Help my dog is dog reactive to other dogs!

There are many things to take into consideration when dealing with reactive dogs. How we work with these dogs is dependent on what is motivating the behavior and the context in which it occurs. Reactive dogs are often motivated out of excitement, frustration, or fear. Many times humans have unintentionally created this behavior because dogs were never taught how to be appropriately social around other dogs.  A dog needs to learn how to interact with, and be around other dogs in an appropriate social manner that is not play.  If a dog's life experience around other dogs is excited over-arousal play it is much easier to create frustration in the dog when we place them on a leash. This can be a problem with many dogs in daycare/boarding, dog parks, etc… Too many times the lesson dogs learn is that when you see another dog, run to the other dog to play.  Patterns create habits which can lead to inappropriate behavior. This is why on-leash met and greets should be avoided.

None of these “tools” are necessary to train dogs. Choke chains, prong collars, e-collars, and restrictive front clip harnesses like the Freedom Harness, and Easy Walk Harness. To avoid inflicting damage avoid thin collars and do not place the collar high, right behind the ears. 

With every dog it is important to evaluate whether the dog is getting all their needs met (attention, social interaction, exercise, mental stimulation) and making their life more interesting. Variety can be the key to an enriching life for dogs. Engage all five of the dogs' senses, to make their days more interesting. Anything that is unchanging is no longer unique and loses its value quickly. Dogs engaged in enrichment activities are less likely to develop the inappropriate behaviors that are the result of boredom, stress, and frustration. 

Making your dog’s life more interesting.

One of the first places to start is to evaluate the relationship between the dog and owner. How much control and cooperation do the owners have overall; in the home, feeding, at the door, play, etc…? I first determine the level of restraint/management being used vs cooperation in every facet.  Many times owners must learn how to achieve control and cooperation in other areas to lay the foundation for resolving the reactive issues.

Attentive Cooperation by Suzanne Clothier

Since I have worked for years with reactive and aggressive dogs the number one rule in my book is that I never permit dogs to put their mouths on another dog even in “play”. They are not permitted to do anything with dogs they know that would be inappropriate if they ran up to another dog they did not know. e.g. jumping on another dog, biting even in play, etc… I want dogs to put their teeth on a toy and not another dog or human. Dogs can play fetch together, or tug games with a toy, chase, etc… as long as no roughhousing is involved. See Socialization

With any behavior we wish to change the first to place to start is by removing the opportunities for the dog to practice the unwanted behavior. Meaning no dog parks, no day care dog play, no playing with other dogs in the home. So if a dog plays with another dog 40min each day, now the owners need to fulfill the play needs of their dog. The goal is to make the owners more desirable and fun. I want to see dogs that will leave another dog to return and play a game with their owners. Sometimes it can be that simple. In addition to strengthening the relationship between owner and dog, the focus is on teaching the dog good loose leash walking skills.

The goal is to teach dog to ignore other dogs and to be socially pleasant and confident around strange dogs. It starts with the dog over-learning how to walk properly on a leash. Teaching loose leash walking skills

 MARTINGALE COLLAR BY CANINUS COLLARS

MARTINGALE COLLAR BY CANINUS COLLARS

“What equipment you would use for a reactive dog?” I recommend a properly fitted martingale collar.  When working with reactive dogs any “tool” can have risks. My first choice is a martingale collar fitted properly (just snug enough so the dog cannot escape and no more) so I can be sure the dog cannot get free. I use the widest collar that is reasonable for each dog. I use a very soft nylon or hemp martingale collar as wide as practical for each dog. For larger dogs I often use a 1 ½” - 2” wide soft martingale.  For reactive dogs I minimize the amount of leash they have to minimize unintended corrections. A dog hitting the end of a 6’ leash will get a large correction so I work with the leash shorten to minimize corrections.  I will also use a bungee leash many times to lessen any unintended impact. Any equipment we place on our dogs should be done with care.  On rare occasions I will use a head halter device for large dogs that are out of control. These are restraint tools that I consider a last resort and restrict their use to short-term and only with large dogs who are out of control. Whatever tools you use, look to make it as pleasant as possible for the dog while still maintaining control until you get your dog’s cooperation. We ultimately want dogs to desire to be with us, not find us punishing.

