A guide to navigating the challenge and adventure of life with your dogs.

A Beginner’s Guide to Helping Your Reactive Dog Get Better

 

So you want your reactive dog to calm down and stop being a completely embarrassing nightmare on walks?

You’ve come to the right place.

Reactivity is a BIG topic. There are many elements, many moving parts. The deluge of disorganized, sometimes contradictory, information you discover when you start looking into it can be overwhelming and paralyze you into inaction.

The point of this monster-sized article is to organize that information and give you a clear path to follow. It’ll give you a solid foundation education in solving leash reactivity, plus a bunch of helpful links to continue your education. It’s designed to be a bookmarkable resource that you can come back to again and again.

It’s split into five chapters:

  1. Preliminaries: Bit of pep talk, bit of big picture, bit of training philosophy.
  2. Things You Need to Understand: Dog knowledge you’ll need to have in order to effectively handle your dog’s issues.
  3. Building the Foundation: The stuff that will set you up for success. These are things that everyone should do, regardless of what reactivity-solving tactic you eventually choose.
  4. The Tactics: Finally, the things you can do to get your dog to stop being so reactive.
  5. Resources: A list of quality books and websites on reactivity.

NOTE: There are not any sponsored or affiliate links in this post. Not even any Amazon affiliate links. All the books, programs, and other resources I link to are there only because I really like them.

Ch 1. Preliminaries

First: how are YOU doing? The toll reactivity takes on the dog owner

Living with a reactive dog is a lot to deal with. In severe cases, it can feel suffocating and isolating.

Back when you were dreaming about getting a dog, you probably envisioned taking leisurely walks together or playing Frisbee in the park. Maybe you wanted a running partner or a hiking buddy. Maybe you even hoped to compete in dog sports like agility. Facing the reality of having a dog who can’t easily do any of those things can be crushing.

With a reactive dog, everyday life becomes so much more complicated. Just going for a walk around the neighborhood becomes a logistical nightmare.

And then there’s dealing with judgmental strangers. Many reactive-dog owners have stories of facing stares and self-righteous “control your dog!” comments on the street.

Or even if those things don’t actually happen, it can sure FEEL like everybody is staring and judging.

But the judgment -real or imagined- of random assholes is nothing compared to the judgment we face from ourselves:

I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m probably making this worse.

I’m no good at this. This dog deserves better than me.

God, I hate this stupid dog.

…Oh wow, I’m a terrible person for hating my dog.

This is all my fault.

Sound familiar? First of all, you don’t have to blame yourself. Yes, I know the slogan: “there are no bad dogs, just bad owners.” But that isn’t fair. No, your dog isn’t “bad,” but that doesn’t mean you’re a bad owner.

Reactivity can be affected by genetics, early puppyhood experiences, and other factors that are out of your control. The fact that you care enough to be emotionally beating the shit out of yourself like this tells me you’re one of the good ones.

And on the days when you hate your dog (and there WILL be those days), it helps to remember that this sucks for her, too. Whether her reactivity is fear-based or frustration-based, she’s having a hard time dealing with life in a world built for humans. She’s not trying to drive you crazy, she’s going crazy herself. Look at this not as a you-vs-dog problem, but a problem that you and your dog face together.

What I want you to know about reactivity

Reactivity is one of the most common dog behavior problems. So you’re definitely not alone.

And there is hope! It absolutely can be successfully treated with modern force-free, reward-based methods.

There is a light at the end of this tunnel.

But it’s not like teaching a dog to sit, or stay, or stop begging at the table. Where you can go online, find a quick training recipe, follow the recipe, and soon end up with a dog who sits or stays or doesn’t beg at the table.

Reactivity requires more of you. Especially if you want to DIY it and not use the services of a good dog trainer. (Consulting a qualified trainer is a fantastic idea and will get you better results faster, but I know not everyone has the budget that allows working closely with a trainer)

You need to go beyond just finding a quick “recipe.” You need to dig further, and become something of an amateur dog trainer yourself.  You need to learn about dog body language, and a bunch of other stuff that we’re going to talk about in this article.

