Walking your dog can be a frustrating experience if your dog tends to get overly excited or aggressive when seeing other dogs on walks. Some dogs will pull, bark, whine, and even lunge when they spot another dog, making walks stressful for both you and your pup. Training your dog to walk calmly and ignore other dogs is an important skill that will make walks much more pleasant and prevent potential conflicts or accidents. A well-trained dog that can focus on you and walk right past other dogs shows confidence, self-control, and excellent manners. In this article, we will discuss techniques for teaching your dog to walk politely past other dogs without reacting. With proper training and consistent practice, you can have a well-behaved walking companion in no time!
Understanding Dog Reactivity
Before diving into training methods, it's helpful to understand some of the reasons why dogs may react to other dogs on walks in the first place. Here are some common causes of dog reactivity:
Lack of socialization. Dogs that weren't properly socialized as puppies may see other dogs as scary or threatening. They didn't have enough positive experiences with dogs early on.
Fear. Some dogs may become fearful or defensive around unfamiliar dogs, especially if they've had a bad experience in the past like an attack or fight. This can lead to lunging, barking, etc.
Over-excitement. Dogs, especially young ones, can get so excited at seeing another dog that they forget any manners. They pull and vocalize to try and get to the other dog.
Leash frustration. Since dogs are restrained on leash, some develop frustration that can turn into reactivity when they see another dog but can't go greet it.
Protectiveness over you. Some dogs see themselves as protectors and will act aggressively towards dogs that get near "their" human.
Improper social greetings. Dogs that haven't learned polite greetings may rush up too exuberantly or even nip other dogs.
Knowing the root of your dog's reactivity can help you address it in training. You may also want to consult with a trainer or behaviorist for help.
Start Training in a Quiet Environment
Don't expect your dog to ignore other dogs right off the bat on a busy street. Start training in a quiet, low-distraction environment first to set them up for success. Great places to start include:
Your home and backyard. Practice short, controlled walks and have family members walk past with a neutral dog. Reward calm behavior.
Quiet side streets with few dogs. Take treats on the walk so you can redirect your dog's attention.
Early morning or late evening when fewer people are out walking dogs. Find parks or trails during off-peak hours.
The goal is to start with an environment where your dog can pay attention and listen without being overwhelmed by distractions. You can very gradually raise distraction levels as your training progresses.
Use Treats and Praise to Reinforce Good Behavior
Bring along tasty treats like pea-sized bits of chicken, hot dog, cheese, or soft treats on training walks. When your dog notices another dog but remains calm and keeps walking, immediately praise them and give a treat. This reinforces the good behavior you want to see more of. With enough practice over time, your dog will associate seeing other dogs with getting treats and will stay focused on you.
Verbal praise like "Good boy!" and "Yes!" are also very helpful rewards. Some dogs work strongly for praise and affection. Pet or stroke your dog as you walk past other dogs without reacting.
You may need to walk or jog at a brisker pace at first to keep your dog's momentum going past distractions. With practice, your dog will automatically heel and ignore other dogs.
Use the "Watch Me" Cue
Teaching your dog a solid "Watch Me" cue can be extremely helpful for maintaining focus when other dogs appear. Say "Watch Me" and hold a tasty treat right in front of your dog's nose, then reward them when they make eye contact with you. Use this cue when you see another dog approaching, to reengage your dog's attention on you instead of the dog.
Practice Watch Me often at home, on regular walks, and during training sessions. In time, your dog will automatically look at you when you say it without needing a treat lure. Keep treats handy at first on walks to reinforce Watch Me when very distracted by other dogs.
You can also teach Watch Me using a clicker for precise timing. Click and treat the instant your dog's eyes meet yours. This helps the dog understand exactly what earns the reward.
Change Direction or Cross the Street
If your dog starts reacting to an approaching dog, quickly turn and walk the other way to put more distance between them. Crossing the street also sends the message that you are moving away from the trigger. Either of these techniques can snap your dog's attention back to you.
Don't yank or jerk your dog's leash, which can hurt their neck and cause them to associate the other dog with pain and discomfort. Just confidently steer them away with their regular collar or harness. Walk at a brisk upbeat pace to motivate your dog to follow and resist the temptation to sniff the other dog.
Be Aware of Your Energy
Dogs are very in tune to our energy and emotions, sometimes even more than our actual commands or words. If you feel tense or anxious when you see another dog approaching, your dog will pick up on that, which can inadvertently encourage their reactivity. Practice staying calm, breathing deep, talking to your dog in a happy voice, and maintaining loose leash walks. Your relaxed, assertive energy will help keep your dog focused and settled.
Avoid tightly gripping the leash, holding your breathe, hunching your shoulders, staring the other dog down, etc. This transmits stress to your dog that can amplify reactivity. The more you can exude relaxation through your body language, the more your dog will take their cue from you.
