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Following Your Instincts: The Reactive Dog

Author: Sarah Tulicki | Date: February 27, 2014

Recently after one of our many big snowstorms, I was out walking my coonhound mix and she started barking at a snowman…seriously. Now I knew when I took her in a year and a half ago that she was reactive, but I honestly didn’t realize the magnitude of it. She would bark at other dogs, people, balloons, lawn decorations, anything that would move unexpectedly and, apparently, snowmen. So when this month’s blog came around I realized that there are many people who have a reactive dog and don’t understand why their dog behaves this way, let alone what to do about it. So I decided to continue my Following Your Instincts series with some pointers on reactive dogs.

Dealing with this behavior can be very emotional, both for you and your dog. You worry if your dog will end up hurting someone. You find yourself becoming self-conscious about the looks people give you. The look that says, “Can’t you control your dog?” or “Have you ever heard of training?”. You know what a sweetheart your dog is at home and you just wish everyone could see your dog the way you do. Well, I am here to say that I understand, and I have felt the hopelessness you feel; I have also made it through to the other side. My cattle dog mix used to be reactive, and I eventually got her to the point where I was able to bring her with me to the pet store where I used to work. I think it is important to understand what is going on with your dog on an instinctual level. This can help you relate to your pooch and ease some of your stress.

Understanding the behavior.

In general, these dogs are shy and/ or fearful dogs and they bark and lunge because of that fear. This may not seem to be the case when these dogs look confident enough to fight off a grizzly bear, but in reality that is what they are doing. All animals have a fight or flight instinct. Unfortunately, for a leashed dog the “flight” option is not actionable, so they must go to “fight. Of course, they may not have any intention of fighting; if they just look tough and vicious, then what is scaring them might go away and pick a fight somewhere else. If this happens to your dog, then he learns that this tactic works, and continues to employ it.That’s why you should follow these steps:

  • Set up situations where your dog can be successful and avoid situations where he can’t. This means if your dog is reactive to other dogs, don’t force him to walk past another dog on your walks. Instead, turn around and walk away before your dog has a chance to react. If your dog does react, if he barks at the other dog and the other owner walks her dog away and disappears around the corner, then your dog will feel that he “won” and scared off the other dog. It is important in these early stages that your dog doesn’t get this kind of reinforcement for the behavior we are trying to eliminate. However, if you can set up a situation where (for example) you can follow at a safe distance behind someone else with a dog, then you can reward your dog for good behavior. It is always easier to shape behavior by rewarding the good and avoiding the bad.
  • Always take treats with you on walks. Always! I know this can be difficult to remember, especially if you take your dog on multiple walks every day, but imagine if your dog does something successfully and you don’t have a reward for him. Praise is nice, but treats tend to make good behaviors really stick. Keep in mind if you don’t use the treats there is no harm done, just don’t miss an opportunity to reward good behavior by not having treats with you.
  • Teach your dog what to do in place of the undesirable behavior. I really like a “watch me” command for this, but there are other options. The idea is that after some practice your dog should be able to look at another dog and look back at you instead of barking. It is a simple command to teach. When your dog looks up at you, mark the behavior either by using a clicker or saying “good”, followed by a treat. This teaches your dog that good things happen when he looks up at you. Next you’ll have to name it. I like word such as “watch me”, “look”, or “focus”. Wait for your dog to look up at you say this word, and reward as before.
  • Distance is your best friend. What I mean by this is that every dog has a certain threshold. They will only be able to get so close to another dog before they let loose. So keep them at a safe distance, ask them to look at you, and reward. With enough practice they should start looking at you when they see another dog instead of barking.

Keep in mind that there can be many different reasons for dog reactivity, and you should get professional help. The training process for working with a reactive dog can be long and tedious, but the steps mentioned above are good starting points for this process.

Let us know if there is anything cute or funny your dog reacts to, like their reflection in the mirror (or even a snowman)!

You can catch up on the Following Your Instincts series here and here.


I learned valuable tips and tricks that have helped my dog and I create a more pleasant home environment.

Nicole P. | View Client Testimonials


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