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How to Train Your Dog That's Reactive to Other Dogs

Haley photo

Haley

February 01, 2024

Dog Reactivity

How to Train Your Dog That's Reactive to Other Dogs thumbnail

Where do I start if my dog is reactive to other dogs?

There are many types of dog reactivity out there. In this article, we’re going to talk specifically about pups who are reactive to other dogs — they might bark, growl, lunge, and otherwise make a scene when they see another canine out and about.

Read on for some key dog reactivity definitions, an overview of what can cause dog reactivity, some frequently asked questions, and further resources to help you and your pup along your training journey.

You’ve got this!

Key dog reactivity terms and definitions

First, let’s get our definitions straight. Dog reactivity is a big topic with lots of associated terms.

What does “reactive” mean?

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 in our minds (triggers are behaving normally in a non threatening way) but that are overwhelming or scary to our dogs.

Basically: Your puppy 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.

What are most dogs reactive to?

According to Sniffspot research, 51% of reactive dogs are reactive to other dogs only. 8% of reactive dogs are reactive to people only and 37% of reactive dogs are reactive to both dogs and people. Another 4% of reactive dogs are reactive to other things than dogs and people, like bikes, skateboards, and cars.

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Types of dog-dog reactivity

Typically, dog-reactive dogs have one of two goals in mind. They either want to get away from another dog they find scary (this is fear-based reactivity) or want to get closer to another dog to say hello (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 to show aggressive behaviors, 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.

We often feel that this is inappropriate behavior, but it makes perfect sense to our canine companions, especially if they've had a bad experience with another dog in the past. Even just strong eye contact from an unknown pet can make them worry for their personal space and safety.

You can read more about fear aggression in this guide.

Excitement- or 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 and can lead to serious aggression.

If your dog’s reactivity is limited to when they’re tethered, this article talks about fixing leash reactivity or leash aggression specifically.

Lack of fulfillment or general overarousal can contribute to dog reactivity

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 drives rather than a lack of socialization!

Some dogs also struggle with general overarousal even if they aren’t acting on specific breed traits. If your pet can’t seem to settle down even in familiar environments, triggers out in the world can be like the straw that broke the camel’s back — the final stimulus that puts them all the way over their threshold (which is low already) even though the problem is bigger than that one thing.

Two dogs engage in an awkward social interaction

Frequently asked questions about dog-directed reactivity

Can dog-reactive dogs be social with other pets?

The behavior of dog-reactive dogs can vary depending on the individual dog and the situation at hand. Whether a dog-reactive dog can be social with other pets, such as fellow dogs, cats, or even small animals, depends on factors like their unique temperament, training, and past experiences.

Some dog-reactive dogs may be able to coexist peacefully with other pets. It’s important to introduce them to other animals gradually, though, and under controlled circumstances where you can intervene if necessary — monitoring interactions carefully and providing positive reinforcement for calm, socially appropriate behavior can contribute to successful introductions.

Professional guidance from a force free dog trainer or veterinary behaviorist may be helpful if you’re hoping to introduce your dog-reactive pup to other pets!

I still don’t understand why my dog is growling if they actually just want to say hi?

It can be hard to understand why dogs might bark or growl even if they want to be friendly. Frustration-based dog reactivity can be especially confusing for pet parents of social butterflies who suddenly start making scenes on walks!

Here are some key components of frustrated dog reactivity.

  • Excitement and overstimulation: Some dogs become frustrated when they are overly excited or stimulated. Some of us humans do, too — think about really intense games or sporting events you’ve been a part of! This can lead to reactive behavior.
  • Leash restriction: The leash is usually a core part of frustration-based dog reactivity. Dogs on leashes may feel restricted, which leads to frustration. When they are unable to approach another dog freely, they may bark or growl as a way of expressing that they feel pent up.

To address frustration-based reactivity, it's crucial to provide proper socialization, positive reinforcement focused training, and controlled introductions to a range of situations.

And if my dog is scared of other dogs, why wouldn’t they just try to run away?

While fear can indeed lead some dogs to try and escape or avoid a situation with another dog, fear-based reactions are complex. The emotion can manifest in various ways!

Growling and barking can be defensive behaviors — not just outright aggressive behavior as we often think of them — that a fearful dog uses to communicate discomfort or ultimately establish a safe distance if they're unable to move themselves from a perceived threat.

Here are some reasons why a fearful dog might growl and bark instead of running away:

  • Fear can trigger a defensive form of aggression. Growling and barking may be your dog's way of trying to appear more intimidating to deter the perceived threat.
  • In certain situations — like when on leash — a fearful dog may feel cornered or without a clear escape route, leading to defensive behaviors like growling and barking as a way to create space.

Each dog is an individual. Their responses to fear can vary! If your dog is displaying any sort of reactive behaviors, it's crucial to approach the situation with care — and not assume that they’re being mean, outright aggressive, or aren’t scared simply because they’re being loud.

Did I do something wrong to make my dog reactive to other dogs?

Dog behavior is influenced by a combination of their genetics, early experiences, socialization, training, and the current environment. It’s impossible to isolate variables! While parts of your lifestyle might have contributed to your dog developing reactivity towards other dogs (like lots of on-leash greetings in a busy neighborhood, for example) know that it is not your fault if your pup struggles. Many dogs have some form of dog reactivity. Even professional trainers can struggle with dog-dog reactivity with their own family members!

What matters is that you’re learning and training to help your canine companion feel better.

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Further reading and learning

There are countless great resources for how to live with and train a reactive dog! Here are a few that we like.

More Sniffspot blogs on dog reactivity

We have an entire blog category devoted to dog reactivity and related problem or unwanted behaviors. One of our primary goals is to be a welcoming community for reactive dogs — that’s why we have specific rules (like gaps between arrivals and transparency about other animals within view) to keep all Sniffspot visits safe.

Here are a few specific articles:

Other dog reactivity resources

Good luck, and remember: you’re not alone. When in doubt, get in touch with a professional force free trainer you trust. And know you can always bring your dog to a Sniffspot for some playtime!

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, and we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality content to our community. We have our articles reviewed by qualified force free trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Marnie Montgomery
PMCT4, CPDT-KA
Tellington TTouch® Practitioner
Fear-Free Certified Professional

Survey Statistics

Sniffspot Research 2023, n = 4,092

Sniffspot Dog running on field

Get safe exercise for your dog by renting a private dog park near you

A green and white infographic about dog reactivity features graphics illustrating cmmon breeds, common triggers, and more statistics
Haley photo

Haley

February 01, 2024

Dog Reactivity

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