Let’s Talk: Enjoyable Walks with a “Reactive Dog”

Do you have a dog who isn’t good meeting other dogs when on leash? If so, you’ll not be surprised that a recent blog post on how to stop uninvited dogs from approaching your own got 129 comments and reached 352,783 people on Facebook.
Wow. That’s compelling. In some ways, I’m not surprised. My Willie was terrified of other dogs as a puppy, (who knows why), and barked at them aggressively even if they were blocks away. That’s why I know exactly what it’s like to feel trapped and helpless when an unleashed dog runs toward yours. In a word: Awful.
But there’s a lot you can do to turn the tables in your favor. Here are some way to make walks fun again, instead of being events full of anxiety and suspense.
1. First things first, by working with your own dog. I know… if you could snap your fingers you would have solved the problem already, right? But there really is a LOT you can do: Teach your dog to “Watch,” or turn his head to you when there are no distractions, then when he is sniffing the scent of other dogs (but no dog visible), then when he can see another dog several blocks away. Eventually, work up to the other dog being closer and closer. You can learn all about this method in the booklet Feisty Fido and the DVD Treating Dog-Dog Reactivity. Yes, it takes some work but it turned Willie around, as it did hundreds of my client’s dogs.
2. Teach your dog some handy cues. It’s handy to have an “Emergency U–Turn” in your pocket if an unexpected dog shows up. Practice this like a fun game with no other dogs around, (Wheee! Lots of treats for turning fast!) then work up to using it when you spot an oncoming dog. It’s also wise to teach an “Emergency Sit/Stay.” Teach your dog to back up one stride behind you and stay there, while you pretend to deal with the approaching dog. As usual, start with no distractions, and gradually work up to asking for it when a well-behaved friend’s dog is present.
3. Sit down and construct a management plan that avoids surprise encounters. Stuff happens, but the more you can manage interactions until your dog is more comfortable the better.  Consider the following:

  • Avoid neighborhood walks until you have worked with your own dog as described above, exercising your dog in the yard and the house. You can practice the behaviors above, or teach lots of fun tricks… mental exercise is really good at tiring dogs out, and doing tricks can be a great way to relax a dog around others.
  • Walk in areas where you are certain dogs will be leashed. Some great choices are the parking lots of vet clinics or dog training classes, and neighborhoods close to busy roads where people are far less likely to let their dog off leash than in quiet areas.

4. Be prepared for off-leash dogs. The more helpless and trapped you feel, the worse your dog will behave. Here’s a list of things you can do:

  • Learn to throw treats to stop an approaching dog: How to Stop an Approaching Dog    
  • Stop the incoming dog by say SIT! in a strong voice and raising your arm upward as if signaling a sit from a long way away.       
  • Flap your jacket like a bird to surprise and distract the unfamiliar dog.
  • Carry a walking stick—NEVER to hit another dog with, but because it gives you a feeling of confidence and in a crisis, can be used to swipe through the air to stop a dog that looks serious about harming you or your dog. 

5. Some things NOT to do:

  • Assume that the owner, the one obliviously waving and saving “It’s Okay! He LOVES other dogs, is capable of stopping his or her dog. One of my clients used to say “My dog has mange!” and it worked sometimes, but don’t count on it.  
  • Yell angrily at another owner. It won’t help and will just make your dog more reactive. Do all you can to take a breath, and keep your voice low and calm.     
  • Tighten the leash the second you see another dog. It’s easy to do, and understandable, but you need to change your reaction from “Oh No! There’s a dog coming,” to “Oh Boy! Another chance to work on my dog’s reactivity!”.

Bottom Line: Don’t let yourself feel trapped and helpless, that just leads to fear and anger, and that rarely leads to a good result. Rather, think through what’s going on and arm yourself with skill, knowledge and a set of resources, whether it be books (try Feisty Fido), DVDs (Treating Dog-Dog Reactivity) and working with a progressive trainer. 

Below is a reminder of what success looks like: This is Willie after having just greeted two new dogs, Maggie and Moose. Willie is appropriately avoiding tension by sniffing the ground, Moose has a lovely, relaxed face and Maggie looks bound and determined to get in one more sniff! It’s such a joy to not worry about him with other dogs now, I hope that describes you soon too.

Good luck!

Learning Center

Want to learn more about dogs? Look here for a treasure trove of Patricia’s articles, blogs and videos about dog training, canine health and behavior, and solving behavior problems. Includes links to other helpful resources.


Clear and engaging, Patricia’s books & DVDs are invaluable resources for professionals and dog lovers alike. If your dog could, she’d beg you to click here and check them out.

Trisha’s Blog

Join thousands of dog lovers around the world in an ongoing inquiry about canine behavior, and follow the adventures of Patricia (2 legs), Willie, Maggie, & Tootsie (4 legs), and a very spoiled flock of sheep.


"The Education of Will delves deep into the minds of people and dogs, and into the effects of trauma, showing that healing is possible. McConnell gives a voice to those who can’t speak in words and provides hope for fearful animals everywhere."

—Temple Grandin, author of Animals Make Us Human and Animals in Translation.

What Others Are Saying