Rent safe and private dog parks hosted by locals

  1. Home
  2. Blog
  3. Dog Training
  4. How to Train a Reactive Dog: Beginner’s Guide

How to Train a Reactive Dog: Beginner’s Guide

David Adams photo

David Adams

March 06, 2024

Dog Training

How to Train a Reactive Dog: Beginner’s Guide thumbnail

* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

Your dog has started showing reactivity — they’re barking, growling, lunging, and otherwise acting like a maniac with a bunch of rude behavior in the presence of certain triggers — and you don’t even know where to start. Can your dog be helped? What’s causing their meltdowns? How do you sift through the mountains of training information online?

We know that working through dog reactivity can be overwhelming — but you’re not alone. Reactivity is one of the most common behavior issues in modern dogs. Here’s a comprehensive guide to getting on the right track with your reactive dog!

Understand some key dog training terminology


First, let’s get our definitions straight. Dog reactivity is a big topic with lots of associated terms.

What does “reactive” mean?


While every living animal is constantly “reacting” to its environment — you might put on a sweatshirt when you notice you’re cold or head to open the door when you hear a knock — “reactive” is used in the dog training world to describe pets who overreact to stimuli in their environments. Reactivity generally encompasses a range of unwanted behaviors (barking, growling, lunging, jumping, pulling, and so on) in situations that typically don’t warrant them in our minds (triggers are behaving normally in a non threatening way) but that are overwhelming or scary to our dogs.

Basically: Your puppy who woofs once or twice when startled? They wouldn’t be diagnosed with reactivity. One who barks, growls, and lunges at every other dog they see out on a walk, on the other hand? They would be considered reactive.

What is a trigger?


Your dog’s triggers are the things that cause them to react. Dogs might become reactive to just about anything, but some common triggers are:

  • Adult humans (especially strangers, people wearing strange clothing your dog hasn’t seen before or that is associated with a scary or threatening life experience, or approaching in a certain way)

  • Children, who can move quickly and erratically 

  • Other dogs

  • Animals like cats, rabbits, squirrels, and birds

  • Fast-moving object like cars, bikes, or skateboards


Some dogs react to their triggers in all situations (for example, all dogs they see outside their home) while other dogs only react to more specific images (like pointy-eared dogs directly approaching them at a certain distance). There are also different levels of reactivity. Some dogs have a mild response while others react more intensely.

What is your dog’s threshold?


Your dog’s reactivity threshold is the point where they fully react to their triggers. When a dog is under threshold, they’re able to control their behaviors and be aware of their surroundings (even if they seem a little aroused, nervous, or on edge). When they’re over threshold, though, they're reacting from fear or a predatory instinct and want to protect themselves or catch to kill.

The best way to work with a reactive dog is to keep them under threshold as much as possible. This usually means working at a comfortable, safe distance from the trigger where your dog knows it’s there but isn’t overwhelmed. If you’re able to control the trigger’s intensity and duration, that can work too (though is usually a little more difficult if you aren’t in a controlled training set up).

When a dog goes over threshold, it can take one to two full days for their bodies to come down from the cortisol and adrenaline highs. It’s important to be extra conscious of any additional stressors during this period!

Figure out what causes your dog’s reactivity


Typically, reactive dogs have one of two goals in mind. They either want to get away from something scary (this is fear-based reactivity) or want to get closer to something exciting (this is frustration-based reactivity). In each case, different things might improve your dog's behavior and emotions — or make the reactivity worse.

Fear-based dog reactivity


Fear-based reactivity in dogs is often caused when nervous or uncertain dogs feel trapped in a certain situation. Think about a porcupine puffing out their quills to make something scary go away! Your dog might appear to show aggressive behaviors, but they don’t want to go out of their way to cause harm — they’re just experiencing anxiety and really want to be left alone.

You can read more about fear aggression in this guide. It's sometimes caused by a traumatic experience, though not always.

Excitement- or frustration-based dog reactivity


Frustration-based leash reactivity, on the other hand, stems from a dog wanting to interact with something they can’t. This is common in social dogs who regularly visit dog parks or attend daycare. They love other pets and get frustrated when they aren’t allowed to greet them! That frustration (especially when being held back on a leash) can quickly build into a reactive display and can lead to serious aggression.

If your dog’s reactivity is limited to when they’re tethered, this article talks about fixing leash reactivity or leash aggression specifically.

