Reactive dog

The positive reward based method to stop and help reactive dogs

Isn’t it embarassing every time you walk outside or go to your vet’s office and your dog lunges to bite a stranger or another dog. There is advice out there on the internet on how to deal with this issue. But I’m going to explain a method that I have found some success with in the past on dealing with reactive dogs.

First, I want to talk about a study done by Dr. Emily Blackwell and Emma WIlliams. They took 630 dog owners whose dogs showed reactive/ aggressive behavior, such as lunging, barking, growling, and biting.

They had these owners take a survey asking them about their knowledge of positive reinforcement and if they understood dog behavior on a basic level.

The purpose of this study was to find out what influences an owner decision to use outdated punishment- based methods and what are the barriers and motivators to dog owners using positive reinforcement based solutions.

The results of the study showed that there is a potential for extreme negative emotional responses and feelings of failure are experienced by owners when their dog reacts badly towards another dog or person. Therefore the owners confidence needs to be built up.

They also need to be shown how to use positive reinforcement based methods and how they work in different situations. There is a reason why punishment is not always the answer as stated below.

“Current evidence suggests that positive reinforcement-based behavior modification techniques are both humane and effective in the treatment of aggressive behavior in dogs and that the use of punishment-based techniques are likely to be detrimental to the welfare of the dog and can lead to an increase in aggression. However, many dog owners continue to use punishment-based techniques in an attempt to inhibit this problematic behavior. “

The researcher also wrote "When learning to use positive methods, people are likely to need practical support that demonstrates the effectiveness of reward-based training and also provides an opportunity to practice under expert guidance, so that people feel truly confident in using the techniques themselves in a range of challenging scenarios."

So it isn’t that people dont want to use positive methods. Dog owners just don’t know how to. They need expert guidance.

As a balanced dog trainer I use both positive reinforcement and positive punishment. The key is to know when to use each. I always err on the side of positive reinforcement if I think it will not only harm my dog but damage our relationship.

I know it can be frustrating when your dog is exhibiting these behaviors. First we are going to be going over positive reinforcement and why you should use it. Then we will go over some reasons why they behave like this. ( Its not always what you think)

What is positive reinforement and why should I use it?

Positive reinforcement is giving a dog a reward to increase the likelihood that they will repeat the same behavior they were doing.

Why should you use it?

First let me ask you this. If you had a fear of heights and I told you to come to the edge, would you come? What if I told you its going be okay and that nothing will happen to you. Would you come then? Probably not.

This is what most people do with their dogs. They try to coerce their dog to going near people or other dogs instead of listening to their dog. Your dog will tell you their fears and then you can take effective action.

Triggers for dog reactivity

  • Lack of socialization: A lot of dogs just don’t know how to act because they haven’t been properly socialized. (No I’m not talking about take your dog to the dog park and let them run around)

  • How your dog sees the world: This is similar to the first one except for maybe your dog has socialized. The problem is the learned bad socialization and not the correct way to behave. They learned to either bite, lunge, growl, or flee when they are uncomfortable.

  • Genetics: This is self explanatory. Some dog just are genetically wired a certain way. Training can not fix everything

  • Hormones ( This is rarely the case)

Notice how I didn’t say that your dog is reactive because it was abused. Many people think this. This is applying human psychology to dog psychology. They are not the same. If we want to truly understand dogs then we have to stop humanizing them.

Understand Canine Behavior

It is important that you understand the signs that your dog is giving off. For example, growling is a warning sign to get back. When a person or dog doesn’t listen to this request then your dog feels they have no choice but to lunge to make them get back. You can look up calming signals as a starter to reading dog behavior.

Behavior adjustment therapy

Now I’m not big on using a lot of methods, but this one seems to work pretty good. When your dog is uncomfortable around another dog or person they might not want to take a treat. They usually want space. Giving your dog the space they need is comforting and releases some of the social pressure they are feeling.

I will use the term “below threshold”. This just means below the level or moment when the dog explodes and lunges for a person or dog.

How to do this: This is done in a straight line of vision. It can be done in a park. On the street or any other location.

  1. Take your dog and stand with your dog on a leash. Do not move.

  2. Have another handler walk their dog on the leash up to the point where your dog notices their dog

  3. Your dog will either stare intensely, growl, or forcibly trying to ignore the other dog.

  4. If your dog lunged at the other dog or started barking then the dog is too close to your dog. Move the other dog back further until your dog is not reacting intensely. Notice the signs of stress ( yawning, lip licking, sniffing the ground out of context, forcibly ignoring the other dog, and others)

  5. Wait for your dog to look away or to the side. Then mark that behavior with a YES!!!

  6. Remove the stressor ( the other dog) from the situation and give your dog space.

    The point of this is to reward your dog (give space), for doing the correct behavior( ignoring the trigger and not aggressing forward).

  7. Repeat the process

Do you move the helper dog back or do you move your own dog back?

It depends. If your dog is fearful and trying to flee then I move the helper dog back. If your dog is aggressive moving forward then I would move your dog away when they show signs that they look away or deliberately disengage from the other dog.

This is the same way it can be done with a human reactive dog. Just replace the helper dog with a human.

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My #1 favorite command

I love a lot of commands- when a dog comes to heel, down from a distance, come. But there's one command I love the most. This is the place command and I will tell you why.

What does the place command do?

