Ask The Dog Trainer

Ask The Dog Trainer: 10 Tips to Improve Reactive Dog Behavior (Part 2)


by: Nance Moran, MS, and Dana Langley, Co-Owners Life Is Dog, Inc

Welcome back to our reactive dog family! Remember, your dog is great, let’s make your walks better! In this article we offer the final five tips for improving your reactive dog’s behavior. You can read the first five reactive dog behavior tips here. 

Let’s jump right into the final five tips:

6. You will need to learn how to calmly move away from the dog, person or object and keep our dog’s attention on you. Distance is your most effective management tool and learning the following techniques will help you;

  1. Emergency get away techniques: learn to do a getaway u-turn away from the stressor and gain distance under more control. Distance is your best friend.  
  2. Distraction techniques: teaching and using cues to interrupt before the dog is able to react. 
  3. Practice loose leash control: tightening up on the leash may cause your dog to think there is something to fear and also can make him feel more unable to take flight away from the dog, person or object causing the fear.

Emergency Get-a-way 

You have to learn to calmly get your dog’s attention and get away when your dog may become reactive in situations like when a handler and dog are coming straight toward you on the sidewalk. Do this by learning an emergency get-a-way as follows;

Step 1. Practice loose leash walking forward with your dog on the left side of you in alignment with your left leg in a heel position. 

Step 2. After walking forward several steps, and as you are walking forward, say “with me” or let’s go” to get your dog’s attention and turn to the right and go in the opposite direction. Be sure to mark and reward as you turn a few times as is possible and again as your dog stays with you.  

Step 3. Practice this inside, then once successful your driveway or yard or a quiet place. 

Step 4. Try the sidewalk when not busy. 

Step 5. Use this to get out of Dodge fast!

Positive Interrupter

When you need to get your dog’s attention and interrupt before they have a chance to get big and barky, use a cue such as a kissy noise or “pup pup pup” in an excited tone to distract and interrupt your dog so he looks to you. Practice the following exercise;

Step 1. Toss a treat 1-2 feet away

Step 2. As he eats the treat make your interrupter cue (kissy noise or other but be consistent) 

Step 3. When your dog turns to look at you, mark and treat. 

Step 4. Repeat and practice inside, then outside when successful.

Practice loose leash walking

In order to have a dog who senses you are relaxed, your leash should always be hanging slightly loose in an arc-like a smile. Relax, remember to breath and be calm. You are an extension of the leash and your dog can detect when you are stressed or worried. Do not let your dog pull you and don’t pull back either. 

An easy walk or front clip harness or gentle leader can be very helpful in supporting the management of a puller but you must make it a good experience so read the instructions and watch the brief video that the gentle leader provides. 

If your dog pulls, turn and go in the opposite direction from where they are pulling you toward. You see if they pull and are successful in getting where they want faster, they will repeat this behavior as it works for them.  Be consistent without fail and plan potty breaks so you don’t feel rushed and allow the pulling when in a hurry. 


7. Teach your dog self-control

For self-control, we implement a “Say Please” protocol as Grisha Stewart: explains at home creating structure and relationship building where the owner learns to lead and the dog learns to love to follow. This is helpful in self-control and makes the dog aware they should look to you for leadership and guidance in any situation.

Use every day life rewards to teach your dog that good things come to those who wait or say please.

Your dog will need to know sit or down first. Once learned, ask your dog to sit for everything you can think of that is rewarding. Make a list of everyday events that lead to a reward.

For instance;

  • Sit for putting the leash on – leads to the reward of going outside or for a walk
  • Sit or down and “wait” until given the “OK” to go through a gate or door – leads to self-control and no door dashing to the outside which can be dangerous 
  • Sit for petting or a treat-your dog learns the rules of saying please for pleasant rewards and attention 
  • Sit or Down and “wait” until given the “OK” for the food bowl presented or water bowl presented – a patient and attentive pup get good things! 
  • Sit or down for ball throw or toy-leads to fun play with you!

Teach your dog to an alternative behavior to reactive behavior.

We work on a substitute alternative behavior (automatic attention and sit), these are put in place to be the go-to behavior for your dog instead of barking, growling and lunging.

Your dog should offer an automatic sit (offering the behavior without a cue) and automatic attention or “look at me,” (again offering the behavior without a cue), He offers these behaviors automatically when he observes the dog, person or object that causes the reactive behavior.

First, work on getting your dog’s attention by;

Step 1. Toss a treat away just 1-2 feet let your dog see you do it and go and get it 

Step 2. Your dog will turn to look at you and split second he does mark and then treat him close to your knees.  

Step 3. You can get their attention by making a kissy noise or saying “pup pup pup” in an encouraging voice. 

Step 4. Next try this when your dog is distracted, make the kissy noise or other to get your dog’s attention and mark for looking at you and reward by your knees. 

