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Training a Reactive Dog: A Survival Guide

Working with a reactive dog can be really hard. Really, REALLY hard! But with the right perspective and the right tools, it can also be a hugely rewarding experience.

Training a reactive dog can be pretty draining, and you’re not alone in feeling this way! If you’re bogged down in worry and anxiety, it can be hard to stay focused and gain clarity on what kinds of situations would set your dog up for success.

When you have a reactive dog, it’s important to focus on what it means to enjoy our relationship with our dog, and learn how you can mutually support each other. Being able to look out for yourself and meet your own needs will allow you to meet your dog’s needs.

This guide will show you some tips for how to manage your reactive dog, how to keep your cool, and how to have some fun with your dog along the way.

Note: this is a guide with tons of pro tips about living with your reactive dog, but won't go into training details! If you're looking for help training your dog, please set up a consultation!

Supporting Your Dog’s Basic Needs

Knowing you’re meeting and supporting your dog’s basic needs can ensure that you’re starting off on the right foot. The five freedoms of animal welfare are a good guide to what all animals need in order to live a full life.

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst

  2. Freedom from discomfort

  3. Freedom from pain, injury, or disease

  4. Freedom to express normal behavior

  5. Freedom from fear and distress.

When you begin training your reactive dog, it’s especially important to make sure to address any underlying health conditions.

If your dog is in pain, they shouldn’t be training, and reactivity can sometimes (not always) be a symptom of something else. If you’re seeing a spike in reactive behavior that can be a sign of discomfort or pain, so that’s important to take note of as well.

Talk to your veterinarian to confirm that your dog is healthy, and does not have any underlying conditions that may be contributing to their behavior.

small leash reactive dog barking

Develop a New Perspective

Developing a new perspective can go a long way when it comes to training a reactive dog. When we look at how our dogs are behaving, we might fall into certain assumptions or certain ways of thinking.

Here are some perspectives you can adopt that can make life with your dog a little bit easier.

Learn to See Your Dog’s Behavior as “Information”

Sometimes you might worry that your dog’s behavior makes you seem like a bad guardian who can’t handle their dog. Shifting your mindset to one that is kinder to yourself allows you to better manage the stress you can feel around your reactive dog.

One way to do this is to think of your dog’s behavior simply as information.

This does not mean discount what your dog is feeling, or dismiss how they’re behaving. It’s just to help develop a mindset that a reactive incident doesn’t mean failure. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad dog guardian or that your dog is bad–it’s just more information you can use to help your dog learn and grow.

Start a Behavior Journal

And because behavior is information, you can record observations about your dog or make notes of your day. This could just be a simple tally of how many reactions happened in a day.

This allows you to start to see a trajectory of how you’re doing and give you more wins to celebrate. It can also allow you to set up better situations for your dog and allow you to be more prepared for certain hot spots on your walk and see where your dog is impacted by several stressful or overwhelming situations. Here you can also log the good days and the good moments that happen with your dog.

Here’s a link to a sample behavior log created by trainer San Choi: Behavior Data Sheet.xlsx. You can get less detailed than this if you want, by just keeping notes on your phone or writing a quick summary of the day’s challenges and the day’s wins.

“Make it fun or make it stop.”

This is a quote from Nan Arthur, author of Chill Out Fido! How To Calm Your Dog (a good book to read if you haven’t already). Research shows that once dogs are stressed they aren’t learning anymore, so keep things light until they aren’t. This mantra should be at the core of your training. You want to make sure your dog is enjoying the training or they won’t learn.

Training should be relaxing, safe, and fun. It should be another activity and way to achieve something with your dog and connect with your dog. Influence the environment by bringing your dog closer to having fun and away from situations that are stressful.

Learning is not Linear.

While you should always be taking thing one step at a time, learning is also not linear.

If your dog reacts to other dogs on walks, for example, you should start slow and go at the dog’s own pace. Sometimes your dog will

Even for humans and definitely for dogs, learning is not just one straight path to your goal. It can be full of ups and downs. When things are tough make them fun again, and sometimes that can just mean taking a break from training.

Embarking on reactivity training means you are your dog are both learning, so embrace training as something you can do with your dog. Give yourself and your dog space to enjoy the journey.

woman jogging with a happy on leash dog

Allow Your Dog (and Yourself) Time to Decompress

Decompression comes down to really finding ways of going back to enjoying our dog. It’s important to find ways to enjoy ourselves and for our dogs to enjoy themselves as well. Just like we have hobbies and activities in our own lives that help us decompress, dogs need the same thing!