Use Distance to Keep Reactions Below Threshold
A dog's threshold is the point where they lose control and react. Some dogs may start whining, barking or lunging when another dog is 50 feet away, while others remain composed until much closer. Know your individual dog's unique threshold distance where they typically react, and make sure to keep other dogs far enough away that you stay "sub-threshold."
For example, distract your dog with Watch Me treats starting at 75 feet, curve to the side when passing other dogs, and cross the street if needed. Keeping encounters with other dogs brief and at a distance prevents reactions before they start. Your dog learns that other dogs just pass by without incident.
Gradually decrease the "safety bubble" distance over many weeks of training as your dog builds confidence. But go slowly to avoid overwhelming your dog and causing reactions that will set your training back.
Look Out for Triggers and Set Up for Success
Pay close attention on walks for any environmental triggers that cause your dog to react. These could include dogs approaching from the front, fast movement, dogs on leash vs. off leash, large vs. small dogs, or protective barking from yards.
Make note of patterns in your dog's reactivity so you can prepare accordingly. For example, you may need to be extra alert when approaching the front of a house with a barking dog inside. Or you may need to work at a greater distance when a rambunctious off-leash dog appears. Tailoring your training plan to your particular dog's triggers helps prevent reactivity.
Avoid flooding your dog with triggers they aren't ready for. Set them up for success at each stage of training. Work within your dog's capabilities as they build confidence over time.
Don't Let Your Dog Meet Other Dogs While Training
It may be tempting to let your dog greet other dogs to try and socialize them, but this can actually encourage more reactivity during your training walks. Allowing on-leash greetings rewards your dog for their unwanted behavior and stimulates them even further when they need to be learning to stay calm and neutral.
Wait to allow greetings until after your dog has mastered walking past other dogs without reacting. And even then, greetings should only take place off-leash in a controlled setting, like a friend's fenced backyard. Keep initial greetings very brief – simply a quick sniff then move along on your walk.
On-leash greetings require more advanced skills. Walk side-by-side with the other dog first, without letting them meet nose-to-nose. You want to teach your dog to stay focused on you and keep walking, rather than straining to visit each dog they see.
Enroll in Group Training Classes
Group classes are a great supplement to your individual training program. Under the guidance of a professional trainer, your dog can practice staying calm around other puppies and dogs in a controlled setting. Avoid classes with overly stimulating environments – seek force-free classes that focus on building confidence.
Group classes get your dog used to being around others on leash while remaining focused on you. Good trainers will help identify and modify any problem behaviors. Many classes culminate in a "mock walk" where dogs walk together as practice for real-world leash encounters.
Check with your vet first to be sure your dog is up to date on vaccines before joining any classes with unknown dogs. Carefully vet the qualifications of trainers before enrolling your dog as well.
Try the "Engage/Disengage" Method
The engage/disengage game is a specialized technique some trainers use for leash reactivity. When your dog notices another dog, get their attention on you with treats and praise. Reward them several times while the other dog is still in sight, but don't allow them to fixate on the dog.
Right before your dog loses interest or is ready to react, give a disengage cue like "Let's go!" and briskly walk away with their attention on you. This helps build impulse control and teaches your dog to look to you when seeing other dogs vs. staring them down. Do this as soon as your dog notices other dogs to prevent escalation.
With repeated engage/disengage sequences, your dog learns to glance at other dogs briefly, then eagerly refocus on you for a reward. This makes passing other dogs on walks more enjoyable.
Use a Front Clip Harness or Head Collar If Needed
Tools like front clip harnesses and head collars are helpful training aids for dogs that pull hard towards triggers. The front clip harness redirects your dog back towards you if they lunge, without pain. Head collars give you steering control over your dog's head/muzzle.
These tools are very effective for safety and preventing your dog from practicing the wrong behaviors. But keep in mind they don't train on their own – you must actively reward and reinforce the right behaviors. Eventually your dog should transition out of using training tools as their manners improve.
Introduce any new equipment gradually at home first. Make sure it fits properly and doesn't cause discomfort. Give your dog lots of praise and treats while wearing the tool to create a positive association. Don't just suddenly slap it on right before a walk.
Follow the "Three Second Rule"
The three second rule means avoiding prolonged eye contact between your dog and another dog. Staring can quickly escalate to reactive responses. So when you see an approaching dog, give your cue like Watch Me for just a brief couple seconds. Treat your dog while they glance at the other dog, then reengage their attention on you to keep walking.
Constantly redirect your dog's attention during the walk and avoid staring contests. Leash greetings should also follow the three second rule – say hello then move along. The more you minimize contact time with triggers, the calmer your dog will become.
Be Patient! Change Takes Time
Some dogs can start walking calmly past other dogs in just a few weeks of training, but most dogs, especially more reactive ones, take much longer. Be patient and stick with it. Managing reactivity is an ongoing process.
There will inevitably be some setbacks and reactions during the early training stages. But don't get frustrated or give up. Overcoming reactivity requires commitment and consistency. Keep training sessions short, positive and rewarding. End each walk on a good note.