Lack of fulfillment or general overarousal


We bred certain traits into dog breeds over generations and generations. Two examples: Herders are hyper-aware of their surroundings, and terriers have an intense desire to chase prey. So if your Cattle Dog is barking at quick-moving objects or your Jack Russell keeps lunging after rabbits, there’s a chance their reactivity is caused by unmet genetic drives rather than a lack of socialization!

Some dogs also struggle with general overarousal even if they aren’t acting on specific breed traits. If your pet can’t seem to settle down even in familiar environments, triggers out in the world can be like the straw that broke the camel’s back — the final stimulus that puts them all the way over their threshold (which is low already) even though the problem is bigger than that one thing. This type of reactivity can be especially exacerbated by an overall lack of training. 

Sniffspot Dog running on field

Get safe exercise for your dog by renting a private dog park near you

Start by meeting your dog’s basic needs


Frustration-based dog reactivity and general overarousal can often be improved by simply addressing our pets’ underlying needs. It’s possible that your dog is displaying reactive behaviors as signs of feeling ill, in pain, or unfulfilled! You can increase their exercise frequency and type, including activities that let them move their body and use their brain in natural ways.

It’s always a good idea to evaluate your reactive dog’s basic needs before focusing on specific training situations. Even if your dog’s reactivity is driven by more than a treatable health or fulfillment problem, making sure their needs are met will still help you maximize your training success.

Keep a close eye on your pet’s health


Canines are great at hiding discomfort. If your dog is reacting when being touched by people or playing with other dogs — especially if they’re suddenly sensitive in situations they used to tolerate well — there’s a good chance they’re in pain.

A thorough vet check should help you identify any problems. Even the most careful training plan won’t help your reactive dog if their behavior is the result of an injury or illness. We can’t ask for calm behavior from our companions if they aren’t feeling well.

Give your dog enrichment (opportunities to express their natural instincts)


How can you help your pet feel more fulfilled in our modern human world? Provide appropriate canine enrichment!

At its simplest, enrichment provides animals with opportunities to satisfy their innate instincts. Common enrichment activities usually give our dogs the chance to safely dig, sniff, and emulate their predatory sequence (searching, stalking, chasing, fighting, celebrating, and consuming) without causing harm to or disrupting the communities we live in.

You can learn more about fulfilling your dog’s natural instincts in our comprehensive guide to canine enrichment.

Spend dedicated time with your dog


Dogs and humans are both social animals. It’s important to spend time together — and not always in high stakes training or socialization settings. Prioritize the things you both enjoy to make sure you’re still investing in your bond even as you navigate the ins and outs and difficult reactivity.

Take care of yourself, too!


Living with a reactive dog can be overwhelming — and there’s no shame in admitting that. It’s okay if you’re tired. It’s okay if you miss a training session here and there. It’s okay if you sometimes feel jealous of other dogs and owners who don’t have to worry about the things you’re constantly keeping track of.

Take time to practice self care. You have to fill your own cup before you’re able to give your dog what they need!

Find a support network you trust


Part of taking care of yourself while training your reactive dog? Remembering that you don’t have to do it all alone. The right support network can make a world of difference as you navigate your pet’s behavior problems and create a life you both enjoy.

Consider reaching out to:


Get your dog the safe enrichment they need by renting a Sniffspot

Sniffspot Dog swimming in pool

Think about long-term goals for your dog’s reactivity


When living with a reactive dog, almost nothing is more important than setting realistic goals — for both of you!

You want to find the sweet spot that works for your individual situation. Look for a balance of feeling empowered to make changes while also realizing that many reactive dogs are never fully “cured” (and don’t need to be to live amazing lives).

Avoid setting goals that are out of your control, like having your dog be comfortable in all situations and never react to anything ever again. (We live in a messy, modern human world — it’s just not possible to keep our pets calm 100% of the time.)

Do set goals that matter to your lifestyle, and focus on metrics that you can easily keep track of (like how many training sessions you have in a week).

Some examples of healthy long-term goals:


  • I want my dog to feel more comfortable than he does now — even if he still occasionally reacts in certain situations we can’t fully control.

  • I want my dog to be able to walk closer to his triggers — even if he’s never able to directly interact with them.

  • I want my dog to react less frequently — even if he still barks, growls, and lunges on occasion.

  • I want my dog to recover from his reactions more quickly.

  • I want my dog’s reactions to be less intense.

  • I want my dog and I to enjoy our life together.


Use management strategies to prevent reactive behavior while you work on training your dog


We promise we’ll get into reactive dog training itself soon, but first: Management is an important part of helping your reactive dog avoid bad experiences in your daily life. The more frequently your pet practices their undesirable behaviors in a heightened emotional state, the deeper they ingrain those habits. It’s important to prevent as many reactions as possible so your training can be successful!