The cool part? The reactivity training I recommend requires a lot of you, but it gives back tenfold. It directly builds that unbreakable bond you were dreaming about when you adopted this dog. High investment, high reward.

Make a plan, don’t wing it

When you just want to get your dog’s reactivity DEALT WITH ALREADY, it can be tempting to throw a million things at the wall and see what sticks. “Ooh, I just read a blog post about this training technique, I’ll try it.”

-One week later-

“Ooh, I just watched a Youtube video about another training technique, I’ll try it.”

I’ve been there, I get it. But that can cause more harm than good. You probably won’t make much progress, and worst case scenario, you can make things worse. For things to get better, you need:

  • A steady, methodical approach that addresses all the factors involved.
  • A solid understanding of the WHY behind the technique you use

So don’t rush. Take your time, do your research, build your understanding of the various and sundry factors I’m about to introduce you to, and build your plan.

Go team!

We’re referring to you and your dog as a team. This is jargon from the dog sports and working dog worlds, and it applies here. After all, you and your dog are undertaking a big exciting project together.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach

Different approaches work better for different teams. I don’t recommend punishment-based methods, but beyond that, there are a lot of good methods for dealing with reactivity.

A lot of “intro to reactivity” articles dive directly into instructions for tactics, but that can be a problem, because how effective any given tactic will be depends on a lot of factors. Like, an article might recommend counter-conditioning by feeding treats when you see another dog on a walk. Which is great, but what if your dog always blows you off and has no interest in food on a walk? We’d have to lay some groundwork before counter conditioning will work.

Later, I’ll give you an overview of the different methods. And the resources chapter contains a bunch of examples of real-life training plans.

Why I don’t recommend punishment-based methods or aversives

“When used effectively, punishment can suppress the behavior of fearful or aggressive animals, but it may not change the association underlying the behavior. Thus, it may not address the underlying problem.

For instance, if the animal is aggressive due to fear, then the use of force to stop the fearful reactions will make the dog more fearful while at the same time suppressing or masking the outward signs of fear. Once it can no longer suppress its fear, the animal may suddenly act with heightened aggression and with fewer warning signs of impending aggression. In other words, it may now attack with no warning.”

AVSAB position statement on the use of punishment. A must-read for anyone considering the use of aversives.

“Aversives” are tools like prong collars, e-collars, spray bottles, noisemakers, etc.

I’m not a big fan of aversives in dog training in general, but they’re an especially bad idea for fear and aggression. Aversives work to suppress behavior, but do nothing to change the underlying problem that caused the behavior. In fact, the dog may become more stressed. Training may appear to “work” on the surface by creating a dog who is passive and subdued, but the dog is actually more upset with no ability to show it.

And it can backfire completely – Let’s say your dog is frustration-reactive. She wants to play with dogs she sees. She starts barking and going nuts. To stop this behavior, you put an e-collar on her. Every times she goes after a dog, she gets a shock. Pretty straightforward. But all Sparky knows is that when she sees another dog, she gets zapped. Now she thinks that the other dog is causing her to get zapped. You can see how that might lead to problems.

I used to use both aversives and rewards in dog training, called “balanced training.” I was a loyal defender of prong collars back in the day. It took a while -I was stubborn like that- but I eventually came to understand the damage that comes from training with pain or the threat of pain, and the great things that can happen when a team uses force-free methods.

The risk of fallout from aversives is too great to be worth it, IMHO, especially when you can achieve fantastic results from correctly-applied force-free methods. If your goal is to have a dog who is well-behaved, AND also happy and confident and carefree, use force-free methods.

Sources/further reading:

Fallout From the Use of Aversives | Eileenanddogs

The Use of Shock in Animal Training | The Pet Professional Guild

The Consequences of Consequences | The Science Dog

The Welfare Consequences and Efficacy of Training Pet Dogs with Remote Electronic Training Collars in Comparison to Reward Based Training 

 

Ch 2. Things You Need to Understand

Thresholds

Each reactive dog has a threshold, or a point at which her trigger will make her React, capital R. Sub-threshold, she might get antsy, but she is still in control of her actions and she can still take instruction from her handler. But when she reaches her threshold, she can’t control herself.

