flight mode.
  • Is your dog’s reactivity limited to when they’re on a leash, or does it happen regardless of where they are (loose in the yard, in your home, etc)?
  • Is your dog a social butterfly with their triggers outside of a certain context, or do they always react?
  • Does your dog seem afraid or merely over aroused?

Typically, reactive dogs have one of two goals in mind. They either want to get away from something scary (this is fear-based reactivity) or want to get closer to something exciting (this is frustration-based reactivity). 

Fear-based dog reactivity

Fear-based dog reactivity is often caused when nervous or uncertain dogs feel trapped in a certain situation. Think about a porcupine puffing out their quills to make something scary go away! Your dog might appear aggressive, but they don’t want to go out of their way to cause harm — they’re just experiencing anxiety and really want to be left alone.

You can read more about fear aggression in this guide.

Frustration-based dog reactivity

Frustration-based leash reactivity, on the other hand, stems from a dog wanting to interact with something they can’t. This is common in social dogs who regularly visit dog parks or attend daycare. They love other pets and get frustrated when they aren’t allowed to greet them! That frustration (especially when being held back on a leash) can quickly build into a reactive display.

Keep your dog and the world around them safe while you socialize

Regardless of the cause of your dog’s reactivity, it’s important to keep safety top of mind while you socialize them. Even merely scared or friendly dogs can still cause harm when pushed too far.

Management is your best friend while socializing your reactive dog

Above all: Don’t be afraid to manage your dog’s environment to set them up for success. If you see a trigger up ahead on a walk? There’s no shame in turning around to avoid it if you aren’t prepared to work your dog through it on that given day! If you get invited to a friend’s BBQ with other people and pets? Maybe it’s best to leave your reactive dog at home until you’ve been able to work through less chaotic situations.

We take a look at some more specific types of management below.

Tools like muzzles can provide great peace of mind

If you think your dog might be a bite risk — or if you just appreciate a visual cue that they don’t want to be approached — it’s a good idea to train them to wear a muzzle. When properly sized and conditioned, muzzles don’t cause any discomfort. Instead, they give your dog more opportunities to enjoy the world! You can read more about muzzle training your reactive dog in this article. The key is to create a positive association with their new “party hat” by using lots of treats and moving slowly.

You might also consider some other tools to help strangers know your dog needs space. There are a wide variety of special collars, leash wraps, and harness patches that say things like:

  • “Do not pet”
  • “I’m nervous”
  • “No dogs”
  • And so on

Carefully time when you go to certain locations

Along with using available tools to get space and keep your dog safe, it’s a good idea to visit new environments at less-busy times. Your reactive dog absolutely needs exposure to the world around them — but they need slow, supported exposure that doesn’t make them feel overwhelmed.

Consider walking early in the morning or visiting public squares at off times. And when you go somewhere…

Have “escape routes” or backup plans ahead of time

Imagine potential scenarios and consider how you’ll respond to them when you’re socializing your dog. If one path gets blocked by a trigger, do you have another way out? How far away will you be from your car? Don’t let yourself spiral into unproductivity — we can’t plan for every last contingency in our messy modern world — but do spend some time preparing for likely events.

Start slowly and socialize at your dog’s pace

Socializing your reactive dog is a marathon, not a sprint. You want to create lasting, long-term results! While it’s tempting to rush the process, sustainable behavior change comes from addressing your dog’s underlying emotions. There are no quick fixes here.

As a rule of thumb: It’s better to have just a few good experiences than to have several good and one bad. This is especially true if your dog’s reactivity is fear based! In order to help them heal, we have to make sure we don’t push them too far too soon.

Set up dedicated training scenarios with people you trust

The best way to ensure you can move at your dog’s pace? Plan socialization sessions with other people and dogs you trust. This way you can be in control of the entire set up, which:

  • Helps you feel calmer and more capable of helping your dog.
  • Gives you the opportunity to focus on what will most benefit your dog. This might be desensitization (gradually getting your dog used to their triggers from a safe distance), counterconditioning (building a positive association and healthier emotional response to their triggers), or likely a combination of both.

A professional trainer can be a fantastic resource for this. Many of them have their own helper dogs they can bring along to training sessions — and they also tend to have a good gauge on surrounding park, trail, and business environments so you know what to expect going in. If your dog has a bite history, it’s especially important to work with a positive reinforcement expert to keep everyone safe.

Socialization will look different depending on what causes your dog’s reactivity

Like we mentioned above, not all dog reactivity is the same. It’s important to pay attention to the function of the behavior when making socialization decisions. Are our dogs barking to create space from something? Are they actually wanting to get closer to the thing they’re reacting to?

