Training A Reactive Dog


This article is written by Pet Circle's qualified veterinarian, Dr Brittany Ward, BVSc

Has your dog ever lunged at another dog on a walk? Or freaked out at a passing cyclist? Maybe they don't like people in hats? It's possible you have a reactive dog! Anyone who's ever owned a reactive dog understands how frustrating, and embarrassing, it can be. Don't worry, you aren't alone! Many dogs are reactive, including my own. The good news is, there are ways to manage and reduce this behaviour so that your dog can still live their life to the fullest!

What is a Reactive Dog?

Many people assume that a reactive dog is an aggressive dog, but this isn't true. Reactivity is not the same thing as aggression, but it can escalate to aggression in some circumstances.

• Reactivity is an over-reaction (often shown as barking and lunging) to a certain stimulus or situation and often originates from a place of fear. Reactive dogs often have specific triggers.

• Aggression is hostile and threatening behaviour towards an individual or group. While aggression can be fear based, it is usually the result of an unmet need, such as territorial, possessive, maternal, protective or pain associated aggression. It can be directed at anything that threatens that need.

Reactivity is almost always a fear-based response.

Is Reactivity Breed-Specific?

The short answer is no. Any dog has the potential to become reactive.

Reactivity can be the result of genetics, poor or incorrect socialisation, inadequate training (especially for self-control), a previous bad experience or a combination of these and other factors. A well-known example of reactivity is a dog that lunges at other dogs following a dog attack.

In saying that, there are some breeds that do seem to present with reactivity more frequently. These tend to be working dogs that are now living a pet lifestyle and aren't fulfilling their instincts for work. An example is herding dogs, like An example is herding dogs, like Australian Shepherds and Cattle Dogs who were bred for working livestock, often with few people or dogs around, and may not be getting their energy needs met. Guarding dogs, like German Shepherds, that aren't properly socialised as puppies are another example of prone breeds.

Reading a Reactive Dog's Body Language

Dog body language chart

Credit: Positive K9 Training

Dogs use body language as their biggest form of communication. Most owners will associate reactivity with the barking, lunging and sometimes snapping body language that their dogs exhibit. There is in fact a gradient of signs dogs use to communicate that they are uncomfortable before reaching this point. Learning what these signs are and spotting them promptly is the first step in helping your dog address their reactivity.

Overstimulated dogs are unlikely to respond to commands

When your dog is barking and lunging, they are overstimulated, so will not respond to commands or ,dog treats. This reactive state is when your dog is the most dangerous. This is often referred to as the Red Stage. The key to reducing reactivity is to intervene before they reach this state.

Signs your dog is calm

If your dog is calm and relaxed, they will have an open mouth, ears in a neutral position, tail usually wagging and eyes are soft or squinting. They will be responsive to commands, happily take treats, sniff things as they pass and should be walking loosely on their lead or dog harness. Trainers call this the Green Stage, and this is the behaviour you want your dog to be exhibiting.

Signs your dog is "loading"

If your dog notices something that they are unsure about, your dog may close their mouth, stand still, stare at the trigger, their ears are up and forward, and their tail is rigid. This is where your dog will start to become less responsive to commands. As a general guide, if your dog's mouth is closed, he is "loading". This means he is assessing a situation and deciding how he should react. This is the Yellow Stage and the time to act. Dogs are starting to feel stressed, but a small amount of stress can be beneficial to training.

Once they decide that the trigger is something to be concerned about, their behaviour will escalate to warning behaviour. They will stand stiff with high body tension, will strain at the leash, may curl their lips, growl or let out single 'woofs', stare at the trigger and their tail may be wagging (especially stiffly or while held high). This is the Orange Stage, just before your dog reacts, your dog cannot think or learn in this stage, so leave the situation.

Managing A Reactive Dog

Meeting Your Dog's Energy Needs

dogs jumping and fetching a ball toy at the beach

Meeting your dog's energy needs is an important first step for addressing any behavioural issue, because behavioural issues, including barking, chewing, digging, anxiety and aggression, can all be outlets for pent up energy. Dogs that have pent up energy are more prone to overreacting and being easily distracted. Meeting your dog's energy needs also makes them more relaxed and responsive to training. A tired dog is a happy dog.

Exercise is important for meeting their energy needs, and working breeds tend to require at least an hour or more of exercise per day. This means going for a run, swimming, fetch or walking in a new environment for at least 30 minutes per day. Dogs also require ongoing mental stimulation. Mental stimulation is more exhausting than physical exercise and can be provided from the comfort of your own home. Scent games are a perfect way to mentally challenge your dog, along with providing enrichment activities, such as interactive dog toys as well as snuffle mats and lickmats.

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Addressing The Underlying Anxiety

Reactivity is typically a fear or anxiety response to a specific trigger. Addressing this underlying anxiety helps your dog become more responsive to training and allows them to be more susceptible to desensitisation training. Anxiety supplements for dogs will not fix the problem, but they are a great way just to 'take the edge off' and promote feelings of calmness in your pup. For the best improvements in your dog's behaviour, anxiety supplements need to be combined with training. In more severe cases, prescription anxiolytic medications may be required from your veterinarian to reduce your dog's fear threshold and make them more amenable to training.

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Identify Your Dog's Triggers

Before you can manage or train your reactive dog, you need to know what your dog is reacting to. You cannot reduce a dog's fear, if you don't know what they are scared of. Some dogs may have obvious triggers, like other dogs, or people in hats, maybe skateboards. Other dogs may have more subtle triggers, like the way the person is holding their hands or their facial expression (dogs are very perceptive to body language!). Pay attention to your dog when they are feeling uncomfortable or reacting to something, but also pay attention to what they are reacting to, so you can work out what their trigger might be.

Once you know your dog's triggers, you can avoid them. Set yourself up for success by only exposing your dog to their triggers in training situations. When a dog reacts to their trigger, it reinforces the behaviour, making it more likely to happen again. There are two reasons for this. If your dog is barking at something that naturally moves away, your dog perceives their behaviour as the reason it moved away because they don't know it would have left anyway. This is why dogs love to chase the Postman! The other reason comes back to survival instincts. Your dog remembers the fear and stress of an incident, so that he can get out of that situation quicker next time.

Advocate For Your Dog

Image credit: @herding__heroes/

Our dogs don't have voices to tell us what is wrong and we often miss the subtle signs, which can be why they feel the need to lash out to protect themselves. It is your job to be the voice for your dog. You should be constantly assessing the situation to look for potential triggers and taking action to steer your dog away from them. Avoid places with high numbers of triggers, e.g. dog parks or shopping centres.

If your dog is in an overwhelming situation, leave the situation. It can be difficult and seem rude to tell people 'No', but you need to speak up on your dog's behalf. You need to put your dog's wellbeing above that of strangers, or even friends, to show your dog they can trust you. Tell people no, ask other owners to recall their dogs or put them on leads, use harnesses and leads that say 'in training' or 'do not pet'.

You can also advocate for your dog by using your body language to reassure them. Be confident in all situations. If you are anxious, your dog will be as well. So pick your battles and choose to train in situations where you feel comfortable. Keep your tone calm and confident. Stand between your dog and other people or animals that approach. Focus your attention on your dog and what they are doing, not what the trigger is doing. If someone pulls you up to chat, face your dog and give them your attention to show that you are protecting them. If your dog is around a trigger and is remaining calm, flip the script. Ask the person if you can approach them, or their dog, let your dog sniff, and walk away calmly.

Muzzle Train Your Dog

border collies with muzzles over their mouths

Image credit: @theborkerboys/

While I recommend dog muzzles training for all dogs, it can be an especially valuable tool for reactive dogs. Having a muzzle trained dog can provide comfort and reassurance for the dog, the owner and other people. It also means that if you slip up during training or something unexpected happens and your dog reacts, you know that no one is going to get hurt.

The other training tool I recommend is a head collar. These are great for walking reactive dogs or walking dogs that pull. You will need to train your dog to wear one, much like a muzzle. Once your dog is comfortable wearing one, they are great for going on walks! A head collar is designed to pull your dog's mouth shut if they put tension on the lead, but remains loose and allows panting when they are walking calmly at your side. This tool also gives you control of your dog's head. This allows you to direct where they are going, prevent them from pulling ahead and, in the case that they do try to lunge, it will pull them back as well as holding their mouth shut so that no one can get bitten.

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How to Train A Reactive Dog

labrador waiting for a treat from its owner

Ask For Help From A Professional Dog Trainer

It can seem very overwhelming when you first start trying to manage and/or train a reactive dog. There is also a lot of information available and a lot of different techniques out there on how to train a reactive dog. A great starting place is with a reputable trainer. Don't be afraid to ask your trainer what their qualifications are and how much experience they have with reactive dogs. It's also ok to change trainers or use advice from multiple trainers to find a training regime that works the best for your dog. You don't have to persist with something that you can see isn't working.

