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Reactive Dogs 101, How to get started training your reactive dog.

Updated: Oct 8, 2023

Training a reactive dog is a journey like no other. Dogs who bark, lunge, and even growl at people or other dogs, require a lot from their owner. These questions always arise in our minds, “Why is my dog reactive? “Is my dog aggressive?” “Did I do something wrong?” Reactive dog training is difficult for sure, but it doesn’t need to be a mystery! We are going to talk a lot about dogs who behave in an aggressive manner around certain stimuli. Let’s start with discussing what reactivity is.

What is reactivity?

Reactive dogs are those who bark, lunge, growl, and otherwise over react toward certain stimuli. The most common factors usually include unfamiliar dogs and people but can also include bicycles, vehicles, children, and even the vacuum. What reactivity is not, is true aggression.

Dog Reactivity vs Dog Aggression.

Let’s talk a little about what aggression means. Aggression is defined as the intent to do harm. Dogs who intend to harm another will do so by approaching quietly because, after all, if they intend to hurt another why would they warn them first? They often take a stalking position and move in stealthy and quick. A reactive dog often does great with the people and dogs within their inner circle and often has problems when a barrier is placed between them such as a leash, fence, or window.

Why is my dog reactive?

When your dog barks and lunges toward another thing, what they are conveying, most commonly, is that they'd like that other thing to go away. They behave in this manor in an attempt to defend themselves and to try and stay safe. There are a few common categories here as well, let's outline them individually.

Beginner's Guide to Dog Reactivity

Fearful Dogs

Your dog may be afraid of other dogs or people. This could be because they lacked proper socialization as a youngster or because they were genetically predisposed to being fearful of other dogs. Your dog could develop a fear of other dogs as a result of a past traumatic experience such as a dog fight or even just a few bad greetings.

Dogs who are Frustrated

Sometimes dogs feel conflicted. They may really want to say hello but they are held back by the leash. When this happens your dog gets worked up emotionally and overreacts. We’ve all been there! That frustration can very quickly turn into an aggressive display of barking and lunging overtime.

Dogs with Anxiety

Dogs most often show anxiety based reactivity in conjunction with fear based as well. We commonly see anxious dogs develop reactivity especially in their second fear period, between about 6 months and 1.5 years of age, as they go through a nervous transition. Many dogs will go through this phase without issue and others need much more guidance. The anxious dog is worried about what will happen. Perhaps from a lack of experience, genetic history, passed trauma, etc.

Getting started with reactive dog training.

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes people make with their reactive dogs is that they jump right into the hard stuff. Trying to get their dog to ignore or even sit when faced with things that trigger their reactivity. While this may be helpful behavior for later on, your first priority should be management and prevention. Let’s dive into that.

Managing the environment in a way that prevents your dog from rehearsing the undesired behavior should be your first goal in training your reactive dog, and here is why.

Stress Reduction.

When you feel stressed are you likely to make your best choices and do your best work? When your dog barks at everything, they aren’t feeling great about that. In fact, stress poses a lot of long term effects that are detrimental! Read more on that here. Reducing their stress does 2 things. 1, they feel better. 2, they are less likely to react again when their stress level is low.


Not rehearsing, or practicing, the behavior is ideal obviously! No one wants their dog to behave this way. Each time your dog behaves in a reactive manor what happens? Do they get to say hello? Does the other dog stand there and wait while your dog settles down? No! You walk away from the trigger to help your dog calm down - and you should! However, your dog is learning that this behavior works very well for them which makes them more likely to behave this way again. Preventing your dog from being reactive makes it easier for them to learn new behaviors.

Implementing management and prevention.

First I want you to make a list of all the places and things that cause your dog to be reactive. Then, make a plan to manage their environment so they cannot practice their reactivity. Here are a few examples.

  • If your dog is leash reactive to dogs and people, avoid walking them in busy places or at all.

  • If your dog barks out the window try stained glass window cling so your dog cannot see outside and the light can still come in.

  • It your dog rushes visitors at the home, barking and growling, have them in a different room altogether for the duration of the visit.

These are just some basic ideas. Get creative and if you need more help, keep reading! I have an invitation for you at the end!

The hard work, Behavior Modificiation.

True behavior change takes time and patience. What it does not need is force, pain, or intimidation. Many trainers or so called “behaviorists'' recommend harsh techniques for our reactive dogs and I am just going to come right out and say it. They are wrong. All of them. And here is why. Think back to earlier, where we discussed why your dog is reactive. I want you to imagine yourself feeling frustrated, anxious, or even fearful. Now imagine that while you are feeling those emotions someone causes you pain or scares you.

Ask yourself. Will this solve your problem? Or, does it actually make your emotions worse?

Changing your dog's emotional state involves teaching them to associate their triggers with good things, not bad ones. Get yourself a clicker and learn all about clicker training (more here). Then, using your clicker you can easily teach your dog to associate their triggers with getting a treat from you! Click your clicker anytime your dog recognizes another dog, person, jogger, car etc. This will help them make the connection that those scary things cause them to get snacks. It's a win win situation! Now I won't lie to you. It’s not always easy but it’s a great place to begin! And when you need extra help, we are always here for you!

Join our free facebook group, a support group for reactive dog owners. Here you can share your story free of the judgement of others. Here you can ask for help, guidance, and compassion. Here you’ll find your reactive dog family! Click her to join now for free!

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