Why Do Dogs Bark at Other Dogs & What to Do About It
Step 5 of 25 in the Dogly Reactivity Channel
with Karen Chapdelaine of TheTimelessDog, Training Advocate

Recorded on
Thursday, Jun 10, 7 PM EDT

Choose how you would like to access the recording below

Trying to keep our dogs from being stressed and reactive can get pretty stressful for all of us dog parents as well.

That's why this guide (along with the learning/support group in the video above) is here to support you as well as your dog. In it we give you the tools to help both of you feel confident and on top of potentially reactive and triggering situations.

Let's jump into advice you need to know from a professional dog trainer to understand dog reactivity, what causes your dog's behavior, how to read your dog's body language, and specific ways you can set up your pup to be more calm and confident.

To start, the first important thing pet parents should know to manage reactivity...


What reactivity is and what it isn't

Reactivity is NOT aggression.

We all react to things - it wouldn't be natural not to! If I were to throw a basketball at you, you would likely catch it, dodge it, or get unhappy with me for throwing it at you. Cause and effect - our dogs react just like we do, although their emotions and reactions tend to be connected more directly and visibly.

Reactivity is exactly that - reacting. It's not about taking the offensive or aggressive behavior.

Reactivity can spill over into aggression but it's important to know they are two different things. Many people who don't understand reactivity do often confuse aggressiveness and reactivity in dogs.

Reactivity is actually the opposite of aggression - our dogs are reacting, often out of fear. Your dog's barking and lunging or whatever your dog may do in reacting is your dog's emotional response to the scary or triggering thing, usually in hopes of making it go away.

How's your mindset?

Whatever it is you're feeling when your dog is reactive and barking at other dogs, I can more than relate. As not only a certified professional trainer but also dog mom to my reactive dog CJ, I know how it feels to be frustrated, even embarrassed, when your dog reacts with less than perfect behavior in a triggering situation, like another dog walking by.

I'm here to tell you that none of that helps. Nor does it matter.

Worrying about what anyone else thinks or feeling frustrated or stressed when your dog is reactive is all a distraction from your purpose at hand. Helping your dog feel safe and comfortable is your singular focus. It's all about your dog.

Why how you feel matters to your dog

Remember, your emotions have a direct line to your dog through the leash on a dog walk, so your stress instantly adds to your dog's already-mounting tension. Your dog naturally picks up your vibe through the leash. Put your dog first and worry about your dog's feelings. Your dog is not going to get better if you're spending all your energy on worrying about someone else's feelings.

That doesn't mean you're not alert and quick as needed. Just do what you have to do calmly and with a chipper tone whether you're changing direction with a "this way!" u-turn or distracting your dog with a "look" then counter-conditioning/rewarding with treats.

And if you feel you must say something to the other person in a public situation, practice a line you don't have to think about like an upbeat "we're working on it!" with a quick smile that you can toss out there while staying totally focused on your dog.


What causes reactivity?

The best way to have the right strategies to manage and alleviate reactivity is to know the cause. Knowing the why behind your dog's behavior helps you match the right situational management and training to your dog for a positive, lasting impact on how your dog is feeling and acting.

Important to remind yourself: Your dog's reactivity is not your fault!!

There are a few common reasons for your dog's reactive behavior, and you or something your've done are highly unlikely to be among them. The good news is there's plenty you can do to help support your dog whatever the cause.

5 Causes of reactivity

1) Genetics

Just as humans are born with certain personalities and tendencies, so are our dogs. Genetics is a major factor behind reactivity, not so much breed as inherited tendencies or even experiences in the womb that shape out pups into being a relaxed extrovert, a fearful dog, etc. Just being aware of your dog's essential way of being helps you know how best to keep your pup comfortable and happy.

2) Scary/bad experiences

Sometimes all it takes is one bad, frightening, or unsettling experience early in your dog's life to create a lasting impression and reactive behavior with any future similar encounters.

Whether it's the sight of bikes, other dogs, going to the vet, or you name it, all can be made easier with good observation, anticipation, and patience from you and positive techniques like counter-conditioning (see below and in the video).

3) Flight vs fight

A lot of reactivity happens when our dogs feel trapped or even just approached by something that feels threatening within their view even if not literally threateningly close. Whatever feels threatening to your dog is threatening.

That's when the flight or fight instinct kicks in; without an escape/flight option dogs are only left with fight (dogs barking, lunging, etc to make the thing go away).

By using the word "fight," I don't mean your dog actually wants to fight. Rarely is a dog inclined to attack or fight. Your dog just wants to look and sound scary to make the other scary thing go away.

The logic of dog barking: more flight, not fight

Why do dogs bark at other dogs, for example? A barking dog on dog walks with other dogs walking by is usually a pretty clear attempt to get the other dog to go away. If that sounds like your dog, your pup's reactive dog bark is likely intended to sound/look scary to make the scary thing take flight (especially if your dog doesn't have that option). Makes perfect sense, right?

Part of knowing your dog is knowing what distance keeps your pup in his/her comfort zone before the need to react to a trigger kicks in.

4) Lack of socialization

Way down on the list is possibly missed or not enough socialization to other dogs, people, situations, sounds, and surfaces during key socialization periods early in your pup's life. At the same time, you want to be sure that any socialization you do is totally positive.

All socialization should be done right which means gradually, positively, and always staying within your dog's comfort zone with options for consent and escape. (Taking dogs to dog parks to socialize them is obviously not doing it right or a good idea, for example.)

