Dogs can become overly excited or reactive when they encounter other dogs. This is a common issue that many dog owners face. Reactivity stems from a dog's instincts and natural behaviors. Dogs are social pack animals and naturally want to interact with each other. However, some dogs were not properly socialized as puppies and thus never learned how to politely greet and interact with unknown dogs. Other dogs may have had a scary experience with another dog, causing fear and defensiveness. Genetics can also play a role, as some breeds are prone to being more reactive.
The key is to understand that reactivity is a normal canine behavior, but it needs to be modified through proper training and counterconditioning. With time and consistency, you can teach your dog to remain calm in the presence of other dogs. The goal is not to eliminate your dog's desire to greet other dogs, but rather to control it so they learn to look to you for guidance and permission before interacting.
Start Training in a Low Distraction Environment
Begin training in an environment with minimal distractions and triggers to set your dog up for success. This could be indoors in your home or in your own fenced backyard. You want a quiet setting where you can effectively get and keep your dog's attention on you. If your dog is extremely reactive, you may need to start training from a great distance just to avoid over-stimulation. Gauge your dog’s threshold and work at a distance where they can stay relaxed and focused.
If there are no other dogs readily available for training, you can get help from a friend with a calm dog. Let them know you are working on training, so the dogs should not greet or interact yet. Reward your dog for disengaging their attention from the other dog and paying attention to you instead. Use high-value treats and praise to reinforce calm behavior in the other dog’s presence.
Implement Obedience Cues
Once your dog can remain focused on you with another dog in sight, start implementing obedience cues like “sit,” “watch me,” “down,” etc. Tell your dog these cues before they look at the other dog, so you redirect their attention preemptively. Reward your dog each time they follow a cue.
This establishes you as the one in charge and not the other dog. It also refocuses your dog's energy on an appropriate behavior rather than an overexcited reaction. Regular obedience training will help strengthen your overall communication and bond with your dog. A solid “sit,” “stay,” “look at me,” and “heel or let’s go” cue are essential.
Use Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement dog training is vital when working through reactivity. Punishment like yelling, jerking the leash, shock collars, or other intimidating methods will not address the root issue. It may temporarily suppress the behavior but likely increase a dog’s anxiety and fear in the long run.
Instead, reward your dog every time they offer or follow a cue that you request in the presence of another dog. Over time, they learn good things happen when other dogs are around as long as they listen to you. Their emotional response shifts from uncontrolled excitement to looking to you for how they should respond. Remain patient and consistent with praise and treats.
Practice the "Look at That" Method
A helpful technique is the “Look at That” game based on counterconditioning principles. With your dog on a leash, stand at a non-reactive distance from another dog. The moment your dog looks at the other dog, say “yes!” or click your clicker, then feed several high-value treats in quick succession while praising.
This teaches your dog that looking at the trigger (other dog) makes good things happen. After a few reps, add a cue like “look at that!” as they glance at the dog, treating afterward. Gradually increase criteria by waiting for your cue before treating or only rewarding sustained looks versus quick glances.
Repeat this process until your dog can glance at the other dog without reacting. Then add in obedience cues like “sit” or “down” after the “look at that,” rewarding your dog for complying. Increase distance and generalizations as your dog masters each step.
Avoid Direct Interactions at First
At the beginning of training, avoid letting your dog directly greet or interact with other dogs. This adds too much excitement and reinforcement of their past pulling and lunging habits. It can also become a reward in itself for reactive behavior if allowed too soon. You want your dog focused on listening to you, not anticipating a reward of getting to play.
Of course, your end goal is for your dog to politely greet others when given permission. But this should come much later in training once your dog has learned self-control. Take the greetings very slow at first to keep the interactions structured and positive. Praise calm behavior but interrupt overexcitement.
Be Aware of Your Energy
Dogs feed off our energy, so it’s essential to stay calm and assertive when training a reactive dog. Over-correcting with harsh aversives or anxiously consoling your dog can increase their stress. Remain neutral and in control of both yourself and your dog. Speak in a firm but loving tone and keep body language relaxed.
Deep breathing exercises can help you maintain composure if your dog tries provoking a reaction from you. When you feel relaxed and confident, your dog will pick up on and mirror that state of mind. Stay consistent with ignoring unwanted behaviors and rewarding the ones you ask for.
Consider Special Equipment
There are certain types of training equipment that can aid reactivity training when used correctly. A front-clip harness gives you control at the chest instead of the back to safely redirect your dog. A double handle leash provides extra leverage if your dog tries to pull towards triggers.
