6 Ways to Calm Your Reactive Dog

Reactivity is when a dog over reacts to things in their environment. These reactions can include: barking, lunging, and growling. However, these reactions do not make a dog “aggressive.” Reactivity is not uncommon in dogs. It may stem from the dog’s genetic make-up or could be from a lack of social experience or a particularly scary experience.

Having a reactive dog can be difficult to handle. It makes it hard to go out on walks, to the park, or being in public places. You probably do not have guests over often in fear of how your dog will behave around them.

Instead of trying to live with having a reactive dog, learn new ways to keep them calm and focused on you.

Set Up a Routine

It's not something dog owners think of very often or are even aware of, but dogs absolutely crave routine. Dogs know our own routines. They know when we wake up in the morning, and know putting shoes on means they should get excited for that morning walk. Routines make the world predictable. It helps them make sense of everything going on around them, good or bad. The more anxiety your dog has, the more routine they crave. A simple yet effective routine helps them feel more calm, focused and safe in otherwise stressful situations. Eventually, once your dog gets a handle of your routine, you can put your routine in action out in the real world, like: the park, on walks, or in public spaces.

Get Essential Equipment

To help diminish reactive tendencies, there are a few useful pieces of equipment that you can set your dog up with. First, is a Gentle Leader. Gentle Leaders are extremely useful for hard pullers and dogs that tend to be reactive while on walks. They can be useful when you may need to redirect their head in a new direction if your cues are not working. The Gentle Leader sits high on the back of the dog's head, which takes the pressure off of their delicate throat.

Next is an Easy Walk Harness. Unlike most harnesses, this one clips in the front of your dog. This actually discourages your dog from pulling on the leash. Your dog will be steered sideways when trying to pull, which will redirect his or her attention towards you. The Easy Walk Harness rests across your dog's chest, so there's no choking, gagging or damage to his or her throat.

A crate is also a great tool when it comes to reducing reactivity. A crate can be necessary to both ensure safety and help introduce the dog to a setting that they may not be comfortable with. Dogs, with proper crate training, think of their crate as a den. It is a space for them to safe. A crate comes in handy when you are transporting your dog. Being in a crate would lessen their reactivity in the car or being brought into the vet office.

Counter Conditioning

Counter Conditioning is the process of changing the emotion or behavior a dog exhibits in response to a specific antecedent, or "trigger” (dog, human, animal, objects, vacuums, cars, bikes). It involves working with antecedents and consequences to change behavior. For conditioning to occur, two critical steps must take place. Step 1: The antecedent or “trigger” must be noticed (seen, heard, smelled). Step 2: Reinforcer must occur immediately (food or toy). It is important that the reward comes immediately and before the dog starts offering unwanted behavior. The first few signs a dog shows that they are uncomfortable is our opportunity to change behavior. At some point your dog may no longer feel the need to look at the trigger you have been conditioning.

Household Changes

To break the habit of reactivity at home, you might need to make some household changes. A common form of reactivity at home is window reactivity. The problem with window reactivity is that it is very rewarding. The dog thinks their barking made the person or dog go away, and it becomes a very reinforcing behavior to repeat. The best way to stop this is with using a tie down when you are home. It will teach your dog to stay in a certain spot and not go to the window. You can also use baby gates to keep them away from windows.

Another form of reactivity at home is backyard reactivity. Backyard reactivity is similar to window reactivity. It is very rewarding and will bleed into other areas of the dog's life. If your dog is a fence fighter or a fence runner, one thing you can do when you are home is walk them around the backyard on leash. Make sure you establish good recall so if they become riled up, you can get their attention and calm them down. If you aren't there to teach your dog right from wrong, then you must confine them away from the hot spot area in your yard. This may mean getting rid of your doggie door, confining them to inside the home, or creating a dog run for the backyard where they don't have access to the fence.

Body Language

Understanding dog body language will help you communicate effectively with your pup. Dogs speak mostly through body language. Learning how to speak “dog” is important because you will be able to recognize when your dog is uncomfortable, scared, or threatened. First, understand that most dog body language is contextual. For example, tail wagging can mean several things, from “I’m so happy to see you!” to “Please don’t come any closer!” You will need to look at the entire picture of your dog and the surrounding environment to understand.

Happy dogs are loose and wiggly! These dogs typically have open mouths, relaxed or forward ears, and soft eyes. Pay close attention, however, because relaxed dogs can easily become uncomfortable with something or someone.

Nervous dogs have tense overall body posture. They will use calming signals and exhibit displacement behavior which calm themselves down, show non-aggressive intent, or diffuse situations. Calming signals are used to signal to other dogs that they mean no harm. Displacement behaviors are displayed when a dog wants to do two different conflicting things at once.

Alert dogs have tense or forward overall body posture. These dogs are interested in something and are undecided how to react. This body posture usually only lasts briefly before the dog decides to react in playfulness, fear, or aggression.

Dogs exhibiting aggressive body language will be very tense and stiff, possibly frozen. These dogs will probably be baring their teeth and their hackles will be raised. If you ever encounter a dog and he or she starts to exhibit aggressive body language, stop your approach, move slowly, and appear non-threatening. In addition, avoid eye contact, look away, and remain calm and confident. DO NOT run away!

Sign Up for a Behavior Rehab Class

One of the best ways to tackle your dog’s reactivity is learning from certified trainers on how to stop this behavior. At Wags & Wiggles, our mission is to help your dog be successful. We offer a terrific behavior rehab course in our Online Classroom called Zen Dog – based off of our in-facility group class. This course includes 15 lessons that teaches you and your dog how to handle reactivity and keep them calm. These lessons include video demonstrations and written descriptions that are easy to follow and understand. The best part about the course is that we provide real case studies of current and former clients. Some cases show reactive dogs before they underwent training, and follow through with their training lessons to show their progress. The Zen Dog course is also apart of our new Online Classroom Membership, Behavior Rehab. This membership gives you access to a variety of training courses that are beneficial for a dog going through behavior rehabilitation. Don’t let your dog’s reactive behavior go on any longer! Take control and teach them to be a more relaxed dog.


60 Responses

    • Thanks for reaching out. That sounds like something we can help you with. If you are close enough to our facilities, you can schedule a free meet and greet where we can help you decide which program would be best for you. http://wagsandwiggles.com/daycare-meet-greet/. We also do virtual private lessons and offer our most popular Behavior Rehab Membership online. https://onlineclassroom.wagsandwiggles.com/membership/behavior-rehab-and-training-solutions-program/

      • Hi my dog has some reactivity to my husband and his body language. I am not quite sure where to start. I take him away from the situation as soon as I see him start to stare at my husband. Please help

        • I would recommend you start by getting a confinement system in place so the dog and your husband can start to relax around each other. An exercise pen or tie-down can work. Then you would need to start a counter conditioning program. You can learn about this in our online zen dog course.

        • Have you any centres in South tyneside my 2year old is perfect out and about till he sees another dog and goes absolutely mental barking and pulling

        • Mines the same, he snarls when my husband is near. He was a lock down pup dumped at a rescue, my husband n another rescue helper. But now he demands my attention n dislikes men. But adores children, I’ve been refusing him when he is demanding attention n if he carries on I crate him. I’m at my wits end.

      • My daughter has a very reactive dog. She is now afraid to bring him out. When she is going out she has the dog and a toddler in a pram. George, the dog, will lunge at passerbys, reactive to other dogs, even though he was reared in my house with my 4 dogs and a cat. Everyone walking by the window, the postman, is a crisis. When this happens, he could turn on one of my dogs. Yesterday he was sitting by my daughter on the couch and her toddler came to her to be picked up and George jumped up and snapped at him. This was the 1st time for that to happen. He has been socialized since he was a pup, brought out on walks with the other dogs. Nothing has happened to him for this, in the last 2 years, to happen. He is 3 years old

        • Same issue with my jack russel. Not sure what to do with him. He is happy at home but a nightmare to walk and ankle biter.

          • My dog is very reactive to other dogs and sometimes really tall people. But we rarely go places with other dogs or people with her so I don’t know what kind of training to do with her.

        • Hi Paula. We just adopted a rescue and she is the same as you describe your pup. Did you ever find anything that worked?

          • Rosie is a 2 year old rescue terrier mix.weve been working on her reactivity to dogs and people. We walk 4xs per day. Sometimes she responds to my commands of “leave it” as I offer a treat, but that not always works . I’ve had her for 3 months and she is very aggressive with visitors …only 2 times guest have visited. I do take her to the food market and stores and she is generally good. How can I help her become less fearful and aggressive? Around me and at home she’s a perfect sweet loving dog… not destructive or barking, etc

      • Hi, my dog is pure bred German Shepherd. He is around 16 weeks and a lovely dog but he has some major issues with biting (only in play but it’s excessive) my other 2 dogs and me and my family. He nips all the time and even tries to pick my spaniel up by the tail. We have tried everything to get him to stop biting so much and bought him loads of teething toys. He is also very reactive to pretty much anything. He’s okay with people and children ect but any other animal sets him up for lunging, barking and biting. Even dogs who have not even seen him he goes for. He’s going to be a big dog (breeder thinks he will be at the least 40kg) and me and my family need him to be behaved in a neighbourhood that has lots of dogs and children.

        • I rescued Maggie from Hungary a year ago breeding machine
          Stops on walk fearful won’t walk I drop lead she will slowly fearfully come
          Also suddenly in house barking fearful
          Use treats to comeover but getting worst

          • Julie, I have the same issue with my almost 3 year old lab mix. She will barely walk on the sidewalk anymore. She often will walk in the woods; I think she feels safer there. She parks herself on the sidewalk and I can’t move her, except to let her return home. Not even treats help and she is highly food-motivated ordinarily. I think she may hear sounds off in the distance, such as traffic, trucks backfiring, faraway sirens and that frightens her.

        • This was posted a long time ago. I’m really eager to know how things worked out for you. Please reply!! I’m desperate, in very much the same situation as you describe.

      • Hey I got a Great Dane Doberman he’s super loving he just loves barking and lunging towards other animals sometimes people but it’s never in an aggressive way! How would I be able to train him I live in a small town with not too many dogs beside my friends so it’s hard to socialize with others.

    • My dog is four years old and knows basic commands but when he sees other dogs and people he barks and lunges. He was a rescue from a family with young children. He doesn’t listen to anything I say when he’s in that state of mind.

    • I adopted a dog from a shelter. It turns out she is very reactive but maybe that is just her stress because I got her recently. How should I proceed?

  • I have a rescued Australian Cattle Dog. He had 2 months private training. This week, while at a park, he ran after a dog who was about a 100 feet away, and took me down with him. Today, while in the car, he saw a dog, rolled down the window, it is usually locked, and jumped out of the window when he saw a small dog walking down the street. He could have hanged himself or been run over by me. I have had him over a year. Not sure why he is suddenly acting up so aggressively. Can your course help, or do I need something else? Thank yoi

    • I would recommend our Zen Dog Course. If you are local to us, we offer this as an in-school class. If you are not local to use, we also offer this class through our online classroom – behavior rehab membership. https://onlineclassroom.wagsandwiggles.com/membership/behavior-rehab-and-training-solutions-program/. Beyond some basic training of cues, it sounds like you need a management device like a head collar. You also need a crate for your car. Both of the above options would help you through this.

      • My 3 year old very laid back labradoodle has become very reactive to bigger ‘scarier’ dogs especially German shepherds even the most friendly ones. He plays happily with one at doggy day care! He was pinned down by one as a puppy so I can understand why but it’s becoming embarrassing and stressful as there are a few gorgeous friendly bigger dogs near us when I know his recall ears will be completely turned off!
        How should I manage this please?

  • My dog is a wonderful, loving dog once she gets to know someone, but walking her is a nightmare. She is always lunging at dogs going by, and sometimes people if they are too close. She loves her walks but they are so stressful. She also barks at everyone who goes by the house. She’s a papillon/terrier mix. (we think)

  • We have a golden doodle who is 1.5 years old. We have had him since he was 8wks old. We know his parents well. We found him to be a nervous nelly from the get go. Once he was fully vaccinated it really rested itself with other dogs because he barked while walking all the time. He bangs his head into my right leg when he walks because he is nervous. If he meets another dog on leash he is usually very barky and sounds aggressive. At home, he is the best dog ever. We have a 9 year old lab who is his best buddy. We want to be able to take him out in public with us but I’m worried about hiking and having dogs off leash come up to him and not totally know what he’s going to do. We try to pull off the trail and treat him as the dog goes by. We hired bark busters which was pretty good. They use a very dominating approach. Sometimes I wonder if that made him
    More nervous. Have you ever worked with a dog like this? He is really a great dog just nervous and his bark is deep so it sounds scary even when he’s happy. Any input you have would be great. Thank you!

    • Thanks for reaching out about your golden doodle. We do work with dogs like this frequently. We are familiar with Bark Busters and their techniques are based on suppressing behavior through punishment. That usually makes fearful behavior worse. If you are in our area, you can schedule a complimentary meet and greet so we can determine which program might be best for you. If you are not local, I would recommend our Online Behavior Rehab Membership.

  • My dog is a 4 year old chihuhua and hes always been very reactive bit it has gotten worse over time and as bad as biting my brother in the face unprovoked bc he is very territorial over certain spots in the house especially w me and the room and bed. He has not had proper training and im afraid he will only get worse . I mostly do time outs as a punishment but I feel like i dont have any options.

    • Your situation is a common one with chihuahuas. Focusing solely on punishment will make the dog more anxious and thus more reactive. There are many ways to approach this situation by teaching the dog what you would like them to do instead. If you live near us you can schedule a complimentary meet and greet so we can determine which program might be best for you. If you are not local, I would recommend our Online Behavior Rehab Membership or virtual lessons.

  • Ive got a little rescue dog from romania.hes a corgi cross.had him 4 years in march.never had any major problems with him but lately hes getting quite aggressive when he sees collies.i dont know why as hes fine with most dogs and hes a friendly wee thing.

    • There can be many reasons why dogs have a change in behavior. It could be something that developed over time and the initial signs of discomfort were missed. It could be a medical-related issue (eyesight). I would recommend you look at a counter-conditioning program, as discussed in our online zen dog course.

  • I adopted a Treeing Tennessee Brindle/Cur about 10 months ago. He has been reactive towards dogs on the leash from the moment I first walked him. We have had a lot of life style changes over the past 6 months. It has progressively gotten worse to the point where I can only take him on short walks and isolated walks where there are no dogs at all. He is okay with women but he is scared of most men and will bark and corner himself. He has a very loud , aggressive sounding bark so it scares everyone with 100 feet of us. We use an easy- walk harness with him and he is now on Prozac to help with his anxiety. I am also an anxious person by nature so we do work off each others energy in certain trigger situations. My boyfriend is little help to me unfortunately.

    • This situation sounds exactly like mine with my dog. I really feel for you, life can be so restricting and not how you imagine life with your dog to be! 👎🏽

    • I have a 4 year old Border Collie. She would love to chase cars and bicycles if we let her. She also is very reactive to other dogs – lunging, snarling, fighting with any dog that comes toward her. When she was younger, she was hurt by other dogs at an off leash dog park. I also fell at the off leash dog park and broke some ribs. I ended up having a little mini crowd of people and all their dogs around me wanting to help. My dog of course didn’t know what was happening so she got very defensive. She wanted to protect me. She is okay with dogs she knows, but will rarely play with them. She guards her toys, food and water when other dogs are around.
      She was put on medication for anxiety a couple of years buy a Dog Behaviouralist. We just weened her off to see if any behaviour has changed, but she is the same with and without the medication.
      Neeko’s favourite thing to do is play frisbee or fetch. We tried agility but it was too stressful with all the other dogs in the class.
      Most of the time she is as sweet as sweet can be. Smart as a whip. Comes, sits,
      stays and many of the other dog tricks.
      Basically we have a border collie that can’t go anywhere without being on a leash.

      I really believe Neeko would be so much happier if she could just get along and play with other dogs. Can you help?

      • HI Susan, if you are local to us you can contact us for a free in-person training evaluation. However, some dogs just aren’t comfortable playing with other dogs and they can live a high-quality life without it.

  • I have a Jack Russell who is reactive. He screams, shakes and I cannot redirect his attention with a toy or treats. He has a sister who he loves and when friends visit with their dogs they are okay get on reasonably well. We are going on holiday in our caravan & I am nervous.

  • My 1 year old samoyed is a nightmare and all these board and training want to charge me $2K+ to change his behavior with an e collar . I have had dogs before but they were always obedient and followed commands without hesitation. Naturally Obedient Breeds- German shepherds, pits, rottweiler, lab, collie, doberman, poodle. Unfortunately these dogs are not great for apartment living.

    In general, Samoyeds are stubborn.My samoyed always thinks before following a command. Lunges at strangers, pulls on leash and does not come back when called. His privileges have been revoked as he grew older with rebellious nature. He now wears a muzzle and doesn’t react or pull because he focuses on the muzzle. He cannot go off leash. i have bought a 20ft leash for hikes and picnics.

    Next time I am getting a naturally obedient dog who is a low/no shedding dog.

  • We have an 11yo rescue Puggle we got 1.5 years ago. She strains on her harness and barks incessantly when she sees another dog, but then won’t stop. I’ve tried food and redirection, but neither has worked. What to do?

  • I have an 8 yo papillion/terrier, and hes always had issues with recall- if you catch him before hes locked on to something he’ll come back, otherwise he just won’t hear me. He’s also randomly reactive- fine with dogs he knows, and I’ve worked on socialising and positive reinforcement- but I can’t figure out the pattern. He can be happy and fine greeting one moment then snapping the next, i can’t let him off lead around strange dogs anymore which is a shame for him.

  • Help! I have a reactive husky/Shepard mix. And his reactive behavior is lunging and trying to attack my other dog (who’s epileptic and many times this sends him into a seizure) 90 % of the time they get along GREAT and usually its something out the window that causes the reactiveness. Is there a toy or something to overt his attention during this?

    • Unfortunately we can’t advise you about solving aggression over a website. Feel free to contact a certified trainer at one of our facilities.

  • My 3 year old dog goes from zero to sixty in minutes in reaction to sounds, lights, bicycles and anything no matter how minor. On leash she can act like a tasmanian devil dog when seeing other dogs or moving things (like bikes, joggers, grocery carts, motorcycles, etc)
    As a pup, we tried to take her to dog parks, but she was so scared that she would crawl into anyones lap just to get away from other dogs. She went through puppy classes, but there were no other dogs. She responds well to basic commands and I could not call her vicious, no matter how wild she gets on leash. Off leash, the few times we have encountered other dogs, she takes off away as fast as possible. Approached cautiously, she is ok with people.

  • I have a 1 year old Doberman Pinscher, his name is Scooby . He’s a really loyal dog to the family and very sweet and funny. He doesn’t pull at all when we go on our walks. The only problem with him is that he’s very reactive to other dogs when we go on walks. For example if he sees another dog during our walk he starts to bark at them. Also with strangers he also like to sometimes bark at them. I don’t think its aggression, I think its mainly he’s nervous or just gets excited and can’t control his excitement. I do sometimes put a muzzle on him for safety reasons but then I take it off and people pet him and he doesn’t snap or bite, He just barks at the stranger or dogs around him mainly. Is there something I can do about this please and thank you.

  • I have a rescue Hungarian Puli mix. She’s been with us 8 months now. Small signs of ptsd but nothing we can’t handle – mostly guarding bones which given her previous life on streets is no issue. However her excited barking when out walking as she tries to entice other dogs to play and chase her, is exhausting. Pulik are vocal we know but is there a kind strategy that allows her the play she wants?

  • Thanks for helping me understand that nervous dogs would be tensed over their whole body. I guess I need to find a dog boarding facility that can handle dogs like that since my pet is like that. It’s because I adopted him when I saw him left on a road last year, so he might still have trauma to be left alone even if I just need to go for a meeting.

  • My 1.5 year old Samoyed is not territorial and does not bark but still is highly reactive to the point where he wears a gentle leader and harness with a front clip. Today, I told him to sit while we waited for the elevator. He listened but as soon as someone walked through the lobby door, he started lunging on leash getting overexcited completely forgetting about following commands. He acts like a complete lunatic when strangers or another dog is around. I actually stopped taking him to dog parks/day care because of this because of the poor recall skills and over excitement with dogs. He was supposed to be trained as a therapy dog but I am wondering if it is possible with his temperament.
    Not very happy about this. It’s stressful walking him because he’s quite strong for 55lbs and now have to keep a muzzle on him until i can afford a shock collar/professional training.

  • We have a 10 month old mutt that is mostly cocker spaniel and pit and chihuaha (did a dna test). He is very protective of my daughter and will lunge after me and today lunged after my husband who is not happy about it. Usually happens when he is resting but has happened other times. Would love training but live in Tehachapi CA and don’t know where to go. Did do some in person training and he is very smart. Hoping you can put us in the right direction to correct this. (Also barks at cars, people and other animals that pass by the front window, hackles up and all)

  • Hi there, my rescue is very reactive when we are on a walk. He is 14 months old. He barks and pulls so much when there is another dog somewhere around. He loves to play with other dogs and doesn’t bark when he is playing with other dogs so it is not a fear of dogs. Could you offer me some help?

  • We need direction! 1-yr old Border Collie mix found us while traveling, we may keep him as no owners have stepped forward in 3-weeks now. Very smart, and acclimated with our current pack of cats and dogs wonderfully. HOWEVER! Whenever he sees another dog, which I don’t feel it’s aggression and sure he wants to play with them, he goes into OVER anxiety mode and literally screams! Including when they are seen from outside the windows. He goes entirely ballistic and is uncontrollable. It’s sounds like a huge dog fight and it’s only him, with little to no way to calm him. As we are unsure of his history, we are in need of insight on how to stop him from this type of behavior. Any help is much appreciated.

  • It was really helpful to learn about counter-conditioning as a method from this article. Reading this made me think about how the breed of dog we got is a very hyperactive one, and that might not be good if ever we need to leave it in the care of boarders. I’ll make sure I use your training tips to prepare for the time we need to take it to a nearby dog boarding and training service.

  • My little dog is a resource guarder, and I’m the resource. I want to take her to our small dog park because I’m too handicapped to walk her. Every online course deals with windows, jumping etc. I need to know what to do at the dog park. I’m taking training courses but their answer is spray in their mouth. I don.’t believe negative consequences address the behavior and allow the dog, who is already agitated to calm down and collect themselves.

  • Los perros no nacen siendo agresivos. Aunque es cierto que existen algunas razas que tienen por naturaleza mayor instinto protector y quizá un umbral de tolerancia más bajo. Sin embargo, es raro que un animal muerda sin motivo.

  • I own a chihuahua mix that is very reactive and recently illicit a reaction from a pit bull. I have a no bark collar and correction spray.
    He is also is very reactive at the window. I recently covered the windows to prevent him from looking out and barking. While on walks I keep him away from other dogs, people, kids. Even then barking dogs at their windows gets a response. I am currently facing a situation of having to get rid of him because his reactive behavior is considered severe aggression. I am at a loss and and local training is limited to local pet supplies stores. I am not local.

  • The best way to socialize a reactive dog will vary depending on the individual dog’s temperament and level of reactivity. However, some tips on how to socialize a reactive dog may include gradually exposing the dog to different people and environments in a controlled and safe manner, using positive reinforcement training to teach the dog to associate people and other dogs with good things, and providing the dog with a safe space (such as a crate) where they can retreat to if they feel overwhelmed.

  • My wife and I adopted a german shepherd from the shelter a couple of weeks ago and he is reacting to everything and acting up. Thanks for explaining how displacement behaviors can show us that he is nervous while aggressiveness can be indicated by stiff and frozen body language. I think that we should pay more attention to him, but that we should also get a pet trainer to help us work with him better.

  • I like what you said about making sure you are gentle in pulling. My dog is a rescue and is frightened of everything. I’ll have to hire someone who is trained in the breed to help out my dog.

  • Funny how I stumbled upon this article again over a year later, I had it bookmarked. I found out about the gentle leader from this article… game changer. Thanks again! Kelsie

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