Working with Reactive Dogs

Does your dog bark and lunge on leash when he passes “triggers,” such as another dog? He may be a reactive dog! Working with a reactive dog may seem intimidating at first, but it is absolutely achievable with a little bit of patience and understanding. Below, you will find the first few steps to helping your dog feel safe and comfortable when faced with his triggers.

1. Canine Body Language.

Dogs may not be able to communicate with us using words, but they do communicate with us with their body- we just need to know what we’re looking for! A dog will give a variety of signals when he is nervous , including licking his lips, ducking his head with his ears back, looking away with wide “whale” eyes, or lifting his front paw. Understanding what our dogs are saying is the first step in training a reactive dog. Watch this video to learn more about canine body language.

2. Trigger Stacking and Threshold

You know when you’re having a bad day, and that one little thing that normally wouldn’t bother you totally sends you over the edge? Dogs feel the same way when faced with multiple stressors. While something like walking by another dog may not bother him on a good day, when he is already nervous because he is in a new place and a loud garbage truck just passed by, seeing that other dog is just too much. When a dog hits “threshold,” we see those reactive behaviors such as lunging and barking. Watch the video above for an in depth explanation of Trigger Stacking and how it can quickly send our dogs over threshold.

3. Using the right tools.

Having the right tools makes all the difference in both you and your dog’s comfort and success while training.

Our number one recommendation is the Freedom Harness– it will change the way you feel about walking your dog! With both a front and rear clip, this harness gives you two points of contact for both safety and control. It adjusts to fit comfortably on dogs of all shapes and sizes, and makes it easy to stop the dog from pulling. Handlers have also had success using a Halti Head Collar, though we find that this is a better option for dogs who already do not pull on leash.

Second, muzzles are an important tool for keeping both dog and handler safe in sticky situations. We especially love the Baskerville Muzzle for both it’s style and durability. The basket style allows the dog to pant and drink water, while the forehead strap ensures that the muzzle cannot be pulled off. We know that using a muzzle may seem a bit intimidating at first, but rest assured that the muzzle is not a punishment- in fact, when muzzle training is done properly, it can be a ton of fun! Just like with a leash, the dog will associate the muzzle with having an awesome time- it isn’t scary at all! Here’s a great video to get you started on muzzle training your pup.

Third, we want to make sure that your hands aren’t so full that you lose focus. Using a PetSafe Hands Free Leash– a leash that hooks around your waist- and a PetSafe Treat Pouch to hold all of your training treats will free up some space and allow you to focus more closely on what you need to do.

Last, for dogs who practice reacting to triggers through the windows at home, placing Window Film over the windows will block the dog’s line of sight while still allowing in sunlight.

Interested in trying any of these tools? You’re in luck! We have all of them available for purchase- we’ll even ship them straight to you! Simply email to place your order.

4. Counter Conditioning.

When dogs react to a trigger, they are typically acting out of fear. To help our dogs feel comfortable around triggers, we need to change the way that they think about their trigger. We do this by teaching our dog to associate the things that he finds scary with positive things, like extra yummy treats or a super fun toy.

In the video above, you can see our friend Monroe, who is reactive to people, other dogs, and mops. Monroe is keeping busy with a treat toy while people walk by and another dog barks- this reinforces a positive behavior, staying calm and quiet, rather than reacting to her triggers.

5. Keep it Fun!

Remember that training any dog is an ongoing process. Sudden positive changes in behavior do not happen overnight, and we shouldn’t expect them to. When we allow ourselves to get discouraged, to stress about not making “enough” progress or push our dog too far because we are impatient, progress tends to stop. Remember the ultimate goal- creating a happy dog- and do your best to make the process as fun as possible for both your dog and yourself!

In the video above, you’ll see pretty Miss Sadie and her mom playing with a flirt pole. Before they began training, Sadie was so afraid of loud noises that she couldn’t be within 50 feet of them without reacting. Watch as the bus passes by in the video, and Sadie stays focused on the toy. Like Monroe, Sadie is learning to associate what used to be a scary event with something positive- and, most importantly, she is having FUN!

Need help with your reactive dog? Check out our Explore More, Bark Less class.

Author: Margo Butler, CPDT-KA



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