Training Your Reactive Dog

We’ve discussed what reactivity is and how to manage your reactive dog. Now let’s get to the meat of the problem: what can be accomplished with training? Quite a bit, actually! Consider Layla, who used to lunge and bark at dogs, people, bikes, and even lawn ornaments. She recently earned her ARCHX title in rally obedience, which required her to walk past many unfamiliar dogs and people in a crowded, charged environment, then work off-leash and sometimes at a distance from me with focus and precision. She was able to ignore barking dogs, chattering people, and the judge following us around with a clipboard. Outside of obedience, Layla also works as a neutral dog for shelter dog evaluations and Growl classes.

This transformation didn’t take place overnight, and it required diligent training and management. However, the rewards of watching my formerly anxious and reactive dog handle situations that previously sent her into a frenzy with confidence and aplomb are well worth all the work. Learning to communicate with one another has deepened our relationship and turned our training from a dictatorship to a partnership.

Photo by Gus.

Photo by Gus.

Every reactive dog is different, but the general principles of working with a reactive dog are very similar. Here are some of the key aspects to keep in mind as you work with your dog:

1) Work with a professional. Okay, this may seem a little self-serving coming from a trainer who spends the majority of my time working with reactivity. But in all seriousness, you need to find a kind and experienced trainer who can either work with you in person or remotely (many trainers now offer Skype appointments or telephone consults). Not only will you benefit from having an extra pair of eyes devoted to your training, but working with someone who is not emotionally involved will keep you and your dog on track.

Still not convinced? Consider this: when one of my dogs started to display reactive behaviors, I hired another trainer to work with us even though this is my career. I could reel off the steps to solving a reactive behavior problem such as my dog was experiencing in my sleep, but I knew I was too close to the problem to be objective.

2) Manage stress carefully. Whether your dog becomes anxious or experiences “good stress” from over-the-top joy, stress hormones are hard on the body and may impact your dog’s ability to learn. If you know that chronic stress is influencing your dog’s behavior, consider taking a cortisol vacation.

3) Learn a new language. Dogs have a complex, nuanced vocabulary, but they don’t use verbal language like us.  The more we can learn about what their body language is saying, the less frustrated they’ll be and the easier it will become to prevent reactions. Do you know what a wagging tail, lip lick, or turn away mean?

4) Teach impulse control. Most reactive dogs have a very difficult time controlling themselves. Teaching your dog to control himself (as opposed to you physically controlling him) will give him the tools to turn his own emotional thermostat down if he starts running too hot. Games such as “it’s your choice,” off-switch games, doggy zen, and leave it are wonderful ways to increase your dog’s self control.

5) Make relaxation rewarding. Mat work, the Protocol for Relaxation, and bodywork (such as TTouch and other massage) are great for reactive dogs. Think of them as canine biofeedback. Many reactive dogs have a hard time relaxing, so help your dog learn to let go.

6) Change the association. In many cases, reactive dogs have been corrected or punished in some way for their behavior. Even if you haven’t ever scolded your dog for reactivity, this step never hurts. Changing the association deals with emotions by pairing pleasant things with the appearance of the trigger. Done correctly, this quickly results in a dog who turns and looks expectantly and happily at his handler upon spying the person or thing that used to provoke a reactive outburst. The Watch the World game is a great place to start with this.

7) Finally, teach your dog what to do instead. Nature abhors a vacuum. If you don’t want your dog to react like he used to, make sure you teach him some alternate behaviors that he can use in those situations. Whether you use hand targeting, a Whiplash Turn, the Look at That game, Emergency U-Turns, or attentive heeling, having an easy behavior or two that your dog can perform to earn a reward can make the difference between success or failure in a tough situation.

If you live in Minnesota, consider contacting us for private training or signing up for an Agility Unleashed, Focus & Control, or Growl class to address your dog’s reactive behavior. Too far away to work with us? Look for a Certified Professional Dog Trainer in your area.

If you’ve worked with a reactive dog, which of these principles did you find the most helpful? Is there anything you think I’ve missed? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

29 responses to “Training Your Reactive Dog

  1. Well written and clear thank you for sharing. I have a seven month old aussie and reactive is an understatement at least now I have some idea of what I need to do.

  2. I always enjoy reading your posts on reactive dogs. They’re often just what I need to hear when I’m feeling overwhelmed with Loki. They remind me that while I may never have a completely non-reactive dog, there is a light at the end of the tunnel if I’m willing to keep doing the work :-).