For a fear-reactive dog, this is when the fight-or-flight response kicks off. For a frustration-reactive dog, it’s when he gets so focused on the trigger that everything else gets tuned out. You can yell, yank the leash, or wave food in his face and he’ll act like you’re not even there.

All my recommended training methods involve working with the dog sub-threshold: the point at which the trigger can be present in the environment at a low enough intensity that it doesn’t set the dog off.

You don’t need or want the dog to exhibit their Reaction in order to fix reactivity.

For best results, work in the sweet spot where the dog is aware of the trigger, but not upset yet. You’re going to work at this sub-threshold point 100% of the time in the training process.

This may mean that you need to start out half a football field away from the trigger.

You’ll use gradually-intensifying exposure to raise your dog’s threshold. If your dog’s current threshold is seeing a trigger half a football field away, we’ll raise it to a quarter football field, then right across the street, and so on.

How do you know when you’re in the danger zone?

Obviously, if Fido’s going bonkers, he’s over-threshold. But there are subtle signals that he’ll give when he’s about to go bonkers.

Behaviors to watch out for:

  • A fixated stare – Ears forward, body pointed straight at the trigger.
  • Raised hackles – this is involuntary, like goosebumps. It’s a great indicator of your dog’s internal state.
  • Growling – pretty self explanatory.
  • Increasingly frantic movements – Fido may dart back and forth, “tap dance” with his front paws, or bounce up and down.
  • Your dog’s unique signals – watch carefully and you’ll notice specific things your dog does that tell you he’s stressin’.

If your dog starts sending you these signals, then you’re too close to threshold. Immediately back off to a safe point, and continue from there.

 

Dog body language

All dog owners should learn about dog body language, but for owners of reactive dogs, it’s critical. There’s so much about reactivity that requires a solid ability to read your dog.

You need to be able to answer questions like:

  • What kind of reactivity am I dealing with?
  • How is the dog feeling about the training we’re doing? Are we going too fast? Is he overwhelmed?
  • Are we working too close to threshold?
  • Is training working? Are we successfully changing the way the dog feels about the trigger?
  • Is this training making things worse?

If you’re not fluent enough in “dog speak” to answer these questions, you’re flying blind.

Is there a free, detailed, step-by-step way for me to learn about dog body language?

Why, there sure is! Take our free online course, Dog Speak 101.

 

The difference between training behavior and changing emotions

Fixing reactivity involves both training behaviors and changing emotions, and to be successful at it, you need to understand the difference between the two. So I wrote a prerequisite article for you to read. I tried to make it as jargon-free as possible:

Training a Behavior vs. Changing an Emotion: What All Dog Owners Need to Know

 

Handler behavior can exacerbate the problem

I don’t know about you, but I’m usually my own worst enemy.

When one has been dealing with a reactive dog for a while, a vicious circle can be created:

Bandit has a history of going nuts when he sees another dog, so his owner Charlie becomes understandably stressed when another dog appears on the horizon. Charlie tenses up, pulling the leash tight and saying “Oh god… Okay Bandit, STAY CALM.”

Which makes Bandit more tense, which makes Charlie more tense…

We talk a lot about conditioned emotional responses in regards to our reactive dogs, but WE can develop our own conditioned emotional responses to our dog’s triggers.

Sometimes when a reactive dog’s owner works with a good trainer for the first time, the dog will be less reactive in the trainer’s hands, simply because the trainer doesn’t have a conditioned response of OH SHIT to the trigger, and therefore doesn’t start up the tension and nervous chatter that the dog has learned is a cue to go nuts.

I know it’s easier said than done, but work on maintaining relaxed body language in the presence of triggers. Keep a loose leash as much as possible.

 

Ch 3. Building the Foundation

Figure out your dog’s motivation and triggers

Why is your dog reacting – is it fear-based or frustration based? To answer this important question, read this article: Why Does My Dog Bark and Lunge On Leash?

Other things to figure out:

  • What triggers set your dog off? Dogs, people, trucks, loud noises, only dogs who are off-leash?
  • How far away does the trigger have to be to cause a reaction?
  • Are there certain locations where the behavior is better or worse?
  • Are there specific contexts or situations that set him off? For example, some dogs are okay seeing strangers in expected situations, like on a busy city street, but they freak out at the appearance of unexpected strangers on a quiet hiking trail.

