We deal with this training issue a lot, especially working in the busy neighborhoods of Chicago, where around 6pm, dogs are pouring out of hi-rises, condos, and houses.  “Reactive” can be a somewhat over-used term, and it can range from a dog that is social and friendly but just over-excited, to a dog that intends to bite.  Dictionary definition “reactive” a : readily responsive to a stimulus
b : occurring as a result of stress or emotional upset.

A dogs acting out on a leash can stem from several causes, and may be related to other issues:

  1. Lack of ability to self-regulate and cope with the level of frustration or stimulation… many people feel it’s like their dog is in tunnel vision.
  2. A lack of solid obedience training.  If your dog is barking and lunging, he is not obedient— and therefore needs obedience training.
  3. Often dogs with on-leash aggressive displays are described as low confidence and insecure, often taking the defensive when feeling threatened.
  4. Inappropriate inter-dog social skills.  Not all dogs have equal inter-species communication skills.  Some are more like Tarzan!
  5. Avoidant– if they aren’t reacting, they’re avoiding.
  6. MANY have lack of respect of the handler, and therefore the handler pulling them back and saying “NOOO, stop that!” is ineffective, or just makes it worse by adding high emotion to the situation.
  7. The handlers behavior as another dog is approaching– dog associates “Why is my human so tense and nervous, maybe it’s because of the other dog?”Are you choking up on the leash and changing your pace when you think a dog is nearby?  Or maybe you are giving verbal cues, you are relaxed the whole walk, but when you see another dog down the sidewalk you are whispering “Now stay with me, you better be nice, heel, heel…” and your dog is getting psyched up.  You do not want a negative association with other dogs coming.  You want a neutral or positive response to other dogs, and we reward appropriate behavior.  Your dog looks at another dog, calmly and looks away?  Great, yes them and pay them.
  8. Then there are less common, dogs who present with animal-aggression with the intent to severely fight or kill other animals, not just posture for rank.  These dogs can be a real danger, and require intensive training and behavior modification, as well as common-sense management throughout their lives.  Things like secure fencing, leash, supervision, etc.  A dog who may seriously injure another animal requires a responsible handler, and safety precautions in place.  They may or may not be aggressive towards people.  The handler of such a dog needs to be aware of any propensity for re-directed aggression, which can happen with some dogs.  This refers to when their frustration/aggression level goes high and they re-direct their anger onto the nearest thing.  Dogs who have a tendency towards this can be dangerous to people as well.
  9. Other types of aggression: For example, an in-tact male who typically goes after other males is not “reactive,” he is same-sex aggressive and may ready to fight with teeth for rank.
  10. Some dogs just *do not like* other dogs, or are very selective.   They CAN be taught to behave (through solid obedience and behavior modification) and they can be trained to tolerate, but will never enjoy interacting with certain dogs in close proximity for the sake of interacting itself.  This should be respected as part of the dogs personality, and interaction shouldn’t be forced upon the dog, or they may be negative experiences.  It’s important to address training with a professional so your dog is safe and will respond to you.  Sometimes dogs may begin to be more “grumpy” or non-social with others, due to pain or not feeling well, so make sure your pet has no health issues or body or joint pain.   A trainer who has been training for over 40 years said this to a client who wanted her dog to “be nicer” to the dogs she’d gotten into fights with: “Some dogs will never get along.  Don’t you know people who don’t get along???”  I know some people who you couldn’t just invite to the same dinner party without risking a possible altercation!  Not all dogs are as nice or patient as others.  As a trainer, we have a very good feel for which doggie personalities and energy types will mesh well together, and which will clash.  Sometimes you just have to be selective.
  11. Territorial response. Most of the dogs who are reactive on walks do not look at another animal coming towards them on the street as a “friend,” or as a neutral occurrence, but as something outside their pack that stimulates a territorial response, especially when tethered to their owner, frustration is increased on leash as well.  The look of some dogs on walks is like one of a predator hunting.
  12. They may or may not actually bite another dog… some just put on a big nasty show- that doesn’t mean they won’t get bit themselves though, if they do that display to the wrong dog.
  13. BUT MY DOG PLAYS WITH OTHER DOGS SO WELL! With some excitable types, it does not matter if they have daycare or play-groups 3x a week and are great with dogs there, it’s different when they’re moving & covering ground attached to their owner as a unit, they may begin displays that look aggressive, or are territorial.  Or maybe it’s not aggression-related at all- just barking out of frustration.  That is remedied by obedience training, teaching focus on you.  We train for our dogs to be neutral to other dogs– not overly-interested to the point of losing all focus!
  14. It’s the way you are walking your dog! You are not walking with purpose and with control– by that I mean responsiveness without physically restraining the dog on a tight leash.  A dog that has a respect for how far away he will walk before considering your proximity.  I will only walk a dog that has natural desire to stay with me, and move as a unit, no dragging me or bolting away!  I think a big part of the problem is that people walk their dogs around from the time they get them untrained, and let bad habits develop.  Except for puppies, I WILL NOT walk a dog (yard only, or field on longline) around the city until they are leash trained and not going to cause a ruckus, I dont want to rehearse bad habits.  If any bad habits surface, they are immediately corrected, and not allowed to continue.  Some dogs just like to be bullies… the dog should know aggressive behavior is something that displeases me and it will have swift consequences.

I hope this was informative to you and gave you ideas to think about.  Please visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/dynamicdogschicago and feel free to ask us any questions you might have, or share your experiences in how you were able to train your reactive dog.


Dynamic Dogs Chicago Trainers