  3. I just started a new job working with rescued racing Greyhounds, which have had zero socialization. A lot of them are reactive and fearful. Thank you for a very well written refresher.

  4. two engaging goldens

    My golden, Nutmeg (or Nutty which so suits her better) is a dog on alert. We live quietly in the country and have two goldens, the other one is very laid back and totally opposite to Nutmeg. They are both nearly 8 years old, we have had them since 8 week olds, we took them to puppy school and obedience and agility for the first 3 years. Distance is an issue where we live, so we stopped after 3 years. They are very close. Nutmeg is always on guard, barking at the odd passing car 300m up on the road, wallabies that get too close to the house, things that go bump in the night etc. This we accept as being the way she is. What worries us is how nervous she gets when we go out in the car. She physically shakes. Often it will be to go to the beach so its a good reason for the car, not always the vets. Whilst out she is stressed, watching, watching, no barking or anger, she just worries. I have tried a professional who recommended in the end to try Rescue Remedy – no good. She has little interest in food so cant use that for encouragement,. Meeting other dogs she is friendly and on the beach off lead she will often be subservient – i.e. on her back trying to be friendly with the other dog. Our other dog Honey is mostly disinterested in other dogs, happily gets in the car. Any suggestions re Nutty? She has another funny habit, pushing her food dish around ad nauseum until she finally starts to eat. She will look at it for ages before starting. She’s always done that and no one can give us an answer. We even have a local “dog whisperer” – The Dreadlock Dog Man (Martin McKenna) (on Youtube) who had no answer. Sorry this has been long. Love to have any ideas? Joy

  5. I also find complimentary methods like TTouch very useful when working with reactive dogs. TTouch focuses a lot on physical balance and thus can help anxious dogs to feel more comfortable in their bodies which leads to calmer behaviour.

  6. Thanks for the article. Very clear. I have rehabilitated my reactive dog once already but at the time had access to other dogs and a puppy class, he was young, only 6 months. He is now 1 and had a stare off with another dog which set him back. Is it harder to rehabilitate a second time?

  7. BAT training. And sorry, not all of us can afford a trainer.

  8. For my late reactive dog, Bark, Snark and Growl class was the key to success. Being able to expose her to stressors with the guidance of a team of qualified instructors helped me gain the timing and skills I needed to circumvent her reactive behaviors and give her a safe way out of situations that would have otherwise caused her to respond aggressively. For her, a calm confident leader was what she needed. Once she trusted me to make the decisions (let’s leave it and watch me instead of lunging), she calmed down perceptibly. For my current anxious dog, I went in a very different direction. New situations made her shut down for the most part, until the stress was too great, then she would bark and lunge. Having had one reactive dog, I now knew letting her ‘practice’ this behavior would only make it worse. Though she’s reasonably well trained and mannerly, I didn’t think obedience classes were going to be interesting enough to keep her focused on me while we worked on her reactivity. Instead, I enrolled her in Nosework classes. She had at 6 months, already shown her abilities with her nose, and she would completely focus when she was hunting for things I was trying to hide in the garbage, so it seemed like it would be a good fit. It has made an amazing difference for her. In nosework, the dog gets to work in the classroom environment alone, so there’s no stress from other dogs in the same space. They get to be ‘natural’, and engage in a behavior that is calming for them (sniffing), and what could be better than hunting for bacon in a pile of boxes :). She has turned from a wallflower, stressed with her instructors and surroundings, to a dog that can search in new places with relative ease and confidence. As a bonus, it’s not a hard sport for the owner either, since it primarily involves watching your dog (and learning more about body language), and giving them treats when they are successful. I couldn’t be a happier dog mom :).

  9. Great information! I am a positive trainer with a reactive 8 year old dog, who gets worse the older he gets. I am trying to work on this myself with him, but I think I will need to get outside help even though I know what to do. I wish I lived closer to you to enlist your help!

