What to Do if You Own a Reactive Dog


You’re walking out of your apartment and you approach the elevator. You press the button and you feel the anxiety start to build up as you hold your dog’s leash tightly, subconsciously pulling up, anticipating an explosion. The elevator bell rings; the doors open, and – like clockwork – your dog begins lunging, barking, biting and snapping its teeth. That’s just another day living with a reactive dog.

This is a common scenario for many of my clients in Chicago, and it creates an unhealthy feeling of anxiety whenever they take their dog out. Whether it’s waiting for the elevator doors to open, walking down a tight hallway, or turning around a corner and being confronted by another person and their dog, living with a reactive dog is optional.

Yes, you read that right. Optional.

You don’t have to live with the dog you own, and all you have to do is choose not to. But if you decide to live with them, you have to be proactive in addressing your dog’s reactivity.

You can’t ignore your dog’s reactive behavior issues.

Being proactive means facing your dog’s behavior issues head-on, as well as the stress and anxiety it brings.

That means no more crossing the street, no more trying to body block or cover your dog’s eyes and no more going out at weird hours so you don’t run into anyone.

All you need are the right tools and the discipline to follow through. Following through is essential to successfully address your dog’s behavior issues. But it’s also the hardest part, as it requires you to follow through every single step – from making the decision to stick with your dog, to finding someone to help push through uncomfortable moments during explosions, to being consistent until the very end.

What You Can Do to Address Your Dog’s Reactivity

The next step is to set out and find someone who can help you achieve your goals, and that means doing your research.

Don’t just go to Google, type in “reactive dog training,” click the first link, and run with it. Actually sit down and research your area’s dog trainers, their methods and find out whether or not they can actually help you get to your end goal. Remember, many people say they can help, but can they actually do so?

FREE TIP HERE: If they only use positive reinforcement methods, WALK AWAY. In my experience, I’ve never seen food-only methods work with any type of behavior case. I get ex-food-only clients all the time because it just didn’t work.

What to Expect When Dealing With Your Dog’s Reactivity

A lack of structure and discipline is the cause of reactivity 95% of the time. Once you incorporate those two things into a dog’s life, the next step is to look at how the dog behaves now that it has a concept of what is allowed and what is not allowed.

The first couple of weeks can be hit or miss with behavior – sometimes there’s less reactivity, other times there’s no reactivity but then a big step back or multiple flare-ups later down the line and sometimes there’s no change, which is OK. All of this information is helpful to me and I simply tweak my approach once I get feedback from the dog and the owner.

Generally, the first type of reactivity that goes away is reactivity toward humans. Reactivity toward calm dogs at a distance and then in passing tend to follow, but the last bit is the hardest.

Some Reactive Behaviors Will Take More Time to Correct

The remaining percentage of what dogs react to is over-excited dogs, other reactive dogs, or surprise run-ins with dogs. These are harder simply because – for many of them – you can’t work in a controlled setting with other reactive dogs nor can you plan ahead to have your elevator doors open and there be a dog sitting right there at the threshold.

These reactive behaviors tend to be the last to go, but as the dog becomes more disciplined and we address the moments as they happen, they too, go away.

Once you’ve had your first class (hopefully it brought considerable change), it’s easy to get caught up in the success and think your dog won’t have any more flare-ups. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. I’m anticipating that there will be a few explosions during the rehab period and I’m not bothered by it. This is actually where the real work is done.

You won’t be able to stop every moment of reactivity.

At least not in the beginning. But that’s normal. Even I can’t always stop reactivity completely the first day; but I know I will get it to stop at some point. I’m not worried about how soon I’m going to fix it, only that I will.

The key component is confidence. When a dog goes into reactive mode while being handled by me, I simply address the behavior and keep on moving. I don’t sulk in the fact the dog had a bad moment again. I look at it as another opportunity for me to teach the dog what not to do.

Getting stuck in the disappointment can hold many people back because they begin to lose confidence, and their body language shows it. They begin to think it’s a hopeless endeavor and give up, and that’s exactly why they cannot overcome their dog’s behavior issues.

Not every day is going to be perfect. There will be good days and bad days, just like with everything else. When starting out, the bad will outnumber the good, but you will begin to see the reversal at some point and the good will begin to outnumber the bad. Before you know it, the days of reactivity will be a thing of the past.

When am I done working on my dog’s reactivity?

This is a lifelong commitment; the day you begin to slip back into a comfort zone, your dog’s reactivity will come back. Your dog is an animal that is in constant communication with you and once it begins to see that there’s leniency, there’s a possibility that they’ll revert back to their old ways.

It’s like having a child; at no point does your role as their parent stop until the day you die. It’s the same thing for dogs. You are their leader from the moment you bring them into your home to the moment they pass.

Until next time.

Canine Perspective, Inc.

By |2018-06-14T21:10:40+00:00March 30th, 2018|Aggression, Behavior, Dogs, Q&A, Training|

About the Author:

Chicago's Premier Master Dog Trainer and Behavior Expert. Student of The Miami Dog Whisperer - Richard Heinz. Over 10 years of working experience with dogs. Professional Member of the International Association Of Canine Professionals.


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  2. […] neck or chest from a leash or harness, they pull away from it. Many behavior problems, like reactivity, are a result of the opposition […]

  3. Viola Woolcott December 21, 2019 at 9:00 am - Reply

    Hi there. I have a 21 month old full Dalmatian and he has a thing for Alsatians in particular. I have hired a trainer. She said lead only and new areas and loads of sniffing. Now my puppy drags me everywhere. And I hired a psychologist and he says no sniffing. No peeing as in marking every minute. And he says that my puppy has no.manners. He doesn’t know what to do and I’ve made him a spoilt brat. Hm…What now? Two different messages. Can’t let him off of the lead. Not sure what to do nits spoiling our days. Where have I gone wrong?

    • Jesus San Miguel December 31, 2019 at 3:05 pm - Reply

      Hi Viola, your dog needs structure. There is a time and place for everything. When walking in ‘Heel’ mode, your dog is working and at that time ‘no sniffing, peeing, pooping, pulling, anything that is not following your lead.’ When you release your dog ‘Break’ then your dog is not working or ‘clocked out’ and can then do dog-stuff. There has to be an on and off switch. There’s a time to play, a time to rest, a time to relax, etc.

      Your dog also needs to be corrected when it does a behavior you disagree with and needs to be trained via some kind of aversive (prong or e-collar) to get the best results. Try looking up Jeff Gellman on YouTube. Lots of free training videos and content to learn from.

      Best, Jesse

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