I use it with most dogs I train. Whether an aggressive dog or a well behaved dog. The reason being is because place has several benefits

  1. It gives a dog a place to go in the house so they don't get into trouble

    Many hyper and unruly dogs have a lot of energy and lack of boundaries. They have no place to go and it shows. They are the dogs that when everyone else is still, they are still moving around. Whether its sniffing the ground or just looking around looking for some mischief to get into like a bored kid. When you teach your dog place and get her to stay on place you will notice something. Your dog might start shaking like its going through withdrawal symtoms. This is your dog learning impulse control.

  2. They give a dog there own space

    Dogs don’t like to be underneath us all the time. Even the dogs that do, you need to know that this is not healthy. You have to teach your dog to not panic while you are away from them. Some dogs develop seperation anxiety because they can’t stand when their owner leaves them. Believe me, if you incorporate the place command you are minimizing this problem. The bed is also like the their crate-a safe space.

  3. They help a reactive dog learn how to be a passenger in the world

    This command is especially useful for reactive dogs. Once they learn the 4 steps to the place command you teach your dog to ignore the world around them and just relax. For example once the dog learns to stay on their place bed then I can add distraction like kids shouting from 20 feet away and have the dog remain on the place bed.

    Now comes the steps to the place command

    it seems so simple yet to achieve great results you have to put in effort.

    Step 1

    Send the dog to place

    Lure dog onto place bed with a piece of food. Get them comfortable going on the place bed. Then walk up to place bed and stop abruptly a foot away from the place bed. Remember to pull the dog back as they are likely to just keep walking due to forward momentum. Next say PLACE, then guide the dog onto the place bed.

    Step 2


    Same as step 1 but you increase the distance where you stop

    Step 3

Get the dog to stay on the place bed.

Once your dog is on the place bed move around them in a circle. If they try to get off, Say uhuh or nope and repeat PLACE.

Step 4


Once your dog understand how to stay on the place bed then its time to add correction for failure to comply. Be careful not to move to fast to this command. Make sure that your dog understands the command. You will know your dog knows because you would have performed it hundreds of times correctly.

Thats it!!! My favorite command in a nutshell. Its many used and benefits and how to implement it.

Thanks for reading and comment to let me know what dog training question are giving you problems or if you’re just curious .

The “WHY” behind your dog barking and lunging at people and other dogs

Reactivity is an issue that I see a lot of in dogs. I even have to constantly work with my own dog and hold him to a certain standard to deal with this issue. I used to wonder why my dog was so unpredictable with his lunging. The reality is he was NOT unpredictable. I just wasn’t paying attention to what he was telling me. He was letting me know that he was uncomfortable but I missed the signs.

These signs are known as cut off cues. A cut off cue or calming signals can be when

  • a dog looks away from the trigger,

  • starts sniffing the ground profusely

  • starts sniffing the air, etc.

  • lip licking

  • Freezing in place

  • yawning

    Cut off cues are important to a dog’s social repertoire. This is the dog’s way of saying I’m not in a social mood. When the dog is lunging or barking it is because somewhere in time they learned that got them what they wanted: SPACE. These are the 3 ways I see it.

  1. Dog is aggressive - wants the person or other dog to leave.

  2. Dog is fearful - wants to leave

  3. Dog is frustrated - combination of both

Without boring you guys with dog training terms, space is used as a functional reinforcer. To make things simple, look at it like this.

Dogs and humans learn to behave a certain way because it gets them what they want.

A dog barks at the mailman, then the mailman leaves and gives the dog what it wants: space. A boy acts out at school and his parents start to scold him or yell at him. He received what he wanted: attention. A woman nags and complains to her husband about getting her car fixed. He complies and she gets what she wants. These are all negative behaviors, but they achieved a goal.

Reasons why dogs stop using cut off cues

Dogs stop using cut off cues when they don’t work. When your dog is signaling a cut off cue like turning away and another dog attacks them, they learn that cut off cues dont work.

Another problem that a lot of people do is punish cut off cues.

Ex: You are walking your dog in the park and you see someone walking their dog. You stop and talk with them for a moment and want the two dogs to meet and sniff because you heard that its important to socialize your dog( your a right by the way). Your dog proceeds to start licking his lips and sniff the ground. Instead of rewarding that behavior and giving the dog space, you try to force your dog to interact with the other dog. This increases the social pressure and makes your dog not trust your judgment.

Another reason dogs won’t give cut off cues is because the dog is too stressed out. When I work with reactive dogs it is important to keep them under threshold. Threshold is the point before a dog explodes and charges at someone or something. In a stressful state a dog can’t think

. Are you afraid of heights? I dare you to climb Mount Everest and say the alphabet backwards. That is a difficult tasks because it is hard to think if you are too stressed out worrying about what will happen if you miss one step.

What we want to teach our dogs is that there are more appropriate ways to express themselves. We want to build their confidence in us to trust that we will handle the situation.

There are a bunch of drills I do that I wont get into here but that helps us earn that trust back. When our dogs are showing positive behavior that we want then we need to reward them. We need to let our dogs know that they did good.

Reactivity is a symptom of a greater problem in your dog. Don’t let it go unchecked or it will get worse. This is just the “why” your dog behaves like that. Be mindful that I have never seen your dog and your dog could be displaying predatory aggression, resource guarding, territorial aggression amongst others issues. We don’t have enough time to go down that rabbit hole but feel free to contact me if you have any issues.

If you guys have any specific questions you can comment or email me at