Don’t worry, though, you don’t have to be perfect. We mentioned healthy lifestyle expectations above and it’s important to have those when it comes to management, too. Your dog will still react to triggers. You can’t control the whole world. And no one expects you to!

Just a little bit of effort can go a long way to managing your dog’s behavior in the meantime, though:


  • Use tools like basket muzzles or “ignore me” patches as a visual cue to get more space from strangers while out on walks.

  • Carefully consider when you go to an environment and whether it will be too busy for your reactive dog to feel comfortable. It's smart to avoid places with many off-leash dogs, young kids, or other common triggers, especially early on in your reactivity training plan.

  • Cover your windows with film or close the blinds to prevent your dog from barking at triggers outside your living room or office windows throughout the day. You can also use household objects as visual barriers.

  • Drive to a quieter walking route rather than trying to stay in your immediate neighborhood if it’s too overwhelming.

  • Don’t feel guilty about turning around when you see a trigger if you aren’t prepared to train through it.

  • Practice your dog’s basic cues, leash skills, ability to receive reinforcement in multiple ways (like from your hand, scattered on the ground, and tossed in the air), and eye contact with you. Building these habits outside of stressful situations will make it possible for you to use them to get through difficult moments out and about. A solid ‘’leave it” cue can be especially powerful.


Sniffspot Dog running on field

Get safe exercise for your dog by renting a private dog park near you

Start tackling specific reactivity scenarios


hew! We’ve talked about a lot of important foundational work to set you and your reactive dog up for success. Now for the nitty gritty. What does actual reactive dog training look like? There are a range of training techniques, methods, and set ups to help your reactive dog feel calmer around their triggers — together, these are referred to as a behavior modification training program. Most of them involve creating neutral or positive experiences to change their underlying emotions.

Here are some key strategies and training tips to learn about.

Scenario set up


Suzanne Clothier has a webinar on setting up scenarios to work with your reactive dog. It’s called “Quick — Hit PAUSE!” through Relationship Centered Training.

Desensitization


Desensitization involves getting our dogs used to their triggers slowly, in small doses that don’t put them over threshold. While it can be difficult to implement in the “real world” (public environments are often unpredictable and we can’t always decide how far away our dogs are from their triggers) it’s a valuable technique in controlled situations. Distance, intensity and duration matter. 

Counterconditioning


Counter conditioning (CC) is the process of pairing something scary or overwhelming (your reactive dog’s triggers) with something positive (like their favorite treats or toys) to ultimately change their conditioned emotional response over time. CC can be incredibly helpful when working with reactive dogs — but it’s important to be aware of your timing! If you feed your dog before they notice their trigger, you might accidentally teach them that “good things predicts scary things” instead of the other way around. You also have to keep up CC consistently or undesirable emotions (and their associated behaviors) can return. 

Observation games


Observation games like engage-disengage and look at that use counter conditioning principles to help your dog feel a little calmer and think more clearly around their triggers. Then these methods capitalize on operant conditioning (a learning theory involving animals intentionally performing behavior to earn reinforcement) to create better responses (like looking at you) rather than barking and lunging.

Behavior adjustment training


Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) was developed by force-free trainer Grisha Stewart to rehabilitate and prevent dog reactivity. BAT builds confidence by employing principles of desensitization while also giving our pets a chance to learn to control their environment. It’s a minimally invasive method — it allows our pets to learn about their triggers in as natural a way as possible — that prioritizes dogs making their own decisions. Treats and direct rewards are used less in BAT than methods like counter conditioning.

The play way


According to force-free trainer Amy Cook, play can be both an indicator of stress and/or an intervention for stress. She uses social play to rehabilitate fearful dogs rather than focusing on food like many methods do. This makes her process a particularly great option for pets who have sensitive stomachs or dietary restrictions that prevent their owners from routinely using high value treats when out in the world.

And more


It would be impossible to list every reactivity training approach in one place. Each dog, owner, and situation is different — and the animal training world is constantly evolving!

As long as your chosen method is recommended by a humane trainer you trust and prioritizes your dog’s positive emotions, it could help them live a better life.

Grow and adjust over time


Training a reactive dog isn’t a linear process. There will be ups and downs along the journey! While it’s important to realize your pet might never enjoy some of the “normal” things other dogs do (like visiting traditional dog parks or crowded restaurant patios), they absolutely can still have a full life.Together you’ll learn, grow, and adjust along the way as you encounter new environments at your dog's pace. The reactive dog community is cheering for you!

