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6 Tips for Walking a Reactive Dog

'Reactive' is the term dog people use to describe a dog that reacts to other dogs, joggers, bikers or passing cars with wild barking and frenzied movement.

Don't assume he'll grow out of it. He won't. You need to intervene.


illustration of man walking a dog who is barking wildly and trying to escape the lead
Don't let this be your walk

1. Walk with another person

Walking your dog in-between two humans will lessen his anxiety (and yours as well). The other person can have a leash attached to your dog's harness but don't let that person try to guide the dog. You don't want a tug-of-war.

If you try to distract your dog when he sees something that arouses him, the other person can ensure he can't run off and can help block his view of whatever is disturbing him.

You may not realize how tense and anxious you are if your dog has been reacting on walks. A second person can help you reduce your own stress. Remember - all your emotions go right down the leash into your dog.

2. Slacken the leash/lead

Don't hold his leash in a white-knuckled grip to the death. That will only increase his anxiety because he feels restricted and unable to flee. That may force him into a defensive position where he reacts alarmingly to another dog or person.

Instead, hold the leash in a relaxed manner and give him some slack. If you dog starts to react badly, tighten the tension on the leash and then immediately slacken it once your dog comes back under control.

3. Use the 'sit' command while you block his view

This is standard advice to owners of reactive dogs. When you realize a trigger point (dog, biker, etc) is approaching, step in front of your dog and give him the Sit command.

Distract him with your voice or a toy or a treat until the trigger point has passed.

The benefit here is that you are not overreacting to your dog. Sometimes owners get so frustrated or embarrassed at their dog's behavior, they react wildly themselves: shouting, shaking, smacking or any type of physical punishment. This can trigger even worse behavior in your dog.

It also can cause your dog to no longer give you any type of warning that he's unhappy with something entering his immediate environment. You don't want him to hide his concern because you want to be able to pre-empt his reaction.

Let him growl. That gives you a warning and time to go into the sit, distract mode.

4. Avoid confrontation

Keep your distance from other dogs or whatever triggers his reactions. Watch how your dog reacts to find that distance where your dog feels safe. You may have to cross the street if another dog comes along or maybe just step off the curb. Watch for his cues.

Don't take him in areas where dogs are likely to be running around loose or where you know there is particular dog that upsets him. Avoid dog parks.

Yes, you want to train your dog so eventually you can walk quietly in urban or crowded areas; however, this will take time. You may even need to attend some dog training classes or have one-on-one sessions with a dog trainer. Petco, PetSmart and Bark Busters offer training nationwide at reasonable costs.

5. Use a muzzle and/or harness

If your dog is aggressively reactive, you may want to put a muzzle on him for his walks.

He'll get used to it and it will reassure humans that you pass that you have your dog under control. Use a brightly colored muzzle that people can see from a distance. In most cases, you'll find that they try to avoid you or at least give you a wide berth. Here's one in red: Guardian Gear Cordura Nylon Fabric Mesh Dog Muzzle

Remember you dog senses all the tension around him and meeting people who seem terrified of him will be counterproductive.

Harnesses with double-ended leads give you great control over your dog. These have a front clip and a back clip you can use a double ended lead to balance him when walking.
Brands to consider include Halti Dog Harness - Multi-Functional! - No Pull Plus Regular Harness and Mekuti Balance Dog Harness.

Here's a You Tube video that shows how this works (fast forward through it).

Never, never just use a leash attached to a regular collar. I don't recommend this for any Toy breed due to the potential to damage their neck. It's especially bad for a reactive dog where you might really be tugging on his collar if he starts to go after another dog or person.

If the weather is cool enough, you could even try letting your dog wear a Thundershirt . Many people I know have had good results with this to help dogs during storms or on the Fourth of July. There's no reason the shirt can't be used on a walk as well.

6. Ignore the busybodies

Don't be surprised if you get advice or criticism from people who witness your dog reacting badly

You may be told 'you should have socialized him when he was a puppy' or 'you need to show him who's boss' or 'you shouldn't have an aggressive dog.' Whatever.

Depending on your personality, simply smile and shrug, ignore them or say 'have a nice day.'

Bottom line

You can curb your dog's reactions. It requires consistent work but it can be done. Don't be afraid to get help from a professional. One or two sessions with an experience dog trainer can give you the techniques you need to turn your dog into a calm little walker.

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