 

Set mini goals and milestones to hit along the way

Solving reactivity is a long process, and it’s easy to get discouraged and feel like you’re not making any progress along the way. So, make a list of baby-step milestones to achieve, and celebrate when you do.

There are many small wins between where you are now and “completely cured of reactivity.”

Here are some example goals and milestones:

  • Being relaxed enough to eat treats on a walk
  • Being able to follow a basic obedience cue after seeing another dog
  • Taking a walk around the neighborhood with fewer reactions than normal
  • Taking a walk around the neighborhood with no reactions for the first time
  • Being within 50m of another dog with no reaction
  • Being within 30m of another dog with no reaction (and so on)

 

Work on developing your dog’s focus and connection with you

Reactivity training involves working in potentially distracting, high-stress environments. For reactivity rehab to work, you need a foundation of training that builds your dog’s ability to engage with you and listen despite distractions.

I think that’s a piece a lot of us miss when we first start trying to work on reactivity: we go straight into directly working on it by doing counter-conditioning or whatever, neglecting the fact that the dog never pays us a single shred of attention on walks, even when there are no triggers.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying your dog needs to be perfectly obedience trained. I really, really, really don’t care if your dog has no idea what Stay, Heel, Down, or Watch Me means. I don’t even care if your dog pulls on leash.

What I want to see, and what will actually help you during reactivity training: Your dog happily choosing to interact with you, because he likes spending time with you and because you provide good things.

When away from home, will your dog: follow basic instruction in the presence of mild (non trigger) distractions? Eat treats, or if not interested in treats, show interest in toys? Choose to check in with you occasionally without prompting?

If yes, you’re good. Carry on. If not, no big deal. We’ll just need to lay some groundwork. There are lots of focus/engagement-building exercises you can do. Our course Focus & Come When Called is designed to give you this foundation. The book Control Unleashed is also a great resource for this, especially for the dog-sports-inclined.

For a basic intro to the type of training I’m talking about, see Puppy Training Games.

Management

Management is the art of physically preventing an undesired behavior -in this case, hitting threshold- from occurring.

Management is not training, but it’s an important companion to training.

For example, if your dog was reactive toward strangers outside the window, you would manage it by putting up a barrier so the dog couldn’t see out the window when you’re not training.

The more the dog gets to “practice” their reactive behavior, the more entrenched it becomes, and the longer it’ll take to change it. Plus, reactive episodes are very stressful for dogs, even the ones who react out of frustration/desire to play. Frequently hitting threshold means the dog is living in a constant state of stress. Which sucks.

So! As you begin training, the first step is to prevent, as much as humanly possible, the dog from encountering their triggers at an intensity that sends them over threshold.

This may mean walking the dog less and using at-home forms of exercise more, walking the dog during “off” hours, like early in the morning or late at night, or driving the dog away from the city and into quiet areas where you’re unlikely to encounter their triggers.

And hey, staying far away from people is what we’re all doing now with social distancing anyway.

 

The emergency u-turn cue

This is a helpful management trick to have in your toolbelt. You’re walking down the street, keeping an eye out for other dogs. Suddenly a dog walker comes out of an alley ahead of you, and they’re WAY too close, at a distance you and Sparky haven’t trained at yet. This will surely send Sparky over threshold. The emergency u-turn cue is how you get the dog out of the situation before he can freak out too much.

Here’s a quick demo: (not my video)

To teach it:

Pick a cue: “u-turn,” “this way,” “oh ****,” whatever you’d like.

Start training this at home, with the dog on leash. Walk a few steps, then say your cue and immediately turn and walk briskly in the opposite direction. Make cheerful encouraging noises if necessary. Give your dog a treat when he follows you. If your dog prefers toys over treats, you can throw his toy instead.

When your dog is happily turning around with you upon hearing the cue, start practicing away from home, in lots of non-trigger situations.

