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How To Train and Calm a Reactive Dog

Reactive Dog Pulling on Leash

It can take you by surprise: you’re out walking the family dog when, all of a sudden, your pup starts acting out. Triggered, he growls, barks, and lunges at the dog across the street – making it hard to hold onto his leash!

Your heart is pounding, and your dog’s is too – what just happened? 

Dogs are most commonly reactive to other dogs and people, but they can also react to strange noises, vehicles, and sudden environmental changes. If your dog can notice it, anything can become a trigger.

The behavior of a reactive dog can be wild and chaotic, and as stressful as this experience is for you, it is just as stressful for your dog. A few memes I have seen say, “Your reactive or fearful dog isn’t giving you a hard time; they are having a hard time.” This is absolutely true.

Reactive Dog Lunging

The good news is that there are now more resources than ever before to guide and support families with reactive dogs.

Before we go further, I urge you to bring any dog showing reactivity to the vet so you can rule out any physical issues contributing to their behavior. If something physical is happening, it should be addressed first thing to get the best results from reactivity training.

What is a Reactive Dog?

A reactive dog overreacts to specific situations or stimuli. Behavioral changes may include barking, growling, lunging, and pulling.

However, they may also give off more subtle behavioral clues that precede their reactive behaviors, such as freezing, excessive panting, or becoming hyper-vigilant.

For example, an excited dog might see another dog on a walk and then bark once or twice. This type of dog can usually be called away if distracted by something in the environment. 

A reactive dog, in contrast, will likely bark or lunge at the sight of their trigger. Calling them out of their reaction is more challenging, if not impossible. 

A reactive dog is not necessarily aggressive. However, during a  reaction, a dog is in a state of high-level arousal, making them more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors than when in a calmer state.

List of Reactive Behaviors

Reactive dogs are often referred to as “going over threshold.” For an explanation about what this means, check out this article.

Why Do Dogs Become Reactive?

Most reactivity is caused by fear, though the reasons for it may not always be evident. Fearful responses can result from genetics, lack of or improper socialization, or even a past traumatic experience. 

Reactivity can also be caused by frustration. If a dog pulls to get to something (usually other dogs and people), the constant restraint can create frustration.

If you notice your dog does this, focusing on loose leash walking using positive reinforcement methods is vital.

How to Help a Reactive Dog

Dealing with a reactive dog can be frustrating, but it’s crucial not to compound their emotional state with additional anger, as this will only intensify it. Using the appropriate approach is crucial in such situations.

First, watch this video.

This trainer does an excellent job of making human associations that help us understand a reactive dog’s emotional state and why our training methods are vital to our training success.

With this in mind, any training plan that uses punishments to stop the reactivity symptoms will not address the underlying emotion causing the problematic behaviors.

You want to find a trainer to help you use counterconditioning and desensitization to change that behavior. 

So what does this mean? Let’s break these down:

  • Desensitization: the subject is repeatedly and gradually exposed to the trigger. 
  • Counterconditioning: The trigger is paired with something the subject innately loves (usually food, but it can be anything the subject loves).
Training Tips and Counter-Conditioning

With this in mind, any training plan that uses punishments to stop the reactivity symptoms will not address the underlying emotion causing the problematic behaviors.

You want to find a trainer to help you use counterconditioning and desensitization to change that behavior. 

So often, people believe exposing the dog to his triggers will help him “get over it,” but that is a dangerous game. This is called flooding.

In perspective, if you are afraid of snakes and I bring you into a room full of them, it won’t make you feel better about them – but you may decide not to trust me.

Check out this video for a great discussion about using desensitization and counterconditioning in dog training.

Setting Up a Training Plan

Because we know that most reactivity is caused by frustration or fear, the training plans you employ mustn’t use tools or exercises that will add frustration or fear. Doing so will only put your reactive dog over the threshold more quickly.

It may seem difficult to wrap your head around using positive reinforcement for dogs when trying to stop the behavior. See this video explaining how we use it for reactive or aggressive dogs.

It is crucial to find a trainer experienced in working with reactive dogs. Such a trainer can provide valuable guidance on recognizing when your dog is completely calm, which is vital when establishing the initial stages of your training program.