  10. Thank you for this article. It has a lot of helpful information. There is one more point I would to add. We have an extremely reactive dog, about 3 years old, that we adopted in July 2012. She is VERY reactive to all dogs, from 6 week old puppy to two year old male pit bull. All dogs get the same reaction. Extreme panic. Heavy panting, lunging, barking, spinning, etc. We tried everything under the sun, but had zero success. In fact, we were bewildered why her reactivity continued to get worse. Comfort zone spray and plug-in, counter-conditioning, Pet Ease, reactive dog training class, private training sessions, etc. Nothing helped. Finally, after no success and only worsening drama, we met with a behavior vet. We posted videos online of Penny on her evening walk and asked the vet to view the videos before our appointment. Our behavior vet immediately made it very clear. Penny is a 10/10, hyper-vigilant and ALWAYS over threshold when she is on a walk. While we were stunned that we and the trainers did not realize this, we were also relieved because finally we understood why nothing we tried had any impact. Our vet definitively stated that until we got Penny under threshold (i.e., with medication and changing her environment), nothing we try has any chance of working. So, here we are $13K later (Penny was also diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease which complicated her behavior and training) and we are now going to break the lease on our apartment and buy a house in a quiet neighborhood. Penny now takes two different anxiety medications (6 pills a day), but even that has not really helped. My point is that do not wait until you are near a breaking point emotionally and financially before you talk to a behavior vet. Take videos so that the vet and trainers can see what you are dealing with. I truly regret not seeing the behavior vet sooner. If we had, we would have made different decisions about renewing our lease, taking her to the reactive dog class and taking her to places that we thought she would enjoy. If we understood what she was telling us, that she was way over threshold, then we could have prevented making her even more sensitive to dogs, instead of our intended de-sensitization. Penny’s behavior during reactive dog class and vet visits was never extreme so they didn’t really get to witness what we did when we took her on walks. Penny will “shut down” when she is in these high-stress environments and her anxiety would not come out until later on. Our last hope is that once we move out of the city and get her into a calmer, “safer” environment, we can finally make some progress and actually desensitize her and really make some headway with the counter and operant conditioning techniques.

  11. Reblogged this on neilhutchins.positively Blog and commented:
    Amazingly written article on ‘Training a Reactive Dog’!

  12. This is all good information, but to be honest I’m am really tired. We have been using counter-conditioning with our reactive dog for about a year and I really don’t see an improvement. He does look at us when he sees another dog, but he still can’t tolerate being too close to one. We live in an area where it is common for an off-leash dog to come up to us on a walk and I’m sure those encounters give our guy set-backs, but it happens no matter how much we try to avoid it. Plus, we like to travel and it is very challenging to find someone to take care of him because of his issues. I have read countless articles and tried many, many techniques with him and like I said, I am tired and don’t know what to do next. We recently moved to Mexico which makes the issue of trainers and boarding even more challenging. (I should say that he is the best dog in the world when he’s in the house and with us.)

    • Hi Kerry,
      I totally understand. We have had Penny since July 2012 and have been trying to help her with her reactivity ever since. This morning, another dog came out of the apartment next door and she went “cujo.” We got trapped btw two other dogs being walked and she was way over threshold the entire time. When I got her home, she regurgitated her unchewed treats on me while I was wearing my work clothes. Then, she proceeded to follow me around whining because she knew I was leaving for work. And, this is with her being on anxiety meds for 6 weeks, which we are now changing because they are clearly having no effect. So, I really do understand the feelings of exhaustion, frustration and a bunch of other emotions!

    • I could have written that Kerry! sounds so much like our situation with Mea. she’s a 4 year old rescue dog,our first dog, we’ve had her just over a year. It’s exhausting, stressful and really upsetting. My heart’s in my mouth every time a “friendly” off lead dog decides to come bombing over. NOTHIng seems to work for us either. We’ve had to accept that we just have to avoid other dogs, and live with the filthy looks we get from all those lucky people with the “normal” dogs when ours decides to go nuts. LIke you, we couldn’t ask for a better dog at home, I can’t believe the extremes in her behaviour. We love her, and we’ll stick by her, but it doesn’t get any easier does it x

      • Badk9 Goodk9

        I’m all for positive reinforcement… I really am. If it works, I say go for it! I really believe that all the foundation work for dogs should be done through positive training…

        Now for the big BUT. The sad truth of the matter is, while some dogs can be countercondtioned with this protocol, a truly aggressive dog (and not one that is just reacting out of frustration) is very very difficult to rehab with purely positive methods. The proper application of a well timed punishment is essential. “Oh, but punishment doesn’t teach behavior it suppresses it!”. You’re damn right it does. Punishment is not meant to teach behavior (or reinforce it) it stops it. It should be used in concert with positive training. It’s like driving a car with only a gas pedal but no breaks if you don’t use punishment.

        Before people get all up in arms… punishment does not have to hurt. It just has to interrupt. It could be verbal if your verbal markers have enough meaning, a startling sound, a leash correction etc. Punishment does not equal ABUSE. Hitting your dog 5 mins after the fact is.