If your dog knows the sit command ask your dog to sit then move and repeat five times Then, wait patiently on the sixth time for your dog to automatically sit, without a cue, then mark and reward. This can feel like a long time but be patient and wait for the sit. Practice automatic sits in all locations inside then try outside. Do this when walking as well when you stop mark and reward the automatic sit.

Finally, put these two together to mark and reward an automatic sit with attention focused on you. Practice from a distance from other dogs and even better to practice with a trainer who can set up the environment with the right dog to help. 

It should look like this;

Your dog looks at the other dog, looks at you and then sits. You mark and treat at the sit. 

Teach your dog that when he sees another dog to look at you and then sit on his own when confronted with something instead of responding with a tantrum. We want the dog to learn to make good decisions in the absence of your instruction. Automatic responses can override instinctive behaviors like lunging etc.

9. Teach your dog to tolerate or even like seeing the dog, person or object by working with a professional on counter-conditioning and desensitization techniques.

You should start in a controlled environment, with purposeful step-by-step exposures that are below the point at which the dog goes over his threshold. It might be necessary to start without a dog and hear just the leash jingling and mark and reward right away before the dog can react. You will learn to mark and reward the exposure with high-value treats or rewards that lead to changing the dog’s emotional response.  This builds up to eventually by you adding real-life exercises outside in real-world distractions.

Build up slowly upon being successful in the exercises and marking and rewarding before your dog has a chance to go to reactivity. This takes careful planning for the right environment and the right helpers. We do suggest you work with a professional dog trainer experienced in dog reactivity. 

A few simple exercises you can begin with are;

Starting exercise

Jingle a collar mark and reward immediately. You will need to do this repeatedly and randomly not at the same interval. If your dog is successful not barking growling or lunging move on to the next step.

At what distance can your dog be successful?

Learn what distance your dog can be successful at and start there. It may be 20 ft, 40 ft, 100 ft or more from a dog. To assist you, you will need a well-behaved dog who doesn’t bark or pay much attention to your dog,  what we call, a neutral dog. You will need to prevent surprise visitors or passers-by so be careful to pick a quiet controlled place.

Very brief exposures set up to work below any signs of reactivity and mark and reward

With Ben, a dog who couldn’t be approached by another dog, we started by doing very brief exposures (15-30 seconds maximum) at first where Ben simply looked in the other dog’s direction at that instance we marked the look and rewarded him. We did this for about 30 seconds or less and then we would go behind a barrier such as a wall, tree or car to get a brief break and we would stop the treats to keep the treat associated with him seeing the other dog.

We took one to two minute breaks and repeated the exercise five times. If at any time Ben’s body language advanced to reactivity and we couldn’t get his attention back on us with a kissy noise or pup pup pup and walking backward (see number 6 for techniques on distraction) for more distance we then knew we were working too close to the other dog. Distance is your new best friend and best weapon to calm your dog. We went behind the barrier again and started after a break working further from the dog by increasing your distance by 10 feet for the next exercise.

If he still was not successful we would have continued to increase your distance. When we find the area we can work from we would start a few steps further back from that distance the next time we would do a session on a different day.

Go slow!

We moved closer to the other dog with Ben very slowly! We can’t stress this enough, don’t move too quickly. When we were successful at 20 feet we would then start the next session with Ben at 22 feet and then we would go forward two feet at a time and work from there for several brief exposures. If we were not successful and saw body language that clued us in that he was about to go overboard, we would then increase our distance again by two feet, if we were successful at the new distance, we would stay there for remaining exposures of this session. 

Always start a few steps back from your successful distance the next time to set your dog up for success and then you can move closer after several successful exposures. 

10. Stay committed and learn to be patient

Ben’s owners understood the commitment required from all members of their family and that Ben’s journey is a lifelong program and takes love and patience but the impact of making these changes will greatly help them and build a stronger and happier relationship with Ben. They understood and enforced the relationship of seeing the other dog with a mark and reward. 

With these tools, you can enjoy and improve your handling and make your dog progressively better and much more comfortable. Your dog will anticipate seeing a dog in earnest of a reward! Ben said hey, I saw a dog, I’m sitting and I’m looking at you! Where’s my cookie? 

Small helpful tips;

  • Have patience and practice breathing or two-minute meditation yourself prior to handling your dog 
  • Carry high value treats with you (chicken, steak, hot dog, cheese, peanut butter are examples)
  • You must mark and then reward after your dog sees the trigger timing is critical do not have treats exposed 
  • Put your hand with treats behind your back to prevent your dog from focusing solely on the hand with treats

Happy trails to you and yours and remember, Your dog is a good dog, let’s make your walks better!

In case you missed part one on reactive dogs, read it here

You Might Also Like