 

Exercise and mental stimulation

Getting enough exercise is important for your reactive dog. Exercise can releases all kinds of feel-good chemicals to help dogs chill out and take the edge off.

Exercise won’t fix reactivity all by itself – no amount of jogging or chasing tennis balls will make a dog less scared or less socially awkward. But it’ll still help.

Sniff walks/decompression walks

I’m a big believer in getting reactive dogs out of the house and into places where they can stretch their legs and have fun, and build their confidence away from home. And do that in places where, as best you can manage, they won’t run into a lot of triggers.

That usually means finding a quiet area in nature. Or even just finding a wide open field or empty lot that creates a big “space cushion” between your team and any potential triggers. #socialdistancing

Put your dog on a long-line, which is a training leash at least 20ft/6m long. This gives them more freedom to run back and forth. It’s a much more natural and relaxing way of moving for a dog, as opposed to being stuck on a short lead next to their slowpoke human.

Long-lines can also make reactive dog feel better, and safer. Part of their problem is that short leashes trap them in place and create a lot of tension.

Bring some treats and reward the dog any time she chooses to check in with you, but other than that, just let her run around and sniff to her heart’s content. This is called a decompression walk, and it’s a good way to help stressed out dogs relax.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but letting your dog stop to smell all the roses he wants on walks is better than making him walk briskly and ignore the roses.

Sniffing will help your dog learn about his environment and feel more confident.

Sniffing is also a relaxing dog hobby, which is something your high-strung pup really needs. And it can help wear him out: Sparky is processing a hell of a lot of information with all that sniffing, and brain work is one of most tiring-in-a-good-way forms of exercise.

At-home exercise and mental stimulation

If it’s not possible to take your dog for frequent low-trigger adventures, you can still provide a lot of exercise and entertainment at home. How? By putting their brain to work. Doing things like puzzle toys and working on training will help tire out your dog. You can kill two birds with one stone here because the engagement and foundation exercises you’ll work on count as lots of mental stimulation.

See:

 

Ch 4. The tactics

Desensitization and counter-conditioning (DSCC)

This is the method you’ll hear about most often. It’s about changing Sparky’s emotional reaction to the trigger. Basically, every time the trigger appears, you give your dog some really delicious treats. So Sparky learns “when I see a dog across the street, I get chicken! I LOVE when dogs appear across the street.”

DSCC is great for many flavors of fear and aggression.

But!

I’m of two minds about this method for reactivity. On one hand, it can be a super effective approach when it’s done right. Many teams find it to be a simple and easy way to get started with reactivity training.

On the other hand, it doesn’t always work. A lot of people aren’t skilled enough to get it exactly right. Especially if they’re not working with a professional trainer or veterinary behaviorist.

(No offense intended – I mean that in the nicest way possible! Strict DSCC is pretty unforgivingly technical)

So instead of dealing in the ethereal matter of directly changing emotions, some teams may find it more effective to work on the more concrete matter of training behavior (that will naturally lead to emotion change). See the other methods.

I have a primer on how to do DSCC and avoid common mistakes:

The Right Way to Use Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning to Help a Fearful or Aggressive Dog

 

Observation games (Look At That, Engage-Disengage, etc)

This one. This is my favorite method for beginners. It’s like DSCC’s cooler, more forgiving cousin. Most people should start here. It’s what I used to get River over her puppyhood reactivity.

In the first level of this training game, you reward the dog for looking at the trigger. In the later level, you reward the dog for looking at the trigger and then looking away.

This can feel weird at first – why would you encourage your dog to look at the trigger MORE?? But by rewarding good behavior (looking at the trigger without freaking out), you’re teaching your dog to think about the trigger in a different way, instead of mindlessly flipping out.

There are a few slight variations of this game out there:

  • Engage-Disengage (not sure who to credit for this)
  • Look at That/LAT (Leslie Mcdevitt, Control Unleashed)
  • Where’s the Dog (Patricia McConnell, Fiesty Fido)
  • I teach it in Puppy Survival School as The Observation Game. (If you’re a member of Puppy Survival School, you’ll find a video tutorial for it, plus vlogs demonstrating its use, in the Socialization course).
A crash course in observation games:

This works best if your team has a little bit of foundation in focus and engagement first, like we talked about.

