HOW TO: Walk a Reactive Dog

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If your dog (or foster dog) is reactive, they lunge, bark, snarl or try to go after other dogs, or people, you have a challenging problem on your hands but it’s not impossible. The solution is 2 parts

  1.  Management — this is where you go out of your way to avoid the stimulus that upsets your dog in the first place. You will drive to a quieter neighbourhood or trail for your walk, you will go out during less busy times, you will walk in a different direction when you see the stimulus coming, and you will use your voice to ask people to keep away. This is how you MANAGE the dog’s reactivity by not letting them get into situations where they are reactive. You will actively making choices for them to avoid the *bad thing*.
  2. Behaviour modification — If your dog is fearful or stressed out by the presence of other people/dogs/unknown objects they will use all the tools they have to make those things go away — barking, lunging, growling, etc.  In order to change how they *feel* about the stimulus you need to create a new relationship with it by introducing *good things* when the stimulus is around.Although this involves treats, it does not mean that you can just start shoving treats in your dog’s mouth and see success right away. You will need to start playing games, and doing basic training like “look at me” or “find it” in a calm, stress-free environment. This is usually inside your home or yard.Everyday for 20-ish minutes you can play training games, and work on behaviours that are easy wins for your dog  (sit, paw, look at me, which hand is holding the treat, spin, etc) and this allows you to give them TONNES OF TREATS as a reward for being such a good girl or boy. I mean tonnes.  Become a cookie pusher.By working on these behaviours in a calm place you are not only building a bond with your dog but you are creating tools that will assist you in stressful situations. If you can get a dog to look at you, instead of fixating on the *bad thing* you can start the process of desensitization.

    It can also help you keep your dog distracted as an additional management tool when an unexpected jogger rounds the corner.

    To fully immerse yourself in the desensitization process you can choose to take your dog to a place that has the *bad thing* but at a distance, and let them look at it, and every time they disengage, or look at you instead, they get a treat. Maybe you practice your tricks within distance, but don’t engage with the *bad thing* directly. You’re trying to teach your dog that just because that *bad thing* is there, bad things wont necessarily happen — in fact, good things happen, like treats!


Reactive dog DOs

  • Do walk in less busy areas
  • Do pick new and exciting smelly spots for them to explore
  • Do bring a tonne of yummy treats as a reward and reward them often for engaging with you (even eye contact!)
  • Do advocate for your dog and tell people to stay away
  • Do work on training at home
  • Do keep aware of your surroundings

Reactive dog DONTs

  • Don’t yank on, pinch, hit or scream at your dog if they become reactive.
  • Don’t “flood” your reactive dog by putting them in a pack walk, or social situations, where they will be immediately overstimulated.
  • Don’t allow your dog off-leash in a public place, including dog parks.
  • Don’t try a training session when your dog is already over-stimulated (also called “over-threshold” or “red lining”
  • Don’t spend the walk on your phone

Don’t forget, your reactive dog is not GIVING YOU a hard time.  They are HAVING a hard time.