And wherever you are in life stage with your dog, you don't have to socialize with everyone! It's perfectly fine if your dog doesn't want to meet and greet every other dog, new person, and child. Know your dog, and always let your dog initiate greetings (or not). Dogs aren't all that unlike humans - they want to decide who to interact with and how, and no one likes someone invading their space whether it's thrusting a hand forward or any move toward us that might trigger a reaction, good or bad.

(You'll find several guides in the Puppy Channel with specific exercises for making intros to both dogs and people smoother and happier.)

Try this

I also encourage dog parents to keep a journal for a few days and note various factors that contribute to your dog's reactivity - things like time of day, for example. You may notice your dog is fine on a walk in the morning but more reactive in late afternoon.

5) Lack of training

Sometimes your dog may be reacting simply because most dogs like predictability and don't like not knowing what to expect from situations or what's expected of them. It's good to have training basics in your dog's repertoire so your dog will always have go-to alternative behaviors you can use to distract and reward your pup in unfamiliar situations.

The communication bond you develop with your dog during training of basics creates a trust link you can rely on to reassure your dog and coach through what's happening, what to do, and that all is well.

(You can find lots of basic manners training exercises here on Dogly in the Manners Channel.)


How to recognize early body language signs of reactivity to get ahead of and alleviate a trigger situation

Knowing your dog and being able to spot signs that your dog is beginning to react to something before it escalates is one of your best tools to keep your dog in his/her comfort zone and avoid reactive behavior.

6 early body language signs of reactivity to be aware of...

  • Yawning
  • Lip licking
  • Stiffness
  • Panting
  • Inability to settle or relax
  • Hackles raised*

*Hackles raised doesn't always mean reactivity. It can also just be over-arousal.

Further body language signs of reactivity

  • Ears pinned back
  • Whale eye
  • Tense body, leaning forward, stiff tail
  • Eye contact that doesn't break or is hard to break
  • Growling
  • Lip snarls

Practice observing your dog closely and noting your individual dog's body language signs when your dog starts to react to a trigger. You'll get more in sync with reading and acting on your dog's feelings early so you can manage the situation well before your dog barks, lunges, or otherwise reacts to the scary thing.


What to do when your dog reacts

1) BREATHE - reactivity happens, regression in your training happens, dogs bark!

First and foremost, breathe. Handle it calmly - remember, your dog feels your calm (and your tension). Your dog is counting on you to confidently, calmly have his/her back, learn what you can, handle the situation, and move on positively. We all have bad days when our previous learning and training goes by the wayside. Find a way to help your dog feel comfortable (see below) - and onward!

2) Create distance between you and the trigger

One of your key tools in keeping your dog calm and teaching your dog to feel more comfortable around triggers is to create distance between your dog and the trigger. Your goal is to know your dog's threshold to gauge the right amount of distance to keep your dog under threshold and gradually decrease the distance needed for your dog's comfort zone when ready. Take as long and be as gradual as needed for your individual dog. It's not a race - focus on keeping your dog under threshold always.

Learn the "threshold game"

To anticipate and manage best distances in various situations, try to think about trigger/distraction distance and the "threshold game" with the stop light model:

  • Red is stop. In the red zone, your dog is already over threshold and can't learn. Here, you simply want to get your dog out of the situation as quickly and calmly as possible. This is a zone where you want to put more distance between your dog and the trigger, and make note of what is your dog's best distance for comfort at this point in time and training.
  • Yellow is slow down. You might be able to accomplish some learning here but usually better to use this zone for closely watching your dog's body language signals to let you know to manage the situation with more distance, treats, etc. before your dog goes over threshold in the red zone. (You can use walking across the street from a dog park, for example, to see what type of body language you see in your dog when you're even in sight of a trigger. You'll want to have a good, safe distance from a trigger for this kind of early observation and learning. And bring plenty of high-value treats!)
  • Green means go. This is where you and your dog can work. You might have to be 500 feet away from the trigger. This is where learning can happen, where your dog can see and register the presence of the trigger, and still feel comfortable enough for counter-conditioning work and giving you opportunities for rewarding calm behavior.

Make mental notes of where, when, and how your dog moves into the yellow and red zones with various triggers or distractions. For all the next times to come you'll be that much better at anticipating your dog's emotions and getting ahead of potential reactive situations.

3) Use counter-conditioning

Use high-value treats to teach your dog to expect good things when he/she sees a trigger. You can see me demonstrating a version of "look at that," a useful counter-conditioning game -at the 45 minute mark, with my dog CJ in the accompanying video above as an example.

Try this

  • Set up a situation that is completely safe and at a good distance but where your dog can see the trigger.

  • If you're working inside, you want at least two safety barriers separating your dog from the triggers (in this case with CJ, it's other dogs).

  • All you want your dog to do is look at the trigger, choose to look back at you, and get rewarded.

  • When you first start teaching this to your dog, it helps to say your dog's name once, and when he/she looks back at you, say "yes!" and treat. As you do this multiple times, treat each time and then have a super generous treat party at the end of your practice and let your dog relax without triggers.

  • The more you practice this game, you won't need to say your dog's name. Your dog will naturally look back at you to make sure you're still there and to get the good thing - the treats.

  • If you want to practice this outside - with people as the trigger for example, I recommend taking your dog to a local store, staying in the car and practicing seeing people from a distance from the safety of the car. You can also walk to a park and stay at a long distance from dogs/people and practice within your dog's safety zone.

  • Always teach and practice counter-conditioning games before you need them. Then when you need them in real life, you and your dog will both be more comfortