Teaching A Leash Reactive Dog To Make The Right Choices

My Labrador Sadie spies a dog in the distance and as the dog approaches she turns her head to look at me.  Her eyes catch mine and I smile at her, telling her what a good girl she is.  She turns again to look at the dog as he walks past and then back at me.  I praise her courage and the decision she made to remain calm in a situation that previously caused her fear.  

When Sadie first came into my life four years ago, she was what I would call a reactive dog, lunging towards and barking viciously at any dog that walked past or came close to her.   In the first five years of her life with another family, she had obviously learned to protect herself by behaving in a threatening manner.   In her mind, each time she aggressed, she kept herself safe by making sure no dog came into her space, and by the time she came to live with me, the behavior was so deeply ingrained, it had become a well rehearsed ritual.  Fortunately I was able to temper her reaction and teach her a new way to cope and behave in similar situations.  The techniques I used meant I could change her behavior without physically punishing or imposing my will upon her in any way.  I just gave her choices.

Teaching dogs to make choices is not a new concept, but is something that I have used for many years to guide dogs into making better decisions in all kinds of situations.  Because modern day dog training is still polluted by the more traditional punishment based methodology, the idea of teaching your dog to make choices has been somewhat pushed into the background, but the beauty of this method is that it works, and yes, even with the aggressive or ‘red zone’ dogs. 

It saddens me how dogs are manipulated and pushed around.  For example I regularly see owners and trainers teaching their dogs to sit by pressing down on their poor animals’ backsides, or punishing them by poking, kicking or restraining them on their sides or backs in an effort to dominate and gain control.   The flawed idea that a dog will only learn to behave through force and fear is sad and misguided, but  people are still misled into thinking that these methods are the right way to go.  This leads to elevated stress levels that could be avoided if time was taken to understand how dogs’ learn and how they can be taught effectively.  Choice training is a beacon of hope in what is still a dominating world.

Sadie, my chocolate Labrador.

Sadie, my chocolate Labrador.

Teaching your dog to make the right choices involves catching actions and behaviors that you like and marking them with rewards that your dog finds motivating.  These actions and behaviors can then be the dog’s ‘default’ behaviors that he or she can use in certain situations.  A default behavior gives the dog an alternative and makes him more positively confident in a situation that previously made him insecure.  The dog is then gradually exposed to increasingly stressful situations and is watched to see what alternative behavior he offers.  If the behavior is something that counters a previously undesirable behavior, the dog is rewarded. If he chooses negative behavior, he is quietly removed from the situation until he is in a place where he can learn again. 

The only way Sadie knew how to deal with a scary situation was to lunge and aggress.  Suppressing that behavior with punishment would have probably worked momentarily, but as in most cases, punitive suppression does not change the way a dog feels, but merely puts a bandage on the problem, which is likely to resurface again in a similar situation.  Not only that, it is simply wrong to punish a dog for being nervous or insecure and only serves to make the insecurity worse.  I changed Sadie’s behavior by showing her that not only was there another way to behave, but it actually made her feel better.

 I began by teaching her a variety of actions she could use, such as sit, walk on and watch me and paired her success with rewards she loved, which ensured that her learning process was a fun and enjoyable one.  I then taught her a combination of actions.  Whenever she looked at a dog in the distance, I said look and rewarded her for looking but not reacting.  I then asked her to watch me and when she turned her head towards me, she got another reward.   After many repetitions (and a very kind friend who brought her dog along and worked with us) she was eagerly looking at the strange dog and back at me because the action was now reinforcing for her.  I then faded out the food reward I gave her for looking at the dog and used it only at the end of the sequence – when she looked back at me.  As the dog came closer we continued with the sequence.  At no time did Sadie have her back to the approaching dog.  If Sadie reacted negatively at any point, I turned her away and took her to a place where she felt safer and learning could continue again.  Because Sadie is highly motivated by food she easily learned the process.  We quickly got to the point where she could watch the other dog walk past with no reaction whatsoever.

I repeated the sequence with a number of different dogs and then when I believed Sadie was ready to make her choice, faded my cues out of the picture.   Would she used the series of alternative behaviors I had taught her or revert back to lunging and aggressing?  I gave her a loose lead and stood still, as a dog that Sadie had never seen before, approached.   Saying and doing nothing I waited for her to make her choice.  Each time she looked at the dog and back at me I smiled and quietly praised her, but at no time did I issue a cue or do anything else.  When the dog walked by, Sadie watched him and then looked back at me.  I could see in her eyes how happy she was and rewarded her for her bravery.  She knew she had accomplished something that day, and as we continued over the next several weeks, her confidence increased and her new ‘choice’ behavior became fixed. 

I can’t tell you how wonderful it is for me to see a dog learn, think for themselves and grow in confidence through success.   It is what makes my job so rewarding.  Of course, I start the process by giving dogs’ alternatives, but at the end of the day they are the ones that make the final choice.  The beauty of this training is that it encourages dogs to think for themselves while gaining confidence from the choices they make, without being pushed, punished or physically manipulated in any way.  My presence was still important for many months, as it gave Sadie confidence, but she was gradually able to walk with other people and is now even greeting other dogs successfully on and off the leash. Lunging and barking was not only stressful for her, but exhausting.   Her ‘choice’ in comparison, requires little energy and the rewards are much more satisfying for her.   Sadie will never be a highly social dog because of her past experiences, but she now has a group of canine friends that has made her life infinitely more rewarding.

This is a great method for teaching all kinds of reactive and fearful dogs, but can also be useful when teaching pups and adults simple cues.  For example when I teach a dog to ‘sit’ on cue, all I do is find out what motivates the dog, be it a toy or treat, and hold the motivator in front of them.  The dog then has to work out how he is going to get the reward out of my hand.  He might try a variety of actions such as pawing, licking or nibbling at my hand but the reward is not given until he puts his bottom on the ground.  As soon as he does so, he gets the reward and this is repeated again and again until I am ready to put a cue word to the action of sitting. 

For so long dog training has been about force, fear and physical manipulation, which renders the dog into some kind of performing robot and doesn’t allow for the dog to think for himself.  It might sound strange to those well versed in the more dominant style of training, but all dogs, regardless of breed and drive, have evolved to have excellent problem solving skills, and therefore have the ability to think for themselves, be guided to listen, take direction and make the right choices.  

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32 thoughts on “Teaching A Leash Reactive Dog To Make The Right Choices

  1. Katie

    How do you approach leading the dog away from the stranger, while he is lunging and barking? Do you just pull on the leash until you've dragged him/her to the safe place to try again? My dog will continuously be looking back at the strange dog, and continues to bark at him. Even after the line of sight is broken, he will continue to look at the path he would take to get back to the other dog (staring at the door, at the corner of the building, etc). The first step is always the hardest, but I need an in-case-of-failure technique so we can even HAVE a first step.

  2. vivien eales

    This is interesting reading, and one I wish more people would look at and adopt. In my classes I try to get people to understand that force, anger, frustration and lack of general understanding are likely to cause more problems with their dogs. Many people think they only way to get their dogs to do anything is to behave in an aggressive and dominant manner, yet often when I take the dog to work myself, and show them how easily their dogs want to please them by using force free and positive rewarding methods, the penny often drops, and you get that 'light bulb' moment. So though, sadly still don't get it, and their dogs get progressively worse!
    Thank you again, it is always a pleasure to read your blogs.

  3. Aleta

    I would like to ask the same question as Katie, although my dog is motivated by food he will ignore it to lunge for the other dog, the last time he snapped his collor lunging for a small dog, he is a very muscular dog, very strong, cross between a staffy and ( we think ) a boxer or labrador. Please can you help.

  4. Frankie Asbell

    Thank God for Victoria!!! I've been so angered at all the 'Man must be dominant in the pack' mentalities out there. My dogs know d**n well that I'm NOT canine, they don't poke their butts in my face, but they do insist on some laptime which I allow but make brief and strictly on my terms. My wife and I share our home with Maggie the Westie who flirts with every man who comes to visit, and Angus, a 57 mix who came as a mercy rescue to keep him out of a shelter. Angus has some behaviors that we have had to make adjustments for, but nothing that we can't overcome with patience and loving guidance. And the looks and sighs he gives when he's nestled belly up in the crook of my arm makes me believe that he's glad we're a family. Then he snoozes and snores until my arm aches and I have to put him down.

    We enjoyed the 'It's Me or the Dog' shows on AP for years. I particularly thought it amusing that Victoria was clearly not in agreement with certain changes that were made. When I saw the gift packages that were presented to the clients as a follow-up, her cute nose wrinkling made me chuckle. I'd be in favor of donating to a shelter, but not to obviously well-to-do families.

  5. melissa evans

    my dog is 1yrs female boxer/rottie mix. she is always jumping on people when they come in my house and when i go for a walk. she jumps on people. she pulls some times to. and once in a while she pees in the house and now she is pooping in the house. what can i do.

  6. Tanya

    It always sounds so harsh when bloggers write off Appropriate leveled corrections as 'Harsh' or punishments. TheREAL REASON Sadie changed is her owner was a calm leader that Sadie never had before. ANY dog that is aggressive on or off the leash is Very scared & insecure! If a Dog has been reacting a certain way for some time, it is UNFAIR for yhe dog to even have a physical correction. They don't know that they are wrong! So I am not impressed. Sadie just needed to be desensitized & have her confidence built up.. AND THAT'S WHAT HAPPEND!

  7. Pingback: Choice Training – Working with a Leash Reactive Dog | Victoria … | Stop Puppy Biting

  8. Sarah western

    Hi I've just rescued a 8 month old border collie and he chases car, lunges at people and dogs he doesn't know. A lot of training at home with watch me and taking it outside has been great also finding his critical distance when he won't react and just the other day he has started to watch me when traffic goes buy yippee.all the hard work has been worth it and it really is hard work. He reacts to some people and not others, like this morning I was talking to a lady and he wasn't bothered then someone else will walk passed and he kicks off. Lots of hard work to go but he's really worth it so reading what other people are going through really helps.

  9. Kirsten

    Hi Victoria
    What is your Best advise my newfoundlænder 9weeks old is snapping after mé and when I turn my back to it it Will snapping my leg. I keep sayng no but it Will not helt

  10. Zoe Sayers

    I too have the same problem as Katie and Aleta, i have a large german shepherd who does the same thing but cant always get him to walk away without pulling me backwards. My worst time was last night actually a cat in front and a dog behind whilst trying to pick up poo. was very nearly a 'messy' situation.

  11. jane

    I have a reactive dog but only at agility trials where so many people bleive that becasue their dog welcomes another into his space that mine should as well. Just too many peo;e do not understand when my dog growls and or snaps at their friendly dog we could be sanctioned from the trials. I have had a handler approach with 4 of her dogs off leash running directly at my dog. I had to drop the leash and hope he did not fight or run. he did neither but simply lay down and turned away from them. i tll people to please do not let their dog be frienly with my dog and now my dog is labble "the prince" by those friendly dog handlers becasue I protect him both physically and verbely

    I now have a 15 month old BC pup who is a classic "oh it's okay my dog is friendly" she can hardly wiat to introduce herself to every person and every dog with in 100 yards . I will not allow her to approch another dog at a trial without being invited by the dog/ not the owner. I would hate for her to cause another dog to become reactive. I ask people not to interact with her and they always say "it's okay I don't mind" BUT I do.

    Yes it is my responsiblity to let my dog know I am there to protect him at all times b ut when walking through a crowded trial venue I am not always aware of the "freidnly dog" who is about to sniff my dogs rear.
    I can walk my dog past any dog on the street or in the park but man why do the agility people feel their dog has the right to invade his/my space

    so yes I agree with yo but lets not put all the responsiblility on the handler of the reactive dog. Keep your so called friendly "rude" dog on a shorter leash and teach him some manners.

  12. Caroline

    It's great to read that other people are having the similar issues with their dogs and are using fantastic techniques for trying to change their dogs behaviour. I had similar issues with my Lab X Staff. She was a rescue and had issues with other dogs whilst walking in her territory, although away from home she was an angel! We have spent a long time working on this, using the methods outlined above and it has been very successful. I still can't walk her too close to another dog but as long as we create space she is happy.

    Jane - you mentioned issues at agility competitions? I have a similar problem when competing mine, I always create space but someone always seems to insist on jumping in her face and then shouting at me when she reacts! Here in the UK we have something called the Yellow Dog Coat. This is a way of notifying owners that your dog needs space. They are either yellow tabard type coats or you they supply yellow Velcro bits to go on your lead/harness which just states give me space. It's being promoted in the UK, and is working, so you know that any dog with yellow on it, either lead, harness or one of these tabards just needs extra space.

  13. Joanne

    thanks Victoria for all your help and dedication. I bought your new book " Training Your Dog Positively". I love it! It's so informative and helpful. I too have a rescued dog named Coco that I adopted 2 yrs. ago from a rescue group. Coco was a mess when I got him. He was afraid of every moving object that passed by (cars, bikes, people, kids, skateboarders, etc.). I started out with some other famous training methods that were very forceful and domineering before I found you, but the more I tried to use them the more aggressive he became. You were a God sent. I started watching " It's Me or The Dog" series, reading your books and Patricia McConnell's books and slowly his behavior was turning around, but the one behavior that I am having a problem still is the fear aggression towards other dog's, people, and especially kids. I am working on the methods that you describe, but I'm still having problems and It's been 1 1/2 yrs. Could you give me some other suggestions. I know calmness is the big issue, but I try to stay calm as best I can. When he starts barking and lungeing. I do turn around and walk the other way, but he still turns his head and continues to bark. I have been working on this with him for 1 yr. with little progress.

    I also rescued another little Shih Tzu yesterday and him and Coco are doing really well together, but this dog has a humping problem. I have not been able to find any information in books about this. Can you help?

  14. Michele

    Aleta, Katie, Deborah - I'm CERTAINLY not Victoria, but I am a dog trainer. Before I start the training that she has outlined above, I always teach the dog a "Let's go!". You need to teach the dog how to quickly follow you when you want to leave a situation. You can do this by running with your dog and changing direction, each time saying "Let's go" in a cheerful voice, and praising/rewarding for the change in direction. If you make it a game, your dog will associate the command with good things happening and thus be more apt to go with you in a tense situation.

    You can use any phrase - it can be "This way" or even "Kibbles", it really doesn't matter. What matters is that it's fun for the dog to obey.

    Hope this helps!

  15. Michelle

    I have a dog who is the same as Sadie. As soon as he sees a dog, he starts to lunge on the leash and barks. I do try to turn him around before he sees the dog. But once he does, I have a hard time getting him to listen to me, and getting him to turn around at that point is very difficult. I have been trying choice training, but we are at the very beginning stages. Can you recommend a way for me to remove him from the situation? And, a way to calm him down once we are removed from the situation?

  16. Ruth Holm

    how can I use this for a sheltie with fear and panic issues? I am considering re-homing him. Help me please. I can't find a dog trainer in my area.

  17. Allison Vandenbrink

    I have a Border Collie Lab mix that is so mellow that he barely reacts to anything, and I have a little Chihuahua mix that reacts to EVERYTHING. I have seen the most ridiculous interaction between these two; the Border Collie mix sees a dog approach, and wags his tail. The little guy sees the dog approach, and starts having a fit. The big guy looks at the little guy, goes "oh, this is how we do it!" and starts having a fit as well. I'm doing my absolute best to use this training technique on the little guy before he teaches my big puppy that this is normal.

  18. Bethan

    i have a nearly four yr old labrador x gsd who is exactly the same as sadie ! shes leash reactive , normally ok off lead except she greets dogs with her hackles up ! i ave taught the look at that game , and at our training club she has got slightly better , but she will fly out and snap , she is an obedience dog and is ok as long as dogs dont come to close, i know i tense up and hold the lead tight if i see a passing dog coming a bit close ! im debating a head collar for her , just to wear around the shows , i agree in letting the dog haev a choice so i will def be trying what victoria has done with her labrador !

  19. Carol Hill

    I have a 5 year old Patterdale (had since 9 weeks old) We went to puppy training classes and she is a really good dog. The only issue I have with her is she sits in front of people that come into my house and barks at them, she also does it to me. I can't work out why. Its not only when they first come in it can also be after they have been in a while. Its not that she doesn't get attention because she does. Have tried to ignore her and see if this helps but it doesn't Have you any ideas where I am going wrong please?

  20. elmertoo

    I have a lovely English Shepherd who as he got older has gotten more dominant.He grew up around my poms since he was 8 weeks old. He started by pulling my poms under him and standing over them, usually the boy. I got Magnum, the shepherd, fixed hoping it would end the dominance issues, but he suddenly snapped at one of the little dogs, crushing Lance's skull, and killing him. then he attacked and bit Tuffie two times and wounded my grand daughters pom 's eye Last week he bit my oldest dog head bad enough he popped the little guys eye out we are waiting to see if he will ever see out of that eye again. I at first felt he was controlling the herd but no one wants herding dog that bites hard enough to kill the livestock. If I can't figure out how to fix this I will have to have him put down and I do not want to do that. He just turns and snaps at the little dogs with very little warning other than quick deep snarl I haven't been able to fence him away from the little ones as he is very athletic and climbs or jumps the fences to go where ever he wants. If he can hook his front feet over the top of fence he is over it. It sounds foolish, but He is great dog except for this very dangerous trait.

  21. Betsy

    I have a 3 year old large pitbull who screams and lunges when she sees any other animal.. Cats, dogs, horses, chickens, it's all the same. She is otherwise a very low energy, non food or toy motivated dog. We've tried all the best expensive stinky meats and treats, but nothing works when outside.
    The thing she loves more than anything is a good cuddle in a soft warm spot to snore, which is obviously a hard one to offer up when outside 😉 She also would do anything for a good romp with another dog, but so far she has had very few opportunities as we don't allow it when she can't focus, and calm herself.
    We have been trying this look method for over a year, with very little improvement. Starting to feel defeated. She knows and offers 'look' promptly, along with her other long list of cues, in most all other situations.
    It's embarrassing, time consuming, and very unpleasant. All we want is to take our dog for a quiet walk!
    I know there is something we are missing, or we would have been successful in teaching her desirable behavior by now.
    Any ideas??!! (I should note she hasn't shown signs of aggression when she's given the opportunity to meet or play with another dog.)

  22. hayley rees

    Just wondering if you need to deal with the dogs emotions in relation to other dogs before trying to teach behaviours to use in the situation ??

  23. pmsk

    I have to be honest, I don't understand how you ever trusted him around another smaller dog after he killed the first one. The first killed/injured dog was on him but the responsibility for the others falls on the humans. The shepherd cannot be trusted around other dogs. I would NEVER let him around other dogs, especially small dogs.

  24. thewanderingrex

    Not all leash reactivity is born from fear and a dog thinking it needs to protect itself. My dog does it out of excitement. Telling him how good he is, starting at distance before progressing has gotten us no where. We've hired two positive trainers this year to help solve the problem and he's just the same. When we've asked what we're doing wrong the trainers say we're doing all the right things and we l just need to increase distance or train for longer. It's been a year! If we were further away from a dog we'd just stay home. This training is useless, and we're stuck with a reactive dog.

  25. Niki

    My dog is the same way. 3 different trainers plus a week at " boarding school " did not help. She also does it when people come over. She gets to excited and refuses to settle or listen. No matter how much exercise she gets. On walks, it helps if I run her on the treadmill for 20 minutes before I walk her. ( helps, but doesn't cure the problem ). Nothing helps when people come over.

  26. NOT Anonymous

    "stuck with a reactive dog" That sounds awfully like you've given up. It takes time to break habits and I hope you think more of your dog than that.

  27. Positively

    Hi Scattered Children, those of us who use positive reinforcement are quite aware of the environment and competing reinforcers when we train. In fact, we use those reinforcers TO train 🙂 We do not "correct' behavior. We change it. Thanks for writing! The Team at Positively

  28. Positively

    Hi Lisa, I recommend a consultation with a qualified trainer to give you some tips on how to manage or change this behavior. It is impossible to give you good advice without seeing your pup's behavior, I'm afraid.
    For immediate help, I recommend that you visit our website and plug in your zip code or city to see if there is a VSPDT local to you. If there isn't, there is always the option of doing a phone consultation with one of them.
    Here is the link to search for a VSPDT:
    Here is the link to request a phone consultation:
    Either way, you should be able to get some very much-needed help.
    The Team at Positively

  29. Mica

    Thanks for asking this; I have the same problem with my 8 year old rescue pooch (boxer/bulldog mix). He displays no aggression off leash, but is a stark raving lunatic on leash and in the car, lol.

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