Look for a trainer who utilizes counterconditioning and desensitization techniques. And remember, don’t hesitate to ask for references.

Online programs can help you get started before you find a trainer. The education you gain in these programs will also help you search for a qualified trainer. 

Recommendation: K9 Turbo Training in Michigan offers an online course called Reactive Foundations

Until you have a solid training plan, your main goal will be to manage your dog’s environment, with the goal being to avoid triggers.

Basic Training to Help You Manage Your Reactive Dog

While you need training dedicated to calming your dog’s reactivity, some basic training skills can help you manage your reactive dog. 

Find treats your dog loves to use in these training sessions to reward for these behaviors.

Training Tips: Name Game, Reactive Dogs

Name Game

You may think, “Of course my dog knows his name!” But does he really? Do you get a response from your dog every time you say his name? Even when he is outside? With distractions?

Start by standing in front of him and giving him a treat when you say his name. We want him to hear his name and know something good is coming. As your dog catches on, you can start waiting for him to look at you before you give him the treat. 

To build reliability, you first want to build a response in a low-distraction environment. Then, you want to build response in slightly more distracting environments, like the backyard. As your dog is successful, keep adding distractions.

If your dog does not respond in a particular context, it is a sign that this environment is too much for his current level of training.

The goal here is to get your dog’s attention when you see something that might trigger him so you can create enough distance that he will not be pushed over threshold.

Emergency Turn

This cue will prepare your dog to make a 180-degree turn, so if you see something that might trigger your dog, you can turn him around and create distance quickly.

With your dog by your side, take a step forward. As your dog moves forward, say, “This way!” and then put a treat at his nose. Lure his head to turn toward you. Release the treat when the dog starts following you.

Please do not pull the dog’s collar; we want the dog to choose to move with you, so we aren’t adding stress to the act of making this u-turn.

Like with his name, you want to introduce and practice this in a low-distraction environment and then build a response with more distractions as your dog succeeds.

Find It!

This cue indicates to your dog that they should sniff the ground. This is useful if you cannot get far enough away from a trigger. It keeps them engaged with something else in the environment and encourages them to use their nose, which is calming for dogs.

I will also use this to reset a dog if life happens and they have a reaction. I take a few minutes to let them sniff. That is because sniffing will help slow down their heart rate, and it can calm emotions.

Here are the steps to train this.

  1. Say, “find it.”
  2. Toss a handful of treats (or even kibble) on the ground. This exercise is fun on grass because your dog must use their nose more.
  3. Help your dog find all of the treats if needed. Once your dog gets used to this game, he will sniff out the treats more efficiently. He just has to figure out the game.

Managing a Reactive Dog

Preventing reactions before you can create a training plan tailored to your dog’s triggers will be an important part of reducing reactivity. Management is key.

Do your best to identify your dog’s triggers. As mentioned earlier, we often see dogs react to people or other dogs. But a dog can be triggered by many things, including sounds or sudden environmental changes.

This information will help you and your trainer formulate a plan, but it will also help your management plan. Right now, your goal is no exposure to these triggers. 

Here are a few tools that can help to prevent your dog from being triggered at home:

  • Window Privacy Film will prevent your dog from seeing triggers outside the window while still letting sunlight in.
  • Privacy Screens are helpful if you have a chain link fence. It will block your dog’s view of the street and its distractions.

If your dog reacts to other dogs or people, you may wonder, “Where do I walk this dog??”   

I often use “off-season” sports fields. It is November, as I write this, so I would search for baseball parks right now. On the weekend, the parking lots at office complexes are empty, and church parking lots can be a great choice during the week.

Where to Walk Reactive Dogs: Cemeteries, Parking Lots, Sports Fields

My colleagues like to use cemeteries. They are quiet, and you usually can see well in advance if another person pulls in, allowing you to get your dog far enough away so they can focus.

You can also rent out private fenced yards of various sizes through Sniffspot that allow your dog to get out and exercise.

The Importance of Enrichment In Your Reactive Dog Management Program

Enrichment is necessary for the overall behavioral health of all dogs, but it can be especially beneficial for reactive dogs. Enrichment exercises can give them an outlet for excess energy and can even regulate their heart rate and mood. It is a vital part of your overall management plan.