To do this exercise, work far enough away that Sparky can see the trigger in the distance without going over threshold.

Phase one: As soon as the dog looks at the trigger, mark it with a marker word or clicker, and give her a high value treat. Repeat for 1-2 minutes. End the session by walking out of sight of the trigger and doing something the dog enjoys.

Do a few sessions with different triggers. Practice until you think she’s figuring out the game. At the next session, do a few reps of marking/rewarding. Then the next time the dog looks at the trigger, just wait. Don’t mark. When she looks back at you as if to say “where’s my treat?” mark/reward. You’re now ready for the next phase.

Phase two: Every time the dog looks at the trigger, wait for her to look away from it or look at you. Mark/reward for this “disengaging” from the trigger.

Check out this infographic guide to Engage-Disengage.

 

The “Fired up, Frantic, and Freaked Out” training plan

This suggestion is a bit different – it’s a recommendation for a book with a complete training plan.

I like this plan for frustration-reactive dogs. This step-by-step plan will show you how to teach a crazy, out-of-control dog to calm himself down and gain some impulse control.

Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out is a book by trainer Laura VanArendonk Baugh.

Here’s a link to the ebook version.

I’m not affiliated with this book in any way, I just really like it and I think you will too. Especially if you like my writing/teaching style. Laura’s is similar.

Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0 (BAT)


(Again, no affiliation with this program. It’s just good)

Have you tried methods like the ones above and had limited success? BAT can help.

BAT is the invention of renowned trainer Grisha Stewart. It’s a force-free training method that does not rely on treats, and it can get amazing results where other methods fail.

It lets dogs investigate the trigger at their own pace, and empowers them to make good, non-reactive decisions. It helps fear-reactive dogs gain confidence, and it teaches social skills to frustration-reactive dogs.

There’s a lot to BAT, including specific leash-handling techniques. It’ll take some time to get yourself all familiarized with it. So my suggestion for “Average Joe” dog owners is to start with plug-and-play methods like observation games or the plan in Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out.

But if that isn’t working for you, or if you consider yourself to be a dog nerd (one of us! One of us!), you might want to take a dive down the BAT rabbit hole.

There’s a book, videos, and an online course taught by Grisha Stewart. You can even hire a BAT-certified dog trainer called a CBATI.

Check out this page to begin your investigation: BAT 2.0 Overview

Note: if you buy the book, make sure you’re getting BAT 2.0 (blue cover) and not the original BAT (yellow cover). 2.0 is significantly different from its predecessor.

Ch 5. Resources

Online resources:

Reddit.com/r/reactivedogs  – A subreddit where I lurk occasionally. For the most part, it’s a nice supportive community based around methods that fit with the force-free philosophy. Reactive dog life can be lonely, and places like this can make it feel less lonely.

Three Reactive Dog Cases – The author explains the very different ways she handled three reactive dogs. This article is aimed at dog professionals, but it’s a great example of how different approaches work for different dogs.

From Crazy to Calm: A Training Plan for Leash Reactivity – Another solid case study.

Tips to Help Your Reactive Dog – Some good advice plus even more examples of how the author helped real live reactive dogs.

How to Handle Reactive Dogs – Patricia McConnell has been a major player in the dog training world for a long time. Always good to see what she has to say on a topic.

The Neurological Benefits of Counter Conditioning Leash Reactive Dogs – A science-y deep dive into the benefits of DSCC.

Books

The Midnight Dog Walkers – Probably the coolest title of any dog training book ever. It’s an in-depth general guide to reactivity and aggression. Especially helpful if your dog has bitten or you think they would bite.

Control Unleashed – a good book that goes beyond the “average dog owner” level. Contains many focus and engagement exercises. Great for those who want to compete in dog sports eventually. That website, Dogwise, also sells video demos of Control Unleashed. There’s also a CU sequel specifically for reactive dogs: Control Unleashed: Reactive to Relaxed

Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0 

Fiesty Fido

Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out

 


I could write a lot more on this subject, but we just hit 5,000 words and it’s probably time to give both of us a break.

I’ll save the rest for another day.