A dog cannot be both walking nicely on a leash and be aware of the location and pace of the person walking them, and be pulling, lunging, or barking, etc… at another dog. Reactive dogs need the least distracting environments to start so it may require finding a controlled environment to start. There is no way to completely control the environment unless you have access to a private location.  “Life happens” so I choose places where I can create distance if needed. I choose the best environment possible for each dog I work with.  Sometimes I start; in their own neighborhood, a quieter neighborhood, a park that I have several options to create distance from others if needed, and with some at a place where it was very unlikely we would ever see a dog.

Once the dog has basically over-learned how to walk on a loose leash, practice the leash walking at a distance from other dogs making sure to stay outside the reactivity distance.  This is especially important with highly excitable/aroused dogs.  Many owners have told me their dog walks nicely but there is always a caveat; unless he sees another dog, cat, rabbit, or squirrel, etc…  My definition of a dog that walks nicely on a leash is a dog will stay connected to its owner and under control "even if" another dog, cat, squirrel, etc… Once the dog has basically over-learned how to walk on a loose leash then I incorporate parallel walking at a distance. That distance can be 20’ or 400’. If the dog is reactive at 400’, we work at 410’ to start. Then we keep moving closer over the days in small steps as long as we stay outside the reactivity distance. We then work toward passing other dogs at whatever distance is required to stay below reactivity.  All with the goal to have the dogs appropriately social with other dogs, so they are not reacting or struggling against the leash to get to every dog they see. The goal is to teach self-control in the presence of other dogs and people.

When working with dogs timing is of absolute importance. Dogs just like us cannot be both cognitive functioning and emotional/reactive at the same time. (Although they can quickly bounce back and forth) A dog cannot be both walking nicely on a leash and be aware of my location, and be pulling, barking, etc… at the same time.  So “before” I see unproductive arousal from the dog I immediately change directions. (be unpredictable) If we wait until the dog pulls the collar pressure is now on the front of the dog’s neck which is what we want to avoid. So by turning around before there is tension in the leash and lowering the leash below the dog’s base of the neck, the tension will be on the side of the neck stopping any forward movement and now turning him around. With the hand lowered as the dog turns around now in a following position the immediate pressure will be on the top of the neck as we gently pull/lead him forward to the appropriate position.  If we have built “good” loose leash walking skills the dog will be patterned to refocus on the person holding the leash (without a word said) and will avoid placing any tension in the leash. 

Another important point is to not let the dog move forward unless they are exercising self-control. Meaning they will not exit the house, gate, or car unless completely under control and given them permission. Be careful not to move so fast that you are rewarding them for persistent. For example, as soon as you exit request they sit while you calmly shut and lock the door. If the dog is not a wild child I may not ask for a sit as long as they wait patiently for me. If this means it takes 10-minutes for them to exercise self-control I take the time because soon the dog will realize that his persistence gains nothing. Consistency will result in a dog cooperating in a shorter amount of time as you continue to practice.

I’m big on “permission” when working with dogs. Meaning I want them to sniff and have opportunities to explore. But it must be with permission. Many owners get this wrong. The dog will be distracted and pulling and just as soon as the owner pulls/guides the dog back to where they should be they give the dog “permission” to move away, sniff, explore, etc… What they get wrong is there was not a 10-second disassociation time between guiding them back and the dog exercising self-control before releasing them to sniff. Dogs are often rewarded for persistent, not being under control or cooperating.

For the majority of dogs we can resolve dog reactivity by strengthening the relationship between owner and dog, and the dog learning to walking nicely on a leash without pulling. It’s a simple straightforward process but it will take work, and consistency to see change.

There are a small percentage of dogs that we need to set up specific situations for an individual dog to resolve the problem. But this comes after a solid foundation has been built between dog and owner, and the dog has learned proper leash walking skills. 

Below are additional resources.

Thresholds, Thresholds, and Doing Nothing 

Selecting Training Equipment 

How Much Does Your Dog’s Cooperation Weigh? 

Handling On-lead Aggression 

Guidelines for Teaching Self Control 

Permission, Not Permissive

Understanding Thresholds: It’s More than Under- or Over

Thresholds, Thresholds, and Doing Nothing 

Training or Restraining?  

The Problem With Head Halters

Finding A Balance  by Suzanne Clothier