Reforming a Reactionary Dog

Reforming a Reactionary Dog

Feb, 17

We’ve all seen them – those nightmare dogs who lunge, leap, growl, snarl, snap, bark, threaten, bare their teeth, act like bullies, and charge at other dogs. They ruin visits to dog parks and even walks around the block. They’re out of control. They shouldn’t be allowed! 

It’s only natural to feel angry or annoyed when you encounter a problem dog. That’s scary enough – but it’s worse when the out-of-control dog is yours. 

Years ago, almost no one used “reactive” to describe these difficult dogs. They were called “aggressive,” and most trainers applied physical corrections. Today “reactive” describes several related problem behaviors, and the emphasis has shifted from physical punishment to positive-reinforcement training. 

Like many who have reactive dogs, I was not prepared. My first two Labradors, Samantha and Chloe, were calm, friendly, relaxed, and easy going. Neither ever chased a deer or a car. From time to time I heard about the rehabilitation of problem dogs but didn’t pay much attention. 

Now I’m making up for lost time. My crash course in reactive dog training began two years ago, when my Labrador Blue Sapphire was six months old. Blue would love to race after not only tennis balls but animals, skateboards, kids on bikes, motorcycles, joggers, and anything that moves. For months she erupted with ferocious barking as soon as she saw motion – a hiker, dog, deer, or bike – 50 or 100 yards away. No one meeting us would assume that this growling, barking, lunging terror was otherwise intelligent, affectionate, and a joy to live with. 

Since then, in addition to working with talented local trainers, I’ve been studying books, DVDs, articles, and online classes devoted to reactive dogs. Blue is mastering impulse control and I’m learning a lot about training. Perhaps some of what has helped us will help you as well.


You don’t have to purchase the library’s worth of books I’ve invested in, but multiple descriptions can help you understand and implement effective training programs. Trainers presenting the same basic information do so with different examples and approaches, at least one of which may be a perfect fit for you, your dog, and your schedule. If you prefer video demonstrations, try some DVDs, webinars, or online classes. 

It would be wonderful if these resources came with magic wands that transformed our dogs overnight, but alas, they don’t. They offer tools that we have to master and practice in order to help our dogs develop patience, confidence, and good manners.

Some of you may be most interested in how and why dogs become reactive and what their body language means; you may find technical descriptions and the language of behavior modification fascinating. Others may be impatient to skip the technicalities and start training, or want to focus on the emotional and energetic bonds connecting dogs and humans. No matter what your approach, you will find resources that will help advance your understanding and ability to deal with your reactive dog. 

For a topic that barely existed two decades ago, reactivity has spawned a training industry. So far I’ve studied 40 books and more than a dozen DVDs from force-free trainers, some of whom live with reactive dogs and all of whom have helped inexperienced handlers change their reactive dogs’ behavior. 


What exactly is a reactive dog? Reactivity describes a dog’s over-the-top or excessive response to specific situations, such as seeing a person, animal, other dog, or unexpected object. Dogs are called leash-reactive when the frustration caused by a restrictive leash overwhelms them (see Feisty Fido by Patricia McConnell). Blue is a good example, for once she’s off-leash on a trail or in a dog park, she plays well with other dogs.

In the training book The Midnight Dog Walkers, Annie Phenix says, “A reactive dog responds to normal events in his environment with a higher-than-normal level of intensity. Some of those overreactions include barking, whining, lunging, hypervigilance, panting, pacing, restlessness, and difficulty responding to his owner, even for well-known cues such as ‘sit.’”


The training and rehabilitation of reactive dogs has generated dozens of books, DVDs, and other resources that help “over-the-top” dogs and their owners relax, stay calm, and enjoy life together using effective strategies, detailed instructions, and positive, force-free training methods.


Aggression is usually defined as threats to harm an individual, whether human or animal, with attacks, attempted attacks, or threats of attack. Underlying causes of aggression include guarding or protecting territory or family members, guarding resources, prey drive, physical pain, and frustration. According to Pamela Dennison in How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong, aggression is a normal canine behavior, so it’s important to channel a dog’s natural aggressive instinct into socially acceptable activities. This can be done by identifying the dog’s unique issues and redirecting her actions. 

The first time Blue leaped in the air, snarled, and lunged at another dog, I was too startled to think straight. When she did it again, I was upset and confused. To me – and I’m sure to the people who saw her in action – she looked aggressive and dangerous. In and out of the house she began reacting in the same noisy, alarming way toward anything unexpected. 

