Helping Reactive Dogs: Management Tips for Trigger Situations
with Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw, Training Advocate

Before diving into next steps, I just wanted to come back and make sure I was giving as much concrete info as possible, especially in regard to management. As I said in the last post, managing the environment so that our reactive dogs are not coming into contact with triggers is our first order of business. But this can often seem near impossible, so let’s talk about a few different versions of what that could look like:


Dog reactive dogs/leash reactive dogs

Some dogs are reactive to other dogs specifically in the context of being on leash, whereas others react no matter what. If your dog is reactive to other dogs on walks, whether or not she reacts in other situations, your first step is to rethink your walking habits. Is your neighborhood full of other dogs on walks? Ditch the neighborhood walk, or move it to weird hours. Welcome to the “midnight dog walkers club.” 


Another option is to take your walks elsewhere - pick a more secluded trail or a wide open park. I like parks with big grassy areas for reactive dogs, where you know you can get as much space as needed. Sidewalks and tight trails with nowhere to go are not ideal. 


I know this is not ideal but keep in mind that as much as we’ve been conditioned to believe that a brisk neighborhood walk once or twice a day is the key to being a good dog owner, there are actually TONS of other ways you can give your dog exercise and mental stimulation. Check out this post, this post, or this post for more on enrichment. 



Dogs that are reactive to bicycles, scooters, skateboards etc

Same principles as above apply. Of course you cannot predict every instance where a moving projectile will occur, BUT you can avoid places like bike trails and busy neighborhoods in favor of dirt trails and hiking paths or lesser known walking paths.  



Reactive to children

Walk during school hours and away from playgrounds, schools, etc. Weekend walks may be challenging, so stick to remote trails, especially more difficult ones or skip the walk in favor of at-home enrichment.


If your dog is reactive to children in your own home under specific circumstances, you can use barriers and/or gates to create separate safe spaces for each. Safety is paramount, so if this is an issue for you, please reach out to myself or another licensed Family Paws Parent Educator. 



Barrier reactive (reacts to people or dogs passing fence/fence fights with neighboring dogs, etc)

For outdoor fencing reactivity, you will either need to stop letting your dog out unsupervised OR add an extra layer of either fencing or privacy screening. Some dogs can be soothed by simply having the visual taken away (so thick fabric may suffice), other dogs will still react to the sounds of their triggers, so what works will depend on your dog. 


If your dog is reacting through a window or see-through door of some kind, you’ll need to block that visual either using shades, curtains, or a privacy film. 



Reactive to doorbell/guests/people outside the home

If your dog is reactive to new people entering the home or even just the doorbell noise, the first thing you want to do is stop using the doorbell. Put out a sign instructing visitors to text instead, tape over it, or just tell visitors ahead of time not to ring the bell. 


Next, figure out what you need to do to make your dog not react to people entering. This could be having your dog in a back room with a noise machine running. This could be having your dog out for a walk with a family member while the guest arrives and then coming back to the house once they’ve settled in. This could be having your dog crated or in the backyard with an enrichment item. Every dog is different.


If your dog reacts to passersby that are not coming in (like mail carriers), you may want to put up curtains or use a window film that blocks their view. This is especially important if your dog is at home for a good portion of the day, and is likely spending all day reacting! 



Note: For some people management is enough. Simply coming to terms with the fact that your dog needs to hang out with a bully stick in the bedroom when guests arrive may be fine, or putting up some window coverings may do the trick for you. It’s okay to decide that you’re content with management. 


It’s also okay to decide to what degree you’re comfortable with annoying behaviors. At our previous home, we had neighboring dogs on both sides of our fences, so it was important to me to work fastidiously on preventing fence fighting. This meant supervised yard time only for quite some time and building a solid recall away from the fences. Eventually I got comfortable with the dogs giving a bark or two and then coming into the house on their own. Where we live now, we don’t have dog neighbors. For this reason along with a lack of time and energy, I’ve spent very little time working on recall from the fence lines here, and occasionally Muchacho will bark at a passerby. It’s a little annoying but happens infrequently enough for me to not really care that much. 


If you do want to change your dog’s behavior, however, stay tuned for more on desensitization, counter conditioning, and training alternative behaviors (oh my!)