Walking Your Reactive Dog

Walking your reactive dog can be a daily struggle but there are ways to help manage your dog’s behavior.  When I walk my dog I let other dog owners know she is not dog-friendly.  Most of the time they are understanding and accommodating and will wait for us move to the side. And then there are the others who say, “no it’s okay, my dog is friendly!” Yes your dog is adorable and I’m sure really fun to be around but my dog was attacked before and she is terrified of your friendly dog.


Understanding the Root of the Behavior

Barking, lunging, and snapping may seem like aggressive behaviors but they may be rooted in fear. Your dog is simply reacting to an emotion he is feeling, because he or she does not feel safe.

Reactivity in dogs is far more common than you might think. With more dogs being adopted from shelters and as our lives become busier with work, school, friends and family we often times skip the important socialization needs of our dogs.

Some dogs may be overly friendly with people, and react aggressively to other dogs they see while walking, or vice versa. No matter what sets your dog off, there is hope that can help keep your dog and the public safe from possible bites and make your walks more enjoyable together.


Eliminate the Trigger

If you walk your dog at 8 am and every other dog owner is out with their pup at this time you may want to see if you can adjust your daily routine and walk your dog at 7 am before all of the neighbors are out.  The fewer dogs they encounter the calmer they will be.

Dogs may exhibit aggressive behavior while on a leash because they consider it to be restrictive, and feel as if they cannot defend themselves with the leash on. If you have a back yard take advantage of it and exercise your pup there instead of walking them around town on a leash.

If your dog is fearful of other dogs do not take him tor her to the dog park to try to “get them used to other dogs.” Forcing them to dive-in and confront their fear head on may cause them more stress and anxiety and actually set them back.

Start slowly and introduce them to a friendly known dog with counter conditioning, rather than dropping them at doggy daycare and trying to force socialization.


Counter Conditioning

The Pavlov dogs are quite famous. These dogs had their saliva production measured when exposed to food, however there was a twist. Before the food was presented to the dogs, a bell was rung. This was done many, many times. Eventually, the bell would ring and even without the presentation of food the dogs’ saliva measurement still increased. They were conditioned with the bell to expect food and became happy when they heard the bell.

Counter condition uses a similar idea, but you are changing the way the dog feels about an object, animal, or situation that he fears. For example, if a dog is scared of a loud noise you can use counter conditioning to help him lose his fear, gain confidence and even create a positive emotion that goes along with the previously scary noise.


Consistency is Key to Success

When counter conditioning, start slow and easy. You want to set your dog up for success. Make the unwanted behavior difficult and the right one easy. Stay as far away from his trigger as you can while keeping it within his view. Ask for his attention and every time he gives it to you, give him a high value treat such as real meat or cheese.

Keep these sessions short, fun and always end on a good note, like a walk away from his trigger or a game of fetch. As you and your dog grow more confident, get closer to his trigger and ask for his attention. Just like before, reward him every time he ignores the trigger and looks at you. If he begins to react, you moved too far too fast and need to back up some until he is comfortable again. Simply say “Lets go!” and turn in the opposite direction. Reward him when he turns with you!

Staying consistent with regular session and high value rewards is what will help your dog overcome this unwanted and potentially dangerous reactive aggressive behavior. Never force your reactive dog past his or her threshold of acceptance as it will push you back many steps and your pooch will lose some trust in you.

These training exercises not only help your dog realize that ignoring the trigger is a rewarding thing, but looking to you for guidance is also the right thing to do.


Be a Role Model

Be patient with your dog. You will need to move as his pace when counter conditioning reactive behaviors on leash and stay consistent with your own behavior as well.

If you are out on a walk and see a dog approaching and you become nervous that your dog will exhibit reactive behaviors your dog will pick up on your nervousness and exhibit the behaviors that you are trying to avoid! Stay calm and help your dog manage his or her fears. You will be able to depend on his behavior when he knows he can depend on yours.



Reactive dogs are scared! They bark, lunge, snap at strangers or other dogs because they feel like they need to protect themselves. It may seem hopeless, but most dogs can be counter conditioned to accept the events or objects causing the reactivity, to ignore these triggers, and enjoy being out and about.


Looking for more dog related tips and tricks?

Check out other dog related articles here:  The Informant – A Magazine for Dogs


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