However, equipment is never a substitute for the hard work of counterconditioning. Avoid tools like prong and shock collars that suppress behavior through pain or fear. This risks increasing anxiety and worsening reactivity over time. The goal is to change your dog’s emotional response, not simply force compliance.
Pay Attention to Triggers
Pay close attention to what exactly triggers your dog so you can start predicting reactions and intervening early. Common reactivity triggers include dogs walking by, dogs staring from a distance, or dogs approaching head-on. But specifics vary among individual dogs based on their weaknesses.
Keep written notes or a behavior journal to track patterns over time. Does your dog react only to certain breeds, males versus females, puppies, or dogs that bark first? Are they calmer walking side by side with another dog versus head-on? Gathering data will help you weaken their triggers.
Have Realistic Expectations
Changing a dog’s reactive habits takes a tremendous amount of time, consistency and effort. Months or even years of counterconditioning are often required depending on the severity of the issue. Expect setbacks and stay persistent. With a foundation of obedience training and trust in you, your dog can learn to remain calm and controlled around other dogs. But you may always need to monitor them and intervene if necessary. For extreme cases, consult with a veterinary behaviorist.
Practice Ongoing Generalization
Once your dog can succeed in a low distraction environment, gradually add in new challenges. Practice in a wide variety of settings with different types of dogs and at varying distances. Start back at easier levels when increasing criteria to avoid overstimulating your dog. You want to challenge them while ensuring continued progress.
It’s also crucial to practice obedience cues paired with counterconditioning around novel dogs frequently. Just because your dog improved with your friend’s dog doesn’t mean the training will automatically generalize. Consistency is key to get those skills to transfer to the real world. Always reward calm responses.
Consider Group Training Classes
After mastering the basics at home, group training classes can provide excellent real-world practice around other dogs. This allows your dog to learn with structured guidance and supervision. Avoid forcing your dog before they are ready, as flooding often backfires. The setting should be manageable based on your dog’s current skill level.
Obedience group classes are great foundational options. Look for trainers using positive reinforcement and experienced with reactive dogs. Some facilities also offer specialty “reactive rover” classes. A training center with spacious rooms and solid barriers between dogs is ideal. Never correct fearful or reactive behavior in group classes as this can worsen the issue. Instead redirect your dog and reward when they refocus positively.
Watch for Body Language Signals
Learn your dog’s individual body language so you can recognize signs of stress versus relaxation. Common signals of tension include lips tightening, yawning, shaking off, whale eyes, pinned ears, tucked tail and freezing in place. While signs of calmness include soft eyes, wiggly body, open mouth, outstretched paws or rolling over happily.
Intervene at the first hint of discomfort by redirecting your dog’s attention with a cue or moving them further away from the trigger. You want to prevent reactions and keep your dog’s brain open to learning. Praise body language that indicates they are thinking and staying relaxed.
Use Management Tools When Needed
In situations you can’t control like walks in busy areas, use management tools to set your dog up for success. For mild reactivity, a front-clip harness provides steering control. However, severely reactive dogs may need a basket muzzle and double handle leash for safety.
Avoid extendable leashes as they make it hard to reel a dog back in. Also recognize when to abort and turn around on walks versus trying to push through overwhelming stimulus. Carry high-value treats and remain hypervigilant.
Don’t Punish Reactions
It’s natural to feel embarrassed and frustrated when your dog reacts, but avoid punishing them. Yelling, jerking the leash or applying physical force will only increase your dog’s stress and negative associations. You don’t want them to associate other dogs with “bad” outcomes.
Instead remain calm, redirect your dog’s attention back to you, then reward them once they re-focus. If you suspect punishment is the cause of your dog’s reactivity, stopping any aversives will be crucial. Positive associations must replace negative ones.
Seek Professional Help if Needed
For severe cases of reactivity or aggression where you feel unsafe managing the behavior on your own, consult with a qualified dog trainer immediately. Ask about their experience treating reactivity and proof of credentials. Avoid trainers who advocate for dominance or force-based methods, as this will worsen the issue.
Positive reinforcement reactivity training combined with medication protocol from your veterinarian can help transform a dog with the proper long-term commitment. Some cases may even benefit from the help of a veterinary behavior specialist to uncover potential underlying medical issues contributing to the unwanted responses.
Be Patient and Keep Perspective
Changing your dog’s engrained emotional habit patterns is a challenge, but you must be more patient and persistent than them. Celebrate small victories and stay consistent. With proper training, counterconditioning and management, your dog can learn to maintain a more settled state of mind when encountering their triggers. While they may never be totally indifferent to other dogs, you can help them adapt and thrive in the human world.