We did well in the American Kennel Club’s STAR puppy class, but when we took the Canine Good Citizen test, the neutral dog did us in. Here was a new dog! And a new person! It was all too much!

In addition to the training classes we took with Adele Delp at Canine Fitness ( here in Helena, Montana, I hired Jeff Lepley (, who had recently completed Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers certification. 

It was Jeff who helped me understand that when Blue barked at distractions, she was frightened. At first I found that hard to believe because she looked so fierce, but the logic made sense. Yikes, there’s a strange person/thing/animal/whatever! I’ll scare it away! See? It worked! 


Thresholds are borders at the edge of a dog’s peaceful, comfortable state – the place or time when some stimulus causes the dog to experience stress, anxiety, or fear. A trigger is any stressor that occurs within the dog’s threshold, resulting in reactive behavior.

When a dog is “over threshold,” as Sunny Weber explains in Beyond Flight or Fight, “it means that the animal has lost control of logic and his brain is engulfed with stress hormones, making reasoned thought or learning impossible.”

What is your dog’s threshold? Blue’s extended as far as she could see in any direction, but once a scary visitor was inside the house, she relaxed. For some dogs it’s all about proximity – the closer the threat, the more intense the reaction. For others it’s the unexpected. Inanimate objects like parked cars and plastic bags startled Blue if they appeared where she wasn’t used to seeing them. Studying your dog’s threshold is important because with every repetition, a dog’s reactive behavior becomes stronger and more established. 

Canine body language offers plenty of clues if we train ourselves to notice them. Handlers whose attention wanders won’t observe changes in posture, ear or tail positions, hackles, eyes, or facial expressions, all of which give important signals. When Blue was leaping in the air and barking her head off, subtle cues had already come and gone, but with practice I learned to recognize them and redirect her before she progressed into full reactive mode. One simple test is whether she’ll take a treat. If not, I know we’re already over threshold. If she takes it in a distracted way, I know we’re close. Either response gives me options like changing direction, moving to a new location, getting her attention back, and practicing familiar commands.

Knowing how to interrupt a reactive response is worthwhile, but avoiding it is even better. As Sue Brown explains in Juvenile Delinquent Dogs, “The first step to changing your dog’s behavior is to prevent it from happening in the first place…. Preventing a behavior is called ‘management’ and it is done by managing your dog’s environment. You will save a lot of frustration, stress, anger, and energy if you focus on managing your dog’s environment rather than reacting to your dog’s unwanted behaviors.”

Annie Phenix agrees. “If I could enforce a signed pledge that owners won’t expose their dogs to the outside while they’re enrolled in the Growly Dog class, I would surely do it,” she says. “I ask for no walks during this time because it is critical to keep the dog under threshold (don’t put him in a position where he barks, lunges, growls, etc.) while we are reframing what an oncoming dog or person means to your dog. We are rebuilding trust and communication between owner and dog as well. It’s like a bank account built of trust. We spend four weeks building up that all-important account, and one scary incident can wipe out your savings, particularly in these beginning stages.”

Pat Miller, whose training articles are familiar to WDJ readers, says in her book Beware of the Dog, “If something you’re doing is triggering your dog’s aggression, stop doing it. If something or someone else is triggering the aggression, prevent your dog’s access to that person or thing, and prevent that person or thing from having access to your dog.” 

To this end, Miller and other trainers recommend blocking a reactive dog’s access to windows, fences, and similar triggers. When left unsupervised, Blue monitored upstairs windows, watching open fields and hiking trails. If something moved, she’d go ballistic. 

In Help for Your Fearful Dog, Nicole Wilde warns readers to keep reactive dogs away from “lookout posts.” Because the barking that results is self-rewarding, she writes, it is likely to continue. “The problem is that with each incident, adrenaline and other stress hormones are flooding your dog’s system so that her anxiety level spikes. The cumulative effect can be a dog who is perpetually stressed and on guard.”


Through her favorite window lookout post, Blue spots a jogger and immediately whines, growls, barks, and leaps in the air. Blocking her access to lookout windows prevents her from practicing this unwanted behavior


I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to appreciate the damage caused by Blue’s lookout posts, but setting ground rules and maintaining them made an immediate difference. As Wilde recommends, I closed doors leading to upstairs windows and interrupted barking by calling her to me, praising her for coming, asking for different basic behaviors (sit, down, touch my hand, watch me, let’s go), and rewarding her with favorite toys or treats. Whenever I leave the house without her, Blue stays in her crate or in a quiet room with closed curtains. Without the constant reinforcement of outdoor distractions, the indoors stays peaceful. 


In 1993, Jean Donaldson videotaped dog trainers and dog owners to see what they did differently. As one would expect, all of the dogs performed better with professional trainers, but there was an even more important difference that Donaldson didn’t notice until she rewound and fast-forwarded the tape while collecting data. In Train Your Dog Like a Pro she writes, “I was amazed to find that I could identify whether the person on the screen was a trainer or not with just a one-second sample or even a freeze-frame, based strictly on whether the person was attempting to train the dog at all.”

Donaldson calls this difference “the perseverance gap.” Typically, non-trainers tried something a few times, such as getting the dog to lie down, and then, whether successful or not, they stopped training and waited for the next activity. Once again they tried two or three repetitions and then quit. In between, they chatted with anyone nearby, checked their watches (today they would check their cell phones), or petted their dogs. Most of their training time consisted of this “between-training” dead air. 

In contrast, the trainers constantly watched their dogs while doing one repetition after another. Donaldson says this pattern was evident whether the dogs caught on quickly, were difficult to train, were already highly trained, or were unruly novices. “The trainers trained like bats out of hell,” she says, “and the non-trainers were mostly on break time.”

Count that as a breakthrough realization. No one had videotaped Blue and me in our classes, but if they did, we’d see a lot of between-training dead air. Following the advice to “fake it till you make it,” I imagined Jean Donaldson observing us as we walked up and down stairs, practiced heeling in the living room, went outside, paused at gates, came inside, paused at doors, went to the dog park, practiced retrieves, practiced recalls, practiced basic obedience, and practiced tricks while Blue received undivided attention, rapid rewards, and enthusiastic praise. 

My second turning-point trainer was the late Sophia Yin, DVM, whose DVD exercises revealed just how slow my timing was, how my posture was incorrect (bending over the dog, not standing straight), and how my reward delivery was vague and inconsistent. Practicing along with her workshop participants made my movements faster, more direct, more decisive, and easier for Blue to understand.

In her video workshops and in How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves, Dr. Yin focused on “sit” as an automatic behavior equivalent to “please,” because insisting that a dog “sit for everything” helps one become a clearly communicating leader while changing the dog’s perspective. 

In addition, Dr. Yin recommended tethering, attaching dog to handler with a hands-free leash, and wearing a bait pouch containing not just a fraction of the dog’s daily food allowance but all of it. In other words, during the early phases of training, all of every meal arrives one piece at a time from the handler in response to correct behaviors.

Because Blue’s raw diet doesn’t work well in a bait pouch, I loaded up on hand-feedable treats that could replace parts of her dinner. Tethering and keeping the bait pouch full improved my observation skills, helped me notice and reward every behavior I wanted to encourage, kept Blue motivated, kept her away from threshold-threatening windows, and reminded me to act like a trainer. 

A third breakthrough author, Amy Sutherland, helped me appreciate force-free training from a completely different perspective. While writing a book on modern training methods, Sutherland spent a year with the Exotic Animal Training and Management program at Moorpark College in California. Her follow-up book, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage, focuses not on killer whales and other creatures but on humans struggling to master training fundamentals. 

By applying modern training methods to every aspect of her own life, Sutherland changed herself, her husband, and all of her relationships. Several of the books listed here discuss challenges like unsympathetic observers, anger, and vocal criticism faced by those with reactive dogs, but Sutherland demonstrates how the versatile laws of behavioral training can transform handlers as much as the animals we work with.


Foundation behaviors are responses so thoroughly practiced and automatic (think muscle memory) that the dog does them without thinking. These are often basic obedience commands, and they provide alternatives to whatever a dog is doing (or about to do) that is other than what you want. Most of the resources listed describe how to teach, practice, and improve foundation behaviors.

In When Pigs Fly: Training Success with Impossible Dogs, Jane Killion calls automatic attention the mother of all behaviors and one of the first things we should teach our dogs. “There is no point in teaching your dog how to do things if he is going to ignore you when you ask him to do them,” she says. “Attention is the foundation for any training program.”

As Patricia McConnell explains in Feisty Fido and her DVD “Treating Dog-Dog Reactivity,” the attention or “watch” cue has many advantages. “Teaching an incompatible behavior is a time-honored and elegant solution to a lot of behavior problems,” she says, “and it works wonderfully with fidos who are a bit too feisty on leash walks. Additionally, by teaching your dog to look at your face when she sees another dog, you’re teaching her what you want her to do, rather than hoping she’ll figure it out for herself.”

In addition to making eye contact, Pamela Dennison’s essential behaviors include name recognition, heeling on a loose leash, accepting touching, accepting secondary reinforcers (rewards other than food), staying in place, coming when called, doorway control (when going in or out of cars or buildings), and remaining relaxed around objects, people, or places instead of guarding them. 

In Control Unleashed, Leslie McDevitt adds the whiplash turn, which is a fast turn of the head away from something and toward the handler. “If the dog isn’t looking at me,” says McDevitt, “the first thing he needs to do is disengage from what he is looking at and orient toward me instead.”

Her instructions include mat training, which involves independently going to a mat, lying down or sitting on the mat automatically, and staying on the mat without fidgeting until released. Blue responded right away to mats, which can be anything from a square of plywood on the ground to a towel, area rug, or bathmat on the floor. That’s where she stays while meals are prepared and consumed, plus whenever the doorbell rings. Outdoors she runs to her plywood mat when we practice retrieves.

Emma Parsons’ foundation behaviors in Click to Calm include watch (make eye contact), sit, down, heel on a loose leash, target (touch an object such as a hand or target stick on cue), stay, come when called, four-on-the-floor (no jumping allowed), kennel up (go into your crate), leave it, and hold an object. 

In Out and About with Your Dog, Sue Sternberg recommends three essential skills for moving past dogs and other distractions: watch the handler’s face without interruption, heel on the left side, and heel on the right. “The more treats you use and the more frequently you give them during the initial foundation training, the stronger your dog’s behavior will be in the end,” she says. “Don’t skimp. Have many tiny treats ready in one hand and shovel them into your dog, one at a time, until he is looking at you and there is a constant stream of treats going into his mouth.” Before you run out of treats, put the food away, walk away from your dog, and ignore him for a few minutes. “Leave him wanting more,” she says, “while there’s still more to be had.”

Default behaviors are whatever responses come easily to the dog and which are stabilizing, relaxing, and comfortable. Leslie McDevitt defines a default behavior as one the dog commits to and maintains for the duration of a specific context. “The context is the cue to begin the behavior,” she says, “and the behavior will continue until the context changes or you give your release cue.” The default behavior is automatic and it gives the dog something to do (lie down and chill out, for example) when she isn’t receiving instructions. McDevitt recommends letting the dog choose her defaults. Whatever the dog offers, such as a sit, down, or anything else, can be encouraged, strengthened, and lengthened with attention and rewards.

Studying your dog’s inclinations can help you discover a canine sport for which he has a special aptitude or interest, such as dock diving, hunting/retrieving, scent tracking, herding, agility, rally obedience, nosework, flyball, disc sports, parkour, or trick training. As your dog becomes more confident and responsive to your management skills, any of these might become a perfect match. For inspiration, see Hyper Dog 101 by Kim Mayes; Play Your Way to Good Manners by Kate Naito and Sarah Westcott; and Dog Parkour by Anna Louise Kjaer. 


Behavioral trainers reward what they want to see more of. This simple strategy is the key to modern training, and it’s based on research. In You Can Train Your Dog, Pamela Dennison describes three basic laws of learning:

  • Rewarded behavior is repeated.
  • Ignored (unrewarded) behavior stops.
  • Once a behavior is in place, random (variable) rewards will strengthen it.

What do we mean by “ignoring” unwanted behavior? When a dog jumps on people, his rewards may include attention, physical contact, shouts of alarm, or an opportunity to run and chase, so the recommended response is to stand still, turn your back, look away, and ignore the dog’s jumping. When jumping isn’t fun any more, the dog will look for something else to do, and when sitting politely earns rewards and treats, that new behavior replaces jumping.

But what about self-reinforcing activities like barking, running fence lines, chasing bikes, or lunging at people and other dogs? Ignoring these behaviors won’t extinguish them, and as long as they’re rewarding to the dog, they will grow stronger. This is why it’s important for handlers to manage their dogs’ environment, plan ahead, avoid triggers, notice changes in posture, and become skilled at evasive maneuvers. Inattentive handlers and reactive dogs are a dangerous combination. 

To the basic laws of learning, we can add three suggestions for motivating your dog from Jane Killion:

  • Identify the things that your dog loves.
  • Gain control of them.
  • Exchange them on a regular basis for behaviors that you want.

And as Sue Brown adds, when training doesn’t change your dog’s behavior, one of three things is probably happening:

  • There isn’t enough consistency.
  • You have not given it enough time.
  • What you are doing is not effective and needs to be changed.