You want to create a safe space at home where your dog has many enrichment opportunities. Extra enrichment will help burn some of that excess energy and build confidence. 

Enrichment can include puzzle toys and Kongs – The Kong Wobbler tends to be a favorite of most dogs because they can knock it around and have fun while working for their food. 

But enrichment is not just food. Here are some other ideas to help you create a more varied enrichment plan for your dog:

Auditory and Visual Enrichment: Visual enrichment can include looking out the window or putting on the TV. These can often trigger reactive dogs. However, auditory enrichment can be beneficial. It can help mask naturally occurring sounds your dog may be reacting to.

In addition, some studies show classical music can be calming. This particular study dogs were more likely to sleep when classical music was played in a kennel.

Other studies suggest the tempo of music affects the dogs, and dogs that are only exposed to classical music may habituate to it (which may reduce its calming effect).

So varying it with other low-tempo music, such as reggae, can be beneficial. iCalmPet has created a speaker preloaded with music to help soothe dogs.

Olfactory Enrichment. Dogs love to use their nose. We are not just tapping into their natural behavior. This study suggests that letting our dogs sniff lowers their heart rates. Encouraging your dog to sniff can help them calm down.

See our article on Getting Started with Scent Work to read about games you can try with your dog.

I also like to introduce new scents to my dogs often. You can start with some dog-friendly essential oils. In fact, Just Relax makes a botanical calming spray that provides essential oils to calm dogs! Spray them in random areas of the house where your dog can sniff them and get away if he wants to.

Physical Enrichment. Giving your dog physical outlets is essential, too. We have discussed finding places for walks, but when they can’t be walked, they will need an outlet that won’t expose them to their triggers. Playing with toys is a great option. A flirt pole is one of my favorite toys to keep my dog engaged. 

Cognitive Enrichment. Training gets dogs to use their brain. The key to making it enriching for your dog is ensuring training is frustration-free, which is why positive reinforcement training is so necessary. So when training with your dog, break it down and make it easier if they are struggling to get a behavior. If your dog is new to training or you have struggled with training, start with the “Name Game” mentioned above.

Enrichment Types

When Can I Expose My Reactive Dog To Their Triggers?

Dog reactivity training involves various aspects, as each dog is unique. Therefore, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.

Collaborating with a trainer to master counterconditioning and desensitization techniques will provide valuable insights to address the specific needs of your dog. Some key questions to consider include:

  • What distance is suitable between the other dog or trigger?
  • Which environment facilitates the most effective training for my dog?

By addressing these queries, you can navigate the training process more efficiently and achieve the desired results.

How Do I Take My Reactive Dog To The Vet?

For more information about preparing for your reactive dog’s vet visit, watch this video.

In Conclusion

Having a reactive dog can feel overwhelming.  But with management and the right training plan you can help your dog, and yourself!

Finding a trainer who knows how to use counterconditioning and desensitization is essential to help guide you on your journey. Also, know that every training plan will have twists and turns. So patience is key, but so is being able to learn from your mistakes. 

Additional Resources

K9 Turbo Training’s YouTube Channel – Reactivity Playlist

The New Click to Calm: Solutions for All Dogs

By Emma Parsons

Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out

by Laura VanArendonk Baugh

Control Unleashed Reactive To Relaxed

by Leslie McDevitt

Authors

  • Devene Godau, CPDT-KA

    Devene obtained a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University and spent several years working in marketing. However, when she adopted her first greyhound (who came with some behavior challenges), she began researching ways to modify her problem behavior and found help with a local dog trainer. She became a volunteer assistant to learn more, and eventually started teaching classes and conducting private lessons. She currently trains puppies full-time to become scent detection dogs. Devene lives in Michigan with her husband and kids, as well as 4 dogs, 2 cats and a tortoise.

  • Morgan Messick

    Morgan Messick is a content creator for Dog Training Newbie, a website that is all about dog training tips, techniques, news, and more. Morgan has two dogs, three cats, and a lovely wife who support her passion for writing. Morgan loves reading murder mystery novels and listening to true crime podcasts in her spare time. She is also passionate about supporting small businesses by creating dynamic content that customers want to see.

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