Aggressive or reactive behavior is one of the most common dog behavior issues I see in my work as a dog behavior consultant. This is likely due to our increasingly restrictive urban environment. Many dogs are frustrated, excited, or even fearful at the sight of other dogs. These strong emotions can manifest as barking, lunging, and generally behaving aggressively towards other dogs. So, what do you do when your dog is seemingly aggressive or reactive to other dogs?
The first thing to understand when dealing with a leash reactive dog is that they are really struggling emotionally in most cases. All good training also involves a lifestyle assessment for the dog(s) in question. The humane hierarchy of dog training reminds us that if the dog is stressed, in pain, overly tired, or chronically bored our training plan is incomplete. For example, if your dog is scared of other dogs because his vision is cloudy, the plan is lacking if it doesn’t ease his physical ailment.
A crucial component of your training plan is to do your best to avoid triggering their reactions to other dogs. This may require shifting your walk schedule or location to avoid other dogs. Also, reducing walk lengths in favor of other exercise, or even eliminating walks entirely and finding another way to exercise your dog and let them go to the bathroom. This may sound blasphemous – a dog trainer telling you to stop walking your dog! But reducing your dog’s stress level and not letting them rehearse aggressive responses to other dogs will help move the training forward.
As your dog de-stresses thanks to your new exercise routine, it’s time to start training! You can start teaching your dog a few basic skills that you can apply to reducing their reactivity later on. Teaching the skills out of context is like learning a piece of music before the recital; that’s much easier than improvising under pressure!
Start by teaching your dog a hand target, a food scatter, and an emergency U-turn. You can use the hand target to redirect your dog’s attention away from another dog. The food scatter can help them calm down around stressful triggers. And an emergency U-turn can get you out of dodge as needed.
As your dog is learning each of these skills, you can implement the “Can You Listen When?” game. The basic idea here is to teach your dog to perform each of these 3 skills around increasingly tough distractions. If your dog can’t do a hand target near a bowl of food then they’re unlikely to be able to perform near another dog that’s stressing them out!
Finally, it’s time to hit the road with your training. Ideally, you’ll have a training partner who can hang out with their dog across the road from you. It’s more practical to find an area to take your dog where you can predict where the dogs will be. You don’t want to get cornered by oncoming dogs on a busy sidewalk. I like to train near pet stores, dog parks, and walking trails. Here, I can reliably predict where the dogs and their humans will be.
Now that you’ve got your training grounds staked out, it’s time to start training. Find a distance away from the other dogs where your dog can look at you. This distance should allow them to be able to eat treats, and listen to known cues quite easily. If your dog can’t eat, is snatching food roughly, or can’t comply with cues that they know at home even when you’re as far away as possible, you know that they’re a bit too stressed out still! Go back to the “Can You Listen When?” game for a bit longer.
As your dog is able to engage with you in hand targets and treat scatters, slowly move closer to the dogs. This should look and feel boring! If your dog barks at the other dogs or stops being able to comply with known cues, you’re too close. Try to train in a few different places. This is to ensure that your dog is generalizing his new skill of politely paying attention to you instead of other dogs.
As you are able to be within ~20 feet of the other dogs, you can start to reintroduce neighborhood walks. Use U-turns and food scatters, cross the road, and do whatever else you need to avoid getting too close to other dogs. It’s ok if you have a few explosions or meltdowns along the way – that’s quite normal. Simply take note of what went wrong, give your dog some extra cuddles, and move on.
Have other training questions like, What do I do for my dog who is seemingly aggressive or reactive to other dogs? Find more pet training advice on our blog.