How to Train a Reactive Dog: A Beginner’s Guide

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Your dog has started showing reactivity — they’re barking, growling, lunging, and otherwise acting like a maniac with a bunch of rude behavior in the presence of certain triggers — and you don’t even know where to start. Can your dog be helped? What’s causing their meltdowns? How do you sift through the mountains of training information online?

We know that working through dog reactivity can be overwhelming — but you’re not alone. Reactivity is one of the most common behavior issues in modern dogs. Here’s a comprehensive guide to getting on the right track with your reactive dog!

Understand some key dog training terminology

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 is a trigger?

Your dog’s triggers are the things that cause them to react. Dogs might become reactive to just about anything, but some common triggers are:

  • Adult humans (especially strangers, people wearing strange clothing your dog hasn’t seen before or that is associated with a scary or threatening life experience, or approaching in a certain way)
  • Children, who can move quickly and erratically 
  • Other dogs
  • Animals like cats, rabbits, squirrels, and birds
  • Fast-moving object like cars, bikes, or skateboards

Some dogs react to their triggers in all situations (for example, all dogs they see outside their home) while other dogs only react to more specific images (like pointy-eared dogs directly approaching them at a certain distance). There are also different levels of reactivity. Some dogs have a mild response while others react more intensely.

What is your dog’s threshold?

Your dog’s reactivity threshold is the point where they fully react to their triggers. When a dog is under threshold, they’re able to control their behaviors and be aware of their surroundings (even if they seem a little aroused, nervous, or on edge). When they’re over threshold, though, they're reacting from fear or a predatory instinct and want to protect themselves or catch to kill.

The best way to work with a reactive dog is to keep them under threshold as much as possible. This usually means working at a comfortable distance from the trigger where your dog knows it’s there but isn’t overwhelmed. If you’re able to control the trigger’s intensity and duration, that can work too (though is usually a little more difficult if you aren’t in a controlled training set up).

When a dog goes over threshold, it can take one to two full days for their bodies to come down from the cortisol and adrenaline highs. It’s important to be extra conscious of any additional stressors during this period!

Figure out what causes your dog’s reactivity

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 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.

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

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.

Start by meeting your dog’s basic needs

Frustration-based dog reactivity and general overarousal can often be improved by simply addressing our pets’ underlying needs. It’s possible that your dog is displaying reactive behaviors as signs of feeling ill, in pain, or unfulfilled! You can increase their exercise frequency and type, including activities that let them move their body and use their brain in natural ways.

It’s always a good idea to evaluate your reactive dog’s basic needs before focusing on specific training situations. Even if your dog’s reactivity is driven by more than a treatable health or fulfillment problem, making sure their needs are met will still help you maximize your training success.

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.

A thorough vet check should help you identify any problems. Even the most careful training plan won’t help your reactive dog if their behavior is the result of an injury or illness. We can’t ask for calm behavior from our companions if they aren’t feeling well.

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

How can you help your pet feel more fulfilled in our modern human world? 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.

Spend dedicated time with your dog

Dogs and humans are both social animals. It’s important to spend time together — and not always in high stakes training or socialization settings. Prioritize the things you both enjoy to make sure you’re still investing in your bond even as you navigate the ins and outs and difficult reactivity.

Take care of yourself, too!

Living with a reactive dog can be overwhelming — and there’s no shame in admitting that. It’s okay if you’re tired. It’s okay if you miss a training session here and there. It’s okay if you sometimes feel jealous of other dogs and owners who don’t have to worry about the things you’re constantly keeping track of.

Take time to practice self care. You have to fill your own cup before you’re able to give your dog what they need!

Find a support network you trust

Part of taking care of yourself while training your reactive dog? Remembering that you don’t have to do it all alone. The right support network can make a world of difference as you navigate your pet’s behavior problems and create a life you both enjoy.

Consider reaching out to:

Think about long-term goals for your dog’s reactivity

When living with a reactive dog, almost nothing is more important than setting realistic goals — for both of you!

You want to find the sweet spot that works for your individual situation. Look for a balance of feeling empowered to make changes while also realizing that many reactive dogs are never fully “cured” (and don’t need to be to live amazing lives).

Avoid setting goals that are out of your control, like having your dog be comfortable in all situations and never react to anything ever again. (We live in a messy, modern human world — it’s just not possible to keep our pets calm 100% of the time.)

Do set goals that matter to your lifestyle, and focus on metrics that you can easily keep track of (like how many training sessions you have in a week).

Some examples of healthy long-term goals:

  • I want my dog to feel more comfortable than he does now — even if he still occasionally reacts in certain situations we can’t fully control.
  • I want my dog to be able to walk closer to his triggers — even if he’s never able to directly interact with them.
  • I want my dog to react less frequently — even if he still barks, growls, and lunges on occasion.
  • I want my dog to recover from his reactions more quickly.
  • I want my dog’s reactions to be less intense.
  • I want my dog and I to enjoy our life together.