The most widely used reward is food, but whatever your dog finds valuable or fulfilling can work. Some dogs live for tennis balls, tug toys, an opportunity to run hard, or play dates with special friends. Verbal praise and physical petting may be appreciated, but they are seldom as rewarding as food, toys, or the chance to do something exciting. 

The least rewarding food treat is your dog’s regular kibble. Try filling your bait pouch with a variety of meats, cheeses, crunchy biscuits broken into small pieces, and other tasty handouts.

If your dog enjoys them, interactive puzzles can be amazing motivators. Whenever Blue (a puzzle addict) is almost but not quite reliable with something she is learning, I show her a Nina Ottosson puzzle and she suddenly seems to remember and understand exactly what I want from her and she does it with great enthusiasm.

Many trainers recommend documenting results on a printed form or in a training notebook because keeping an objective record of your dog’s progress will help you move forward without the frustration and disappointment of setbacks.

“We want an ever-increasing level of difficulty without losing the dog by having him quit because it’s too hard,” says Donaldson. She recommends measuring the success of every step in a training session and not moving on until the dog successfully completes the behavior for five repetitions in a row. 

When completing a practice set, be sure that all of the repetitions are identical. Don’t change your location, position, the direction you’re facing, your body language, voice, or other signals until you’re ready for the next installment. Paying close attention to what you are doing helps prevent the accidental reinforcing of behaviors you would rather extinguish. 

 When the dog performs each action successfully five times in a row, she is ready to move on to the next, more complicated, assignment. If she can’t complete more than one or two repetitions, make it easier by dropping back to a previous, simpler behavior. If she completes three or four repetitions, stay where you are and try another set of five repetitions.


Blue works to find and eat the treats hidden in a food puzzle. She loves this activity, so the opportunity to play with one motivates her to pay close attention and respond quickly in a training session.


The advantage to training in sets is that they clearly show your progress. Endlessly repeating a behavior that your dog already knows is inefficient and boring, and jumping ahead too quickly is inefficient and stressful. 

Organizing training sessions helps us be “splitters” instead of “lumpers.” In The Toolbox for Building a Great Family Dog, Terry Ryan explains that two of her mentors, the positive training pioneers Marian Breland-Baily and Bob Bailey, taught her these terms. Splitters break tasks into small, easy pieces, increasing the chances for success. Lumpers grow impatient, assume that the dog can move ahead faster, and focus on the desired end result while skipping in-between steps. 

As Laura VanArendonk Baugh writes in Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out, “If we lump behaviors – ‘my dog has learned to sit in an empty room, so now I’ll ask him to sit while the doorbell rings and guests walk in’ – we’re going to experience failure and frustration. Splitting can feel ‘slow’ to those not used to it, because it’s many small steps instead of a few large ones, but in the long run training actually moves much faster!”

In support of good training, your definition of “jackpot” may need updating. I used to think that a jackpot, which is a special reward for something done well, would be an unusually yummy treat, like maybe a chunk of raw steak. But that’s only part of it. A really rewarding jackpot isn’t a single treat that’s quickly swallowed, it goes on for  as much as 20 seconds or more. That’s a long time! 

The other day as Blue and I walked to my car from the dog park, a commotion erupted on the sidewalk ahead. When I said, “Come front!” Blue spun around, sat with her back to the action, and ignored a leaping, snarling, on-leash German Shepherd exchanging words with a leaping, snarling, on-leash Lab. Blue’s jackpot consisted of 30 small pieces of hot dog, cheese, freeze-dried liver, almonds, bacon, turkey jerky, peanut butter treats, and dehydrated bison tripe, delivered one at a time with decisive arm movements while I stood straight and praised her for being so awesome. The distracting dogs went their separate ways and Blue ignored them as we resumed our walk. 


If there’s one thing the experts agree on, it’s the importance of ongoing practice. For best results, reactive dog training never stops. Well-managed reactive dogs are often the best-behaved dogs in classes, competitions, at home, and in the great outdoors because their handlers’ management skills are so polished and automatic. 

In Better Together: The Collected Wisdom of Modern Dog Trainers, Ken Ramirez observes, “The most impressive changes have occurred with dogs that have had a lengthy break from exposure to triggers combined with lots of fun and advanced training as part of a stable program.” When advanced training is not part of the equation, he says, most of the dogs he has worked with continue to have challenges.

Living well with reactive dogs requires commitment, patience, and a willingness to try new methods. It’s an ambitious investment of time and effort. It’s also one that, as I’m learning with Blue and the resources listed here, can pay a lifetime of dividends. 

The post Reforming a Reactionary Dog appeared first on Whole Dog Journal.

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