Solidify Their Basic Obedience

Having your basic obedience down pat, not only at home, but also with practice around distractions is an important step to take before initiating reactivity training. You will use basic obedience training to call your dog away from triggers, command them in desensitisation situations and recall their focus back to you if they are distracted. Commands like "sit", "stay", "come", "leave" and "focus" will become your bread and butter. A dog that is familiar with those commands will be more reliably able to perform them in situations of stress and it will also improve their focus and attention while in stressful situations. You could also try using a trick routine that your dog is well versed in and does consistently in any situation - this is more fun and engaging than basic obedience! Great tricks to use are 'Touch', 'Shake' and 'Spin/Turn'.

Use High Value Rewards

A reactive dog is becoming overstimulated, so what you have in your hand has to be better than whatever they are focusing on. Counter-conditioning involves over-writing a fearful response with something really good! So you need to use something even more high value than your usual training treats. Cooked meat, like chicken or beef, makes great high value treats, as does small pieces of cheese. Otherwise, strongly smelling commercial treats are a great option too. Just remember that the treats you use for this training should only be used for reactivity training because you want your dog to love the treat and you want it to stay a high value dog treat.

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Determine Your Dog's Boundary

The boundary is the point when your dog goes from being comfortable around their trigger, to starting to show signs of interest or discomfort. This is the point where you are going to start your training. You want to be just behind this boundary with your dog when you start training. As you train, the aim is to bring the boundary closer to the trigger without your dog reacting.

dogs in desensitisation training


Desensitisation involves repeatedly exposing your reactive dog to a trigger at a low level that doesn't trigger a response and rewarding their calm behaviour. It is often good to start in an area your dog is familiar with, and start with them on lead. If your dog reacts to people, ask a friend to help out, or, for dogs, ask a friend to bring their calm dog over.

Start a few steps back from your dog's boundary. Let your dog spot the trigger on their own, but don't let them focus on it or react to it. Walk away and come back past. Every time they spot the trigger but don't react, mark and get their attention back on you. As your dog becomes more comfortable, over time you can reduce the distance between your dog and the trigger. If your dog starts to show signs that they are uncomfortable, go back a couple steps behind their last comfortable spot. Repeating this regularly (ideally daily) for at least 5 to 10 minutes will help build up your dog's confidence and create reliability of calm behaviour. Practising in different locations will also make your dog more likely to display the learned calm behaviour in new or unexpected situations.

Long lines are great for desensitisation training. A short, tense leash can not only make your dog tense, but can also restrict their movement and limit their ability to defend themselves. It also means they can't move away easily if they spot something they are unsure about. You are going to be at a distance from the trigger anyway, so use a long line to allow your dog more comfort and freedom to make decisions.

Examples of Low Level Exposure Situations:

  • Sit on your patio or in the front yard on leash
  • Sit at the park and watch people and dog pass
  • Walk across the street opposite the dog park/train outside the dog park
  • Watch the markets from the footpath
  • Walk on leash with a familiar person and dog
  • Sit in a car park and watch people/cars pass
  • Participate in dog sports (lots of dogs and people in one location but focusing on working or in crates)


Counter conditioning is the action of pairing a frightening experience with something rewarding to overwrite the fear response with happiness and eventually teaching your dog an alternative behaviour. When it comes to reactivity training, this often involves pairing rewards and other dog training aids (treats, praise, pets) with desensitisation training. While exposing your dog to their trigger at a low level, provide rewards for their calm behaviour. Initially, this may involve offering your dog rewards as soon as they notice the trigger before they have a chance to react. As they remain calm for longer periods of time, you can decrease the frequency of treats.

You will also want to watch for and train alternative 'good' behaviours. If your dog naturally looks back at you for reassurance, that's perfect! Mark and reward that behaviour. However, not all dogs will do this straight away. In these cases, you may need to try to elicit this behaviour in your dog with commands. Use familiar commands, like 'Look', 'Sit' or 'Drop' to teach your dog what they should be doing when they see a trigger. This is where your learned trick routine could come in handy!

Be Patient

Training a reactive dog is not a quick fix or an easy task. Many dogs will never be 100% comfortable around their triggers. Some days will be diamonds, others will be a disaster, but you just have to keep working with your dog and focusing on their needs at the time. Sometimes a good situation can quickly turn bad, in which case, you just need to leave and try again another day. It may take months to years to really see the fruits of your labour - and when you finally do, it's the most rewarding feeling!

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Further Reading

Complete Beginner's Guide To Puppy Care

Puppy Training Guide

The Importance of Socialisation

How to Stop Your Dog Barking

How to Calm an Anxious Pet

Resource Guarding in Dogs


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