Allowing your dog to do things that dogs love can help them release stress. Building camaraderie with your dog can look like cuddling with your dog, enjoying a beautiful location with your dog, taking them on a sniff walk, any other kind of enrichment activity can go a long way in helping your dog on their learning journey.

Maybe after a reactive episode you can take a longer way home with more sniffing, scatter treats on the grass for your dog

Remember that reactivity is not an obedience issue or your dog trying to be the alpha or make you upset on purpose, that’s all been debunked. But it’s about helping our dogs with how they’re feeling.

Sometimes obedience commands can make your dog feel more trapped in situations– maybe they’d actually like to move away from the situation, so making them sit for it can make it more frustrating. So when you have a reactive dog, you will actually want to focus less on obedience, per se.

When it Comes to Training, Less is More

Be Flexible

Train less, and allow flexibility. Even though working with a reactive dog takes a lot of time and energy, sometimes doing too much can backfire.

“Sometimes we can really over train and our dogs can get frustrated or tired. Make a list of things you are working on with your dog and pick 1-3 things each day, doing them for short periods of time (1-3 minutes). Allow for one or two no train days a week,” suggests Rachel Forday, a trainer and reactivity specialist.

1-3 minutes might not seem like much but it adds us to a lot in a week. It’s not going to make your training worse or let things slip.Just because we aren’t doing a lot of things all the time doesn’t make us failures.

Having predictability and routine is helpful, but keeping routines flexible can help our dogs cope better with changes and allow us to have time off when we need to. Take one or two no train days and randomize, maybe some days you might not walk if walks are becoming too stressful. You might also need a break sometimes, and if your dog expects a really strict routine, that could make things hard on both of you. Predictability is of course important to help your dogs feel safe and cared for: meal times, nighttime cuddling on the sofa, or other basic things, but you want your dog to expect some flexibility in their routine.

Sticking to Management is Valid

Management is preventing the rehearsal of undesirable behaviors. Sometimes you’ll just want to avoid triggers altogether. You don’t have to train with every trigger present. If you or your dog don’t feel up for it. It can also help your dog understand that they can move away instead of react. There can be days where you use a rented field to avoid everything.

Replace your dog’s need to do something with an appropriate outlet. Here are some examples of ways you can do that:

  • If your dog is counter surfing, place a snuffle mat on the ground to limit counter-surfing opportunities.

  • If your dog barks at the mailman, move the mailbox away from your front door.

  • Limit water before bed to reduce chances of midnight potty accidents for puppies.

  • Avoid popular walking locations and times if your dog reacts to other dogs or people. Walk in quiet environments.

If you feel like you don't have the ability to work on your dog's reactivity through training right now, it's 100% ok to stay in management mode for as long as that's working for you!

Celebrate All the Wins

Make sure you celebrate the wins, no matter how small they may seem. We all have a negativity bias and we tend to focus more on the bad than the good. This is normal, but you will have winds (big and small) and it will be hard to see progress and notice what’s working if you’re not celebrating the wins. At first it won’t seem like a lot of progress and then suddenly after lots of work, you’ll start to see it.

happy white dog walking on a leash

Allow Yourself Time Away from Your Dog

You want to have moments where you can reset and relax. If your dog has separation issues, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If your dog is happy on their own, that’s great too! Looking after yourself will help you help your dog. We strive to be compassionate for our dogs but we need to be compassionate to ourselves as well.

Don’t worry About What Other People Think

It can be hard at times and not everyone understands, but refrain from feeling the need to correct or punish your dog in front of other people for reacting. Find yourself a reactive or fearful dog community that gets it! It’s ok to be kind and soft with your dog. Try not to compare your dog to other people’s dogs, everyone has different learning histories and experiences.

If you want to learn or read more about reactivity, check out our resources here.

Need some help with your dog's reactivity or other behavior issues? Schedule a consultation.

This blog was based on two webinars on managing reactivity: One by San Choi, KPA-CTP (he/him) is the founder of Ruff Roll Academy. You can find San Choi’s webinar here: Reactive to Relaxed: Survival Skills for Training Your Dog. The second webinar was led by Rachel Forday, VSA-CDT, CCUI, (she/they) You can find Rachel’s webinar here: Reactive Reactivity: Easy Mode Activated


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