Get your dog the safe enrichment they need by renting a Sniffspot

Sniffspot Dog swimming in pool

Trainer Review of this Article


There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Penny Locke
Proudly offering Positive Reinforcement & Force-free Dog Training
www.allabout-canines.com

David Adams photo

David Adams

March 06, 2024

Dog Training

About Sniffspot

Sniffspot is a community marketplace that enables anyone to rent land by-the-hour as a safe and private dog park.

Follow us

Find Sniffspot on your favorite social media

TiktokInstagramFacebookYoutube
Related articles
Navigating Dog-Friendly Travel in 2024: Data, Insight, and Expert Tips thumbnail

Navigating Dog-Friendly Travel in 2024: Data, Insight, and Expert Tips

Complete Guide to Dog Training Hand Signals (Facts + Infographic) thumbnail

Complete Guide to Dog Training Hand Signals (Facts + Infographic)

Rottweiler Aggression: Signs, Causes, and How to Handle It thumbnail

Rottweiler Aggression: Signs, Causes, and How to Handle It

All categories

Most recent articles

Navigating Dog-Friendly Travel in 2024: Data, Insight, and Expert Tips thumbnail

Navigating Dog-Friendly Travel in 2024: Data, Insight, and Expert Tips

Complete Guide to Dog Training Hand Signals (Facts + Infographic) thumbnail

Complete Guide to Dog Training Hand Signals (Facts + Infographic)

Rottweiler Aggression: Signs, Causes, and How to Handle It thumbnail

Rottweiler Aggression: Signs, Causes, and How to Handle It

The Best Dog Trainers in Florida of 2023 thumbnail

The Best Dog Trainers in Florida of 2023

The Best Dog Trainers in Tampa, FL of 2023 thumbnail

The Best Dog Trainers in Tampa, FL of 2023

The Best Dog Trainers in Lakeland, FL of 2023 thumbnail

The Best Dog Trainers in Lakeland, FL of 2023

Related articles
Navigating Dog-Friendly Travel in 2024: Data, Insight, and Expert Tips thumbnail

Navigating Dog-Friendly Travel in 2024: Data, Insight, and Expert Tips

Complete Guide to Dog Training Hand Signals (Facts + Infographic) thumbnail

Complete Guide to Dog Training Hand Signals (Facts + Infographic)

Rottweiler Aggression: Signs, Causes, and How to Handle It thumbnail

Rottweiler Aggression: Signs, Causes, and How to Handle It

Top dog guides per area

Dog training guides

Dog enrichment guides

The Best Dog Water Parks in the United States thumbnail

The Best Dog Water Parks in the United States

Do you have a water-loving dog looking to burn some energy? There are countless dog parks to visit throughout our country — but some of them become far too hot in the midday sun to be safe for your pets to play. That’s why we’ve put together a list of some of the best dog water parks throughout the United States! At these locations, your pup can frolic, splash, and swim to their heart’s content.

Best Toys for Herding Dogs thumbnail

Best Toys for Herding Dogs

* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

The Best Dog Toys for Aggressive Chewers (Facts + Infographic) thumbnail

The Best Dog Toys for Aggressive Chewers (Facts + Infographic)

Does your dog destroy every toy you give them? Is your house littered with remnants of fabric and stuffing of all different sizes? Are you tired of investing in “indestructible” toys only for your pup to still dismantle (or worse, get bored of) them in just a few days?

Dog Exercise Calculator: How Much Exercise Does Your Dog Need? thumbnail

Dog Exercise Calculator: How Much Exercise Does Your Dog Need?

You’ve been told that your dog needs regular exercise. There’s a reason “walking the dog” is a classic daily activity: Frequent excursions give your pup a chance to stretch their legs, experience the world, maintain a healthy weight, and spend time with you! Consistent physical activity will also improve their strength, muscle tone, coordination, and mental ability over time.

Complete Guide To Herding With Dogs thumbnail

Complete Guide To Herding With Dogs

* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

Dog reactivity guides

Sniffspot community guides

The State of Public Dog Parks Across the United States thumbnail

The State of Public Dog Parks Across the United States

From 2009 to 2020, there was a 40 percent increase in the development of public dog parks. Designated spots for canine exercise have become commonplace in every major city in North America — many pet owners won’t even consider renting an apartment that doesn’t have its own fenced-in pet area for their canine companions.