        People will say.. but I want to be humane! What’s inhumane is I see people trying to ‘train” their dogs for YEARS. One case i read was 8 years!! That’s over half her dog’s life! A few well time corrections could have decreased that by 7 years and 11 months probably. What’s inhumane is walking your dog at 5am and 11pm at night when no one else is because you have to avoid triggers. It’s you living in your dog’s neurotic world and not teaching the dog to cope with yours.

        I was on board this for a while.. until I lost it and found a trainer who used real world rewards and consequences for the dogs decisions. After a year and a half of hoping for the best every time we walked by a dog, the trainer taught us how to identify the triggers, how to guide my dog’s gaze away from those triggers (through leash and remote pressure) and then relieving pressure. If the dog decides to look back he gets a correction. Over time the dog starts to learn to make that decision on his own and after a month of this there have been barely any hiccups. My dog is happy that he no longer has to make those decisions on his own and is not ‘shut down’.

        So you guys can preach all you want about positive only training and force free training and counter conditioning your dog for years on end. I’m enjoy stress free walks after only a month. People who own these types of dogs often don’t have the time and patience and the one who ends up paying for it is the dog (often with their lives when the get surrendered)

        I’m not saying to you have to follow this approach (correcting the behavior… jeez what a concept)… but at some point, you’ll need to make a decision if the positive approach isn’t working for you.

  13. Thanks, Christine! I feel like it goes in streaks. I can be patient and work with him for months and then I just get to the end of my rope. Sounds like you have your hands full too. It’s comforting knowing that there are others out there going through this struggle. Best of luck to you.

  14. Good grief, this is depressing! I do not want to spend 8 years trying to train my reactive dog. I just want a nice dog, not a career as a dog trainer. This is truly dispiriting to me. I am probably going to rehome him. Janet

  15. Pingback: Living with a Reactive Dog: Interview with Sara Reusche | notes from a dog walker

  16. Pingback: Living with a Reactive Dog: Interview with Dog Trainer Sara Reusche | notes from a dog walker

  17. My dog-reactive beagle Charlie got so good at the Watch the World game that after a few months of being treated while we walked by a certain house with a large, barking boxer, he would intentionally slow down every time we walked by to ENCOURAGE the dog to bark so he could look at me to get a treat. My husband and I have been working with him for about 10 months now, and the changes are amazing. He is still happy/reactive when people come into the house, but walks have changed dramatically. He can watch dogs run and play at a distance without lunging and baying uncontrollably. Even if we are surprised by a dog on a walk, he will now only bark a few times before putting himself under control again (still with help from us). He no longer barks at the mailman (the mailman was pretty impressed).
    Janet, it sounds like a lot of work, but actually isn’t. We took a six-class course, and then all of our training happens at times when we’re already spending time with Charlie. We just carry treats and a clicker with us now.

  18. Pingback: Living with a Reactive Dog: Interview with Dog Trainer Sara Reusche « Dogs in Need of Space

  19. I totally agree. Work with a professional trainer. We tend to be emotional with our pets so it’s best to have an “objective” someone help us deal with our reactive dogs.

  20. If I knew how to manage my dog’s stress, talk the language or teach impulse control, I wouldn’t need to be reading this article. I was looking for a little instruction on how to get there.

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  22. Janet, I am in the same situation. With a ‘rescue’ dog that is always manic/wired, ‘over threshold’. About 15 months old , came from a ‘musher-breeder’ environment. It is exhausting and stressful to even take her for a walk . I am trying behaviour classes and, like ,many other comments here, they point out how difficult , expensive and emotional it can be. I think it sometimes best to admit when I am over my head with this dog. I’ve had a dog almost all my life , never experienced one as unnerving as her.

  23. Professional trainer is important if your dog is reactive or not behaving properly on certain instances. Reactive dogs should be properly handled on different occasions and we should teach them self-control. Teach them what to do and what not to do by rewarding them. Also we should keep them stress free both physically and mentally by keeping a check on as what triggering their stress.

  24. Great information! There is one more point I would to add. 1. Choose your dog’s name wisely and be respectful of it. Of course you’ll want to pick a name for your new dog that you love, but for the purposes of training it also helps to consider a short name ending with a strong consonant. This allows you to say his name so that he can always hear it clearly.
    2. Decide on the “house rules.” Before he comes home, decides what he can and can’t do. Is he allowed on the bed or the furniture? Are parts of the house off limits? Will he have his own chair at your dining table? If the rules are settled on early, you can avoid confusion for both of you.

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