With time, your dog will learn to look to you automatically when they see other dogs, instead of fixating on them. Your new walking companion will make you proud as their manners improve with practice.
Correct Strangers Who Let Their Dogs Approach
It's incredibly frustrating when you have a dog in training and a stranger lets their off-leash dog run right up. But don't be afraid to speak up! Politely ask them to call their dog back because your dog needs space. Or just say your dog is in training and can't greet others right now.
If needed, be more assertive – step between the dogs, put your hand up and say "No!" to the approaching dog. Block your dog if needed. Strangers may think they're being friendly but need to learn not to interfere with a training session. Don't worry about seeming rude – you are being a responsible dog owner.
You may also want to announce "Training, do not approach!" as you walk by. Or buy a vest for your dog that says "In Training" or "Needs Space" to proactively deter nosy dogs and people. Your priorities are keeping your dog calm and continuing their training.
Stay Relaxed on Real Walks
Once your dog seems ready, start taking them on real walks around your neighborhood, parks and trails. Go during off-peak times at first if possible. Keep your energy calm, prepare tasty treats, and give your dog plenty of praise for good behavior.
If you come across a dog you don't want your dog to see yet, simply cross the street or turn around. Manage the environment and set your dog up for success. Keep encounters brief and end on a positive note. Gradually expose your dog to more challenging situations as they master current levels.
Stay alert for reactions but respond neutrally. Harsh corrections can make reactivity worse by adding fear and stress around other dogs. Simply divert your dog's attention and redirect them. With enough repetition, they will default to focusing on you when passing other dogs.
Troubleshoot Common Training Problems
Despite your best efforts, you may encounter some common training challenges including:
Lack of focus outside. Has trouble paying attention on walks vs. at home training. Go back to basics and reward focus.
High arousal around moving dogs. Jogging or playing dogs become a bigger trigger. Maintain greater distance and do more impulse control work.
Reacts to some dogs but not others. Excitement towards big dogs, fear of little dogs, frustration with on-leash dogs. Pinpoint triggering factors and customize training.
Inconsistent progress. Some days great, other days very reactive. Closely manage variables and triggers impacting behavior each day.
Gets frustrated waiting for treats. Wants greeting more than food rewards. Use extra high value treats only for dog encounters to motivate.
Pulls against harness/collar to get to other dogs. Needs more conditioning that pulling does not get them to the trigger.
Listens at distance but not up close. Proof your training by gradually decreasing distance to other dogs as success continues.
Barks and lunges when frustrated by training process. May need expert help if aggression increases. Avoid flooding dog.
Stay positive – try different techniques if you hit a training plateau. Get professional help if needed. Some bumps in the road are expected when fighting years of instinct.
What Not to Do
It's just as important to avoid problematic techniques that can worsen reactivity:
Don't punish your dog for reacting to other dogs. Harsh corrections can make the association more negative.
Don't allow on-leash greetings with unknown dogs. This rewards the unwanted behavior.
Don't let your dog stare obsessively at triggers. Redirect their attention.
Don't overwhelm your dog by flooding them with triggers. Respect their threshold.
Don't trap your dog close to a trigger. Let them retreat to a safe distance if overwhelmed.
Don't apply excessive leash pressure via tight pulling. This can spark frustration.
Don't verbally soothe your anxious dog when reacting. This rewards the behavior. Stay neutral.
Don't make excuses for your dog's behavior. Be consistent and set fair rules.
Don't expect perfection too quickly. Changing engrained behaviors takes a lot of time.
Avoiding these common mistakes will help your training stay on track towards success.
The Benefits of Training
Investing the time to train your dog to calmly walk past other dogs provides tremendous benefits:
More relaxing, pleasant walks for dog and human. Walks become fun!
Lower stress for both you and your dog. Peaceful walks are good for your bond.
Improved focus and engagement with you instead of reacting to dogs.
Your dog can participate in more activities like outdoor dining, festivals, trips to the park, etc. Their world expands.
Better manners help your dog socialize safely if you choose to introduce them to new dogs later.
Obedience training provides vital mental stimulation and strengthens your relationship.
Avoiding altercations prevents potential injuries to dogs or owner.
Your dog morphs into a model canine citizen who makes you proud!
With patience and consistency, you'll be so impressed by your dog's new walking skills. Just take it step by step.
Teaching your dog to ignore other dogs and walk calmly on leash is an extremely useful skill with far-reaching benefits. While it does take dedication, consistency and time, the payoff of peaceful, enjoyable walks with a well-behaved canine companion is truly priceless. Use positive reinforcement methods to encourage good behavior, starting in low-distraction environments and building your way up to real neighborhood walks. Invest in treats, praise, patience and practice. With your guidance, even a highly reactive dog can transform into a focused walker who saves the socializing for after the walk. So believe in your dog's potential and get those walking shoes on to start making progress today!