How This Family is Affording Their Dream Property Through Renting it Hourly to Dogs thumbnail

How This Family is Affording Their Dream Property Through Renting it Hourly to Dogs

Thousand Oaks, California has been a safe haven for Sniffspot host, Jen, since childhood. Having grown up in busy Santa Barbara, Jen, an introvert from an early age, would seek out solitude and serenity away from tourists attractions and droves of people visiting from elsewhere. “My grandparents own 60 acres about a 30 minute drive from here, and I grew up spending every summer and every holiday visiting them on the ranch,” Jen explained. “In Santa Barbara, we wouldn't go to the beach on the weekend because that's where everybody was, so you'd find places off the beaten path where the tourists weren't. For me, the ranch was just my happy place.” 

Host Tips: Ellen K. What Makes Sniffspot Successful for Me thumbnail

Host Tips: Ellen K. What Makes Sniffspot Successful for Me

Ellen is the host of Country Pasture Getaway, one of Sniffspot's most popular sniff spots. She has taken the time to write up the lessons she has learned about how to be a great sniff spot host.

How this Oregon Farmer is Making a Business From Renting Her Land to Dogs thumbnail

How this Oregon Farmer is Making a Business From Renting Her Land to Dogs

Just 20 minutes outside of the busy city of Portland, Oregon, and settled right on the banks of the Columbia River, you’ll find what countless visitors have flocked to the area in search of – mountain views, crisp, clean air, and running water for miles. What you might not expect to find, however, is a hidden oasis designed just for dogs and their people, owned and operated by a farming couple and enjoyed by visitors on two legs, and four.  

Host Tips: Fran T. Providing Great Guest Service at our Spot thumbnail

Host Tips: Fran T. Providing Great Guest Service at our Spot

Fran is the host of Ranch Setting, one of Sniffspot's most popular spots. She has taken the time to write up the lessons she has learned about how to be a great Sniffspot host.

Top dog trainers in the US

The Best Dog Trainers in the United States of 2023 thumbnail

The Best Dog Trainers in the United States of 2023

Welcome to the United States Sniffspot top dog trainer list for 2023. This is a list of the top dog trainers in the United States based on votes from the Sniffspot community and the general public. Over 55,000 votes were used in compiling this list. We have only included the top trainers with sufficient votes and the trainers are ordered in terms of the number of votes received. Trainers that tied are ranked in reverse alphabetical order based on first name. All dog trainers on this list are positive reinforcement only, as defined by no force, fear, intimidation, or aversive methods used.

The Best Dog Trainers in New Jersey of 2023 thumbnail

The Best Dog Trainers in New Jersey of 2023

The Best Dog Trainers in Michigan of 2023 thumbnail

The Best Dog Trainers in Michigan of 2023

The Best Dog Trainers in Washington of 2023 thumbnail

The Best Dog Trainers in Washington of 2023

The Best Dog Trainers in Florida of 2023 thumbnail

The Best Dog Trainers in Florida of 2023

City dog parks guides

The Best Indoor Dog Parks in the United States thumbnail

The Best Indoor Dog Parks in the United States

Looking for a space to play with your dog no matter what the weather’s like outside? Look no further than our list of the best indoor dog parks in the United States! These climate-controlled spaces are growing in popularity as pet ownership increases throughout the country. As a bonus, many of them also offer dog training, boarding, grooming, or daycare services on the premises.

The Best Off-Leash Dog Parks in the United States thumbnail

The Best Off-Leash Dog Parks in the United States

Looking for the perfect place to play with your dog? We’ve got you covered! It’s hard to narrow down, but we’ve put together some of the best off-leash dog parks throughout the country so you can plan your next adventure — along with a checklist of what to bring, what to know beforehand, and some frequently asked questions.

The Best Las Vegas, Nevada Dog Parks thumbnail

The Best Las Vegas, Nevada Dog Parks

Looking for the perfect place to play with your dog in Las Vegas? We’ve got you covered! Take a look at the best local dog parks and plan for your next adventure in Sin City.

The Best United States Dog Parks thumbnail

The Best United States Dog Parks

Looking for the perfect place to play with your dog? We’ve got you covered! It’s hard to narrow down, but we’ve put together some of the best dog parks throughout the country so you can plan your next adventure. Here’s what the United States has to offer to its more than 90 million canine companions.

The Best Portland, Oregon Dog Parks thumbnail

The Best Portland, Oregon Dog Parks

Looking for the perfect place to play with your dog in Portland? We’ve got you covered! Take a look at the best local dog parks and plan for your next adventure in the City of Roses.