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San Diego Humane Society

Working With Dog-Reactive Dogs

Understanding Dog Reactivity

Dog-reactive dogs are those who respond to other dogs by becoming visibly aroused, pulling toward them, barking, growling and lunging. Reactivity is not necessarily a reflection of a dog’s sociability, as many dog-reactive dogs can show social behaviors toward dogs in other contexts or have a history of social behavior toward dogs. However, having a dog-reactive dog is stressful for both the owner and dog. Owners of dog-reactive dogs may subsequently avoid walks or decrease the amount of time they spend walking their dog or, worse, utilize training methods that further exacerbate dog reactivity.

The good news is that dog reactivity is a highly modifiable behavior, and dog training is fun. Through prevention, training and practice even the most “explosive” dog can learn to offer alternative behaviors when in the presence of other dogs.

We strongly suggest that you consider working with a local professional dog trainer to learn how to best utilize our fear-free and force-free training methods. Please see the info at the bottom of the page, which includes a link to our training classes.

Body Language

Reading and interpreting dog body language is a critical skill for preventing and responding to dog reactivity, as dogs do not speak human languages and instead communicate through body language and behavior. Being able to read and interpret dog body language can help you identify early indications of fear, anxiety, stress and frustration that precede reactive behaviors. To learn more about dog body language, utilize one of the many available resources about dog body language on YouTube.

Common Early Indicators of Fear, Anxiety, Stress and Frustration (FASF):

●      Pausing, freezing or becoming still.

●      Ears pushed forward.

●      Tension in body/facial muscles.

●      Tight, high tail wags.

●      Dilated pupils.

●      Heavy or fast breathing.

●      Jumping and pulling.

Preventing Dog Reactivity

Dogs get good at what they practice. The more your dog practices reactive behaviors, the more habitual and rigid this behavior will become. Keeping other dogs at a distance or avoiding them altogether will decrease the amount of opportunities your dog has to practice reactive behaviors and increase the likelihood of successfully teaching a new, alternative behavior.

Plan your route: Plan a quiet walking route to your destination. Walk at a time that other dogs are less likely to be out, such as early in the morning or later in the evening.

Be aware: Keep your eyes up and scan the environment as you walk. Be prepared to move if you spot another dog.

Create space: Cross the street or turn in another direction if you notice a dog approaching. Avoid other dogs or keep them at a distance.

Use a visual barrier: Block your dog’s view of another dog by moving behind a car, tree or wall. While you are behind a visual barrier, reward your dog for focusing on you and offering eye contact or encourage eye contact by getting their attention.

Responding to Dog Reactivity

If your dog becomes so reactive and aroused that they are no longer responding to you or taking treats, this is not a training opportunity. Determine what made responding to food and training difficult for your dog — often you are simply too close to the other dog — and prevent this situation from happening again in the future.

Keep moving: If another dog is in close proximity and your dog becomes reactive, just keep moving. Encourage your dog to move away by calling them, using gentle leash pressure, offering treats and stepping away. Move away quickly and create as much space between you, your dog and the other dog as possible. Move behind a nearby car, tree or wall and offer your dog treats.

Be patient: If your dog is not taking food and it is impossible or unsafe to create space between you and the other dog, hold your leash firmly and patiently. Wait for the other dog to pass or move away.

Teaching a New Behavior

By preventing dog reactivity and using force-free training techniques, your dog’s behavior will change over time. This process requires consistency and practice, both in preventing reactivity and practicing new, alternative behaviors. The training process may take weeks or even months, and oftentimes requires lifetime maintenance. Here are some other tips:

Teach an orienting sound: Make a kissy noise, clicking noise or any other noise that you can make consistently to encourage eye contact from your dog. When your dog offers eye contact, offer a treat immediately.

Practice the orienting sound in your living room, your bedroom, your backyard and various areas around the house.

When your dog begins to reliably respond to your orienting sound at home, begin to use it on walks every 5-10 steps to encourage eye contact and focus on you.

Reward voluntary eye contact: Anytime your dog offers eye contact at home or while you are out on a walk, immediately offer treats and/or praise and petting.

Opening and closing the bar: Many dogs become reactive at the sight of another dog, however most dogs can detect that another dog is in their environment, prior to seeing them. Therefore, this training method is best utilized in conjunction with the preventative methods outlined above. When practicing this method, remain vigilant and keep other dogs at a distance (roughly 20-30 feet), whenever possible.

When your dog becomes aware of another dog in their environment, through sights, sounds or scents, take a handful of high-value treats (pea-sized pieces of hot dog, cheese, chicken, etc.) and offer the treats directly to your dog’s mouth continuously one at a time, 1-2 seconds apart for as long as your dog is aware that another dog is present. Do not cue or ask for another behavior, simply offer treats. When the nearby dog moves away and out of view, stop offering treats.

Metaphorically speaking, when your dog is aware that another dog is present the bar is “open” and treats are offered continuously. When the dog eventually passes and moves out of view, the bar is “closed” and treats stop.

If your dog begins reacting to another dog during this process, follow the steps for “Responding to Dog Reactivity” above.

Punishment and Motivation

When a dog becomes reactive, they are likely communicating to us that they are uncomfortable, fearful or frustrated. If you attempt to punish reactive behaviors, your dog's reactivity may worsen as they learn to associate other dogs with punishment. Additionally, your dog may learn to stop communicating discomfort, fear or frustration and instead escalate to more obvious and threatening signs of emotional distress such as lunging, snapping or biting.

When you take your dog for a walk, there are many, many things that may compete for your dog’s attention. While walking, you may encounter interesting smells, sights, sounds, other people and other animals or unusual events. These are called competing motivations and they can make training more challenging, for both dogs and humans.

In order for your dog to begin offering any new behavior in the presence of competing motivators, you will need to develop a long history of repetition and practice. New behaviors are acquired through repetition and practice, over time.

Be patient. Be compassionate. And, keep training!

To find a local trainer, we suggest that you visit our website to view our Preferred Training Partners or sandiegodogtrainers.org.

Behavior Helpline: Contact our Behavior Team

For behavior questions, please contact our Behavior Helpline either by calling 619-299-7012, ext. 2244, emailing behavior@sdhumane.org or filling out our Ask a Trainer form.

Questions About Public Classes

San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.

Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, it will also strengthen the bond you share.

Our website includes a current schedule of training classes or call 619-299-7012, ext. 2398. 

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