Do you know this feeling, when your reactive dog freaks out at a certain thing during a walk and you already dread the next walk??
I feel for you, I have been through it too!
My miniature poodle Baloo freaks out when we’re walking him as soon as we meet other dogs. He is usually frightened and probably tries to compensate by being the loudest.
He has been like this since the first day I got him as a puppy. And while this behavior is not "fixed", fortunately I have found a few ways over the years that have improved his reactive behavior.
In this article, I share my 11 tips for walking a reactive dog in a relaxed manner who otherwise freaks out at everything. I hope some of these tips make your walks a little easier too.
11 tips for walking a reactive dog
If you have a dog that reacts to all sorts of things and freaks out right away, you know how challenging this issue can be.
Before we get to the tips for walking, it is important to know the difference between a reactive dog that simply reacts to things and an aggressive dog.
Reactive dogs tend to overreact to certain situations. Aggression, on the other hand, is directly hostile behavior. Reactivity can escalate to aggression.
1. Make sure he gets enough mental stimulation
It is important to give your dog enough exercise every day. But while physical exercise is very important, it is equally important to exercise your dog’s brain.
Giving your dog enough mental stimulation will keep him more relaxed on walks. Reactivity can sometimes come from an overactive brain. This means that it can be helpful to train your dog’s brain to keep him calm.
Mental stimulation also tends to be more strenuous than physical stimulation. This makes it a really effective way to tire out your dog before the walk and to prevent this undesirable behavior.
For more information and some fun things you and your dog can try, here are 10 brain games for dogs to play at home.
2. Get a harness to attach the leash to on the front side
Part of properly walking your reactive dog is having the right gear. Some people mistakenly believe that they only need a collar and a leash.
But the truth is that a collar is not necessarily the best thing for your dog – especially if you have a reactive dog.
Reactive dogs tend to pull quite hard on their leash. If they wear a collar, it could harm them and be really dangerous.
Besides, with a collar you don’t have so much control. Instead you should buy a harness for your dog.
Try to find one where you can attach the leash to the front of the harness. So your dog is safer and you have a little more control during the walk.
3. Train him to focus on you
Reactive dogs don’t have much control over themselves. Dogs are generally very emotional animals. They act out how they feel in the moment instead of thinking things through like we do.
Therefore, it is very important that you know the right ways to intercept your dog when you notice that his reactivity is triggered.
One of the best ways to do this is to train the command "look". As soon as you enter a situation where your dog might become reactive, get him to focus on you. That keeps his attention away from his trigger and on you – where it should be!
4. Get some super tasty treats and maybe a clicker
You want to keep your dog’s attention during the walk. One of the best ways to do this is to bring high quality treats with you.
High quality treats are your dog’s absolute favorite treats. Whenever your dog makes a decision you like, you should reward him with these super tasty treats.
You might also want to invest in a clicker. Treats are effective, but giving them to your dog isn’t always a quick fix. And timing is everything when it comes to training.
5. Lead stand when it begins to pull
When you walk your dog, the most important thing is to keep it moving. This is exactly the reason why you should stop when it starts to drag.
If you walk on while your dog is pulling, you are only encouraging the behavior. You teach your dog that he gets what he wants when he pulls!
This is not a behavior you want to continue. It is not only unpleasant, but it can also be dangerous when your dog pulls on you.
Keep completely still as soon as your dog starts to pull. Don’t move until he turns his focus back to you.
6. Try to keep your dog below the "threshold".
When it comes to any type of training, you need to set your dog up for success. You can’t expect your dog to know what to do – that’s why you’re training him!
To set your dog up for success, you need to make sure that the situations he’s in don’t trigger his reactivity and he loses control. Many trainers call this keeping your dog "below his threshold".
You want your dog to be able to listen to you and turn away from stimuli that trigger him before the reaction kicks in. It’s your job to make sure he’s able to do that!
7. Turn away from the stimuli before he has crossed the "threshold"
It’s really important to know what exactly triggers your dog’s reactivity. This will help you avoid these situations and keep your dog in check.
If you notice that you are approaching a stimulus that triggers your dog, you should move away as quickly as possible. Remember that you want to set your dog up for success. Keep him in situations where you are both still able to control his actions.
8. Take baby steps when training
It’s important to keep your dog in situations where he is below his threshold. But depending on what your dog’s triggers are, it may not be possible to avoid those triggers forever.
For these triggers, you should focus on counter-conditioning and desensitization. This type of training is extremely effective and helps your dog become comfortable with his triggers.
Training, however, can take a lot of time. And it’s really important not to rush your dog, because that can make things worse. Always take small steps when training.
9. Appreciate the small successes
Anyone who has a reactive dog understands how challenging this is. It can feel demoralizing, especially because training reactive dogs is a very slow process.
This is why it’s important to focus on the little things. Celebrate the moments when your dog makes a good decision, no matter how small it seems! This will help you stay positive and hopeful.
And if you stay positive and hopeful, your dog will be able to pick up on it. This will help your training progress even faster.
10. If your dog pulls very hard: Get a head collar
If your dog is a particularly enthusiastic "puller," then a head collar can help him learn when to stop. These types of collars attach to your dog’s nose.
The head collar gives you more control over where your dog’s focus is. It also makes it much harder for your dog to pull on the leash.
11. Consult a behaviorist
There are many things you can do to train your dog yourself. But there’s nothing wrong with reaching out for help.
Some dogs with only mild or moderate reactivity can be effectively trained by their owners. But if your dog is extremely reactive, you might want to get more advice.
A dog behaviorist or a dog trainer can help you. When considering these options, make sure you do your research. Look for a behaviorist or trainer who focuses on positive reinforcement. When you consult with them, ask a lot of questions and don’t worry about any questions being stupid!
Remember that you are your dog’s advocate. You need to make sure you get the right help for him.
Will a reactive dog ever calm down?
When you have a reactive dog, it can feel like your dog never improves. You may feel hopeless and frustrated. You may even wonder if your dog will ever calm down again.
So can reactive dogs get better?
Yes, but you need to manage your expectations!
Some dogs that are just a little reactive can easily be trained to stop reacting to their triggers. However, if your dog is particularly quick to freak out, you may simply need to change your idea of what is "better".
With practice, patience and consistency, you will see improvements in your dog. Maybe you need to stay alert on walks at all times, but remember to celebrate the little things. And don’t be afraid to get help when you need it!
Should I stop walking my reactive dog?
No, of course not! Walking is a joyful thing for a dog – even reactive dogs. You should still walk your reactive dog, of course, but remember to focus on training while you walk.
Take small steps, stay consistent and don’t give up on your dog!
Why is my dog becoming more reactive?
If your dog is reacting more and more to a wide variety of things, you may be trying to force him into situations that trigger him too quickly.
Training a reactive dog takes a lot of time and patience. Remember that you need to keep your dog under his threshold.
Make sure you follow the tips above and take things slowly.
As new dog parents, we naturally want our dogs to develop well and be well behaved too. Without conscientious training, however, it’s hardly doable.
So you can either hire a professional dog trainer to educate your dog or go to a dog school near you. However, both of these are very time consuming and quite expensive in the long run.
That’s why I’m a big fan of this online dog training course from renowned dog trainer Johanna Esser. There, in 12 detailed modules, you’ll learn everything from the basics of dog training, to perfect recall, to anti-chase training. This 69.- EUR are definitely money well spent.
As much as you love your dog, a reactive dog can be a really challenging, frustrating, and discouraging thing to deal with. But don’t worry – there is hope for you and your dog!
The most important thing is to make sure you do things at your dog’s pace. Stay consistent, keep practicing and remember to celebrate the small successes.