Use management strategies to prevent reactive behavior while you work on training your dog

We promise we’ll get into the training itself soon, but first: Management is an important part of helping your reactive dog. The more frequently your pet practices their undesirable behaviors in a heightened emotional state, the deeper they ingrain those habits. It’s important to prevent as many reactions as possible so your training can be successful!

Don’t worry, though, you don’t have to be perfect. We mentioned healthy lifestyle expectations above and it’s important to have those when it comes to management, too. Your dog will still react to triggers. You can’t control the whole world. And no one expects you to!

Just a little bit of effort can go a long way to managing your dog’s behavior in the meantime, though:

  • Use tools like basket muzzles or “ignore me” patches as a visual cue to get more space from strangers while out on walks.
  • Carefully consider when you go to an environment and whether it will be too busy for your reactive dog to feel comfortable. It's smart to avoid places with many off-leash dogs, young kids, or other common triggers, especially early on in your reactivity training plan.
  • Cover your windows with film or close the blinds to prevent your dog from barking at triggers outside your living room or office windows throughout the day. You can also use household objects as visual barriers.
  • Drive to a quieter walking route rather than trying to stay in your immediate neighborhood if it’s too overwhelming.
  • Don’t feel guilty about turning around when you see a trigger if you aren’t prepared to train through it.
  • Practice your dog’s basic cues, leash skills, ability to receive reinforcement in multiple ways (like from your hand, scattered on the ground, and tossed in the air), and eye contact with you. Building these habits outside of stressful situations will make it possible for you to use them to get through difficult moments out and about. A solid ‘’leave it” cue can be especially powerful.

Start tackling specific reactivity scenarios

Phew! We’ve talked about a lot of important foundational work to set you and your reactive dog up for success. Now for the nitty gritty. What does the actual training look like? There are a range of training techniques, methods, and set ups to help your reactive dog feel calmer around their triggers. Most of them involve creating neutral or positive experiences to change their underlying emotions.

Here are some key strategies to learn about.

Scenario set up

Suzanne Clothier has a webinar on setting up scenarios to work with your reactive dog. It’s called “Quick — Hit PAUSE!” through Relationship Centered Training.

Desensitization

Desensitization involves getting our dogs used to their triggers slowly, in small doses that don’t put them over threshold. While it can be difficult to implement in the “real world” (public environments are often unpredictable and we can’t always decide how far away our dogs are from their triggers) it’s a valuable technique in controlled situations. Distance, intensity and duration matter. 

Counterconditioning

Counter conditioning (CC) is the process of pairing something scary or overwhelming (your reactive dog’s triggers) with something positive (like their favorite treats or toys) to ultimately change their conditioned emotional response over time. CC can be incredibly helpful when working with reactive dogs — but it’s important to be aware of your timing! If you feed your dog before they notice their trigger, you might accidentally teach them that “good things predicts scary things” instead of the other way around. You also have to keep up CC consistently or undesirable emotions (and their associated behaviors) can return. 

Observation games

Observation games like engage-disengage and look at that use counter conditioning principles to help your dog feel a little calmer and think more clearly around their triggers. Then these methods capitalize on operant conditioning (a learning theory involving animals intentionally performing behavior to earn reinforcement) to create better responses (like looking at you) rather than barking and lunging.

Behavior adjustment training

Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) was developed by force-free trainer Grisha Stewart to rehabilitate and prevent dog reactivity. BAT builds confidence by employing principles of desensitization while also giving our pets a chance to learn to control their environment. It’s a minimally invasive method — it allows our pets to learn about their triggers in as natural a way as possible — that prioritizes dogs making their own decisions. Treats and direct rewards are used less in BAT than methods like counter conditioning.

The play way

According to force-free trainer Amy Cook, play can be both an indicator of stress and/or an intervention for stress. She uses social play to rehabilitate fearful dogs rather than focusing on food like many methods do. This makes her process a particularly great option for pets who have sensitive stomachs or dietary restrictions that prevent their owners from routinely using high value treats when out in the world.

And more

It would be impossible to list every reactivity training approach in one place. Each dog, owner, and situation is different — and the animal training world is constantly evolving!

As long as your chosen method is recommended by a humane trainer you trust and prioritizes your dog’s positive emotions, it could help them live a better life.

Grow and adjust over time

Training a reactive dog isn’t a linear process. There will be ups and downs along the journey! While it’s important to realize your pet might never enjoy some of the “normal” things other dogs do (like visiting traditional dog parks or crowded restaurant patios), they absolutely can still have a full life.Together you’ll learn, grow, and adjust along the way as you encounter new environments at your dog's pace. The reactive dog community is cheering for you!

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:

Penny Locke
Proudly offering Positive Reinforcement & Force-free Dog Training
www.allabout-canines.com