Reactive dog training helps to calm dogs that overreact to their environment by barking or lunging at other animals, people, cycles, cars, etc.
Your dog is the sweetest, most loveable thing you know until another dog passes by on your morning walk!
Reactive dog behavior is when a generally well-behaved animal has intense reactions to specific triggers (or all triggers!). This is where reactive dog training becomes necessary.
New people and other dogs and cats are the most likely causes for sudden, aggressive behavior and frenzied barking. In some extreme cases, even inanimate objects may cue this behavior.
Not only does this behavior tend to make your neighbors and other dog owners frown on your out-of-control dog, but it can also be a nightmare for you and eliminate lots of potential activities you could do with your dog.
It should also be clear that this is not a pleasurable activity for your dog either! Reactive behavior is almost always the result of fear or stress; however, certain breeds designed for a more aggressive purpose are more likely to exhibit this behavior.
When dogs are frightened or troubled by a situation, they will begin barking in an attempt to make the scary person, dog, or object go away.
Unfortunately, if a strange dog passes by with their owner while your dog is barking, the reactive dog will think it has been successful in making it “go away,” and this can start a bad habit.
Let’s look at some tips including reactive dog training to help your dog and minimize this behavior.
1. Talk with a Vet
Though there are many things you can do on your own as part of reactive dog training to try to improve this behavior, it is never out of line to check with a professional.
You can talk to your vet who might discover an underlying health issue that could be the cause of your pooch’s sudden change in behavior.
Particularly if you have a rescue dog, there may be underlying issues that haven’t been adequately cared for yet.
2. Research your dog’s breed
Though the behavior is undoubtedly still frustrating, it might help you unravel some mysteries if you know the breed of your dog and its behavioral characteristics. Understanding the breed better can provide clues on which reactive dog training tactic can work best.
For example, terrier breeds used for catching rodents or herding breeds designed to put other animals in their place might have a more significant propensity to reactive behavior.
It doesn’t mean that you cannot make progress in this area with your dog, but you may have to approach it a little differently.
3. Identify triggers
Try to identify as accurately as possible what is triggering your dog.
- Are they reacting to all people or just to bearded men?
- Do they bark at all dogs that go by or only dogs bigger than themselves (that may be more threatening) or dogs they don’t know?
When you dig into this a little and take note of any patterns, you’ll be able to create an action plan for helping your dog to remain calm around these triggers.
4. Avoid shouting at or punishing your dog
Though it is undoubtedly tempting to punish the dog for this unruly behavior, this will almost certainly increase their stress level and solidify in their mind the trauma of the situation.
It can be hard to get your dog’s attention when they are stressed and barking loudly, so shouting may seem the natural response, to make yourself heard.
However, this increases your dog’s negative association with the frightening (in their minds) people or dogs passing by and will only prolong the behavior.
5. Block out visual triggers when possible
Though not a realistic long-term solution for everyone, merely managing the environment to avoid triggers should be the first step in the process of helping your dog as part of your reactive dog training plan.
The good news is that most dogs will only react to visual triggers, not necessarily noise. If the reactive trouble is happening because your dog camps out in front of the window and has a full view of everything passing by, try blocking out their view by rearranging furniture or covering the windows with blinds or paper.
If new people scare them, but you have visitors coming over, put them in their crate or a different room. If you are walking, try using your body to block stimuli from their view.
Managing the environment may not be the foolproof choice every time as you cannot control everything; however, you and your dog will feel better if there are fewer stressful encounters each day.
6. Change routine
Another thing you might want to consider as part of your reactive dog training plan when it comes to managing the situation would be changing your routine.
If you usually walk your dog in the morning, but many other dog owners in the neighborhood pick this time as well, you might want to consider a different time you could take your walk to encounter fewer people and dogs.
7. Change environment
If your dog is an outside pet whose reactions include running the fence, you can consider how changing the set up could help minimize reactive encounters (and prevent a dirt track in your yard where the grass won’t grow anymore).
If your dog is usually in the front yard, try to move them to the back.
If you currently have a chain-link fence, look into the possibility of a solid one that your dog can’t see through.
8. Practice turning around quickly
If you are out with your dog and you see a potential reason for conflict or any other safety reason, it is a good idea to practice having your dog U-turn quickly.
First, practice this at your house.
Have them practice walking on a leash with you, then give a command like “U-turn” or “with me,” turn abruptly, and when they follow, give them a treat.
Include this in your reactive dog training plan and practice several times at home before practicing it on walks.
9. Learn to read their body language
For your safety, as well as the safety of your dog and neighborhood people and pets, learn how to read dog body language.
There are subtle differences between calm behavior and alert, preparing to attack behavior.
If you can read the cues, you may be able to anticipate problematic behavior and stop it before it becomes an issue.
10. Help them modify behavior
So far, we’ve mostly talked about ways to avoid triggers. Ideally, you will want your dog to behave, even in situations beyond your control.
As part of the reactive dog training, it is often possible to train your dog to do something else when it sees another dog or trigger.
The “something else” could be looking at you, sniffing for a treat on the ground, or something similar that is very simple.
Having something else to do is easier to focus on than just not barking.
11. Create an unconscious positive association with triggers
Treats are a great way to start modifying your dog’s behavior.
If you want your dog to look at you when they see a potentially threatening trigger, practice using a clicker to draw their attention to you and giving them a treat when another dog comes into view.
Initially, keep the treats coming quickly to build a positive association. Eventually, you’ll be able to delay treats a little more or skip treats on some occasions.
It is also important to give the treat after they see the trigger, but before they have started to react.
Please don’t provide them with the treat while they are barking or frenzied.
12. Create a conscious positive association with triggers
When your dog has progressed some and is looking to you more frequently for their treat when they spot an unfamiliar dog or person, delay the treat a little longer and perhaps add a command like “sit” so they have a clearer association between the trigger and the behavior you want them to have.
Be generous with the treats initially, then slowly wean them off.
13. Gradually reintroduce triggers
The above two steps may even need to be completed in the house, just looking through a window at passing dogs or people.
Don’t be in a rush to try it at closer proximity. Slow and gradual is the best method. If there are dogs you want your little doggie to have playdates with, don’t let them meet too soon.
Allow them to get used to being in the same room (again, give lots of treats for good behavior), then gradually allow your dog to get a little closer with the other dog constrained in a pen or crate.
Eventually, they should be ready to meet if you take a gradual enough approach, and they are a good play match.
14. Find ways to help your dog relax
When you know reactive behavior is often a result of stress, it is good to think of how you can help eliminate other stress in your dog’s life and help them stay calm.
You may want to look into how to give relaxing massages or even acupressure for pets as part of your reactive dog training plan. Dogs, as with people, have physical triggers that can help them feel relaxed and at peace.
15. Take a dog training course
If you have tried our tips but are still struggling to keep your pup from aggressive, reactive behavior, remember there is no shame in getting professional help.
Being a dog owner does not mean you are automatically a dog trainer or understand how reactive dog training works. Both you and your dog will benefit from expert help if you are finding it difficult to manage on your own.
We hope that these reactive dog training tips are useful to you and that you have success in training your dog to react calmly even if situations that are frightening or stressful to them.
You will feel better about being able to go about regular activities without fear of getting a passive-aggressive email from the neighbors.
Perhaps even more importantly, you’ll know that your dog is experiencing less stress and is happier and mentally healthier.
If you have found other reactive dog training tips or tricks that work when it comes to transforming your reactive dog into a confident, well-behaved dog even when near other dogs and people, comment below to let us know what you have learned. We can help one another by sharing with the community.