Below we share some socialization tips depending on the cause of your dog’s reactivity.

If your dog’s reactivity is fear based:

Advocate for your dog

If your dog is afraid of other dogs or people in their space, it’s important to show them you have their back. They don’t need to be wary of every other animal they see — you’ll protect their space!

You can advocate for your dog in many ways:

  • Think critically before saying “yes” if someone asks to pet them — only allow interaction if your dog truly seems comfortable.
  • Step between them and other approaching dogs.
  • Consider what environments you bring your dog into, and avoid rowdy, crowded locations.

Exposure is more important than interaction

You might not understand why your dog is afraid, but to them? Their triggers are the scariest things in the world. Never force your dog to interact with something that’s making them uncomfortable.

Instead, prioritize pleasant exposure more than direct interaction. This is often called passive socialization. Your dog is still learning even if they aren’t right next to their triggers! Make your sessions positive experience that your dog can feel confident about:

  • Keep calm yourself in the presence of triggers (we know, this is easier said than done)!
  • Allow your dog to make space and choose the distance they’re comfortable at around things that make them nervous.
  • If possible, let your dog see you happily interacting with the things that make them nervous — but do not force them to get any closer than they’re comfortable with. When our dogs show reactive or aggressive behaviors to certain things, it’s easy for us to start feeling wary around their triggers too. Sometimes it helps to show our pets that we ourselves aren’t scared.
  • Reward your dog for showing appropriate calming signals (like sniffing, looking away calmly, shaking off, and showing relaxed body language) or curiosity towards their triggers. Food is an especially great reinforcer here, since the behavior of eating can actually be calming in and of itself.
  • If your dog displays unwanted behaviors, evaluate what went wrong (did they get surprised? Are you too close to the trigger?) and take a break before trying again. You can use techniques like food scatters to bring their arousal back down.
  • When in doubt, help your dog out by redirecting their attention or moving farther away from their triggers.

One great way to build confidence through careful exposure is parallel or “blended” walks where you allow your dog to investigate their trigger from a comfortable distance and only help them out when needed. This way they’re below threshold — their brains are able to process information!

If your dog’s reactivity is frustration or excitement based:

Many of the same things apply to both fearful and excited dogs

Many of the same protocols apply to both fearful dogs and excited greeters. We should build trust, practice being calm around triggers, take things slowly, and generously reward their effort and good behavior.

Frustrated greeters can benefit from controlled interaction with other dogs

One exception, though? While a fearful dog should never be pushed to interact with another animal, a pet who is fundamentally social but simply over aroused (like from being restrained on a leash when wanting to say hello to another dog on a walk) can actually benefit from regular opportunities to play with canine friends.

This goes back to our above section on meeting our dog’s needs. Think about a dog who has a very high prey drive. When we give them safe opportunities to express their instincts — like through chasing a flirt pole or entering a local barn hunt class — they feel more fulfilled. That sense of satisfaction then makes it easier for them to ignore other critters like rabbits and squirrels while out and about! The same applies to reactive dogs who just can’t believe the entire world doesn’t want to say hi to them.

As a bonus: We’re able to manage our dogs’ behavior in these controlled situations to build healthier emotional regulation habits in the long run. We don’t want to teach our pets that they’ll get to interact with every dog they see — that can make their reactivity worse — but we do want to meet their needs in safe, appropriate ways.

Sniffspots are a great option for private playdates

If your pet enjoys playing with other dogs but struggles with excitement, arousal, or general social skills in traditional dog park settings, a private Sniffspot can be the perfect place for controlled playdates or sessions with your professional trainer. These off-leash areas enable you to meet up with trusted friends and take interactions as slowly as you need to so safety is always the top priority. No worrying about running into strange people or dogs!

Reactivity is tough, but unsocialized dogs can learn new tricks!

Working with dog reactivity can be a messy process. Sometimes it’s hard to understand exactly where your dog’s reactions are coming from. Are they scared? Excited? Maybe a little bit of both? Not to mention the many ways to approach their behavior — and how nerve wracking it can be to find a trainer you trust.You’re not in it alone, though. There’s an amazing community of reactive dog owners working to give their pets the best care possible (and good news: even fearful or unsocialized dogs can have incredibly full lives). We should aim to both accept our dogs for who they are and pursue ways — like appropriate socialization and tailored enrichment plans — to help them navigate daily life in our modern world.

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Kaia Wilson
CPDT-KA, Owner - Dogspeed Training
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David Adams photo

David Adams

August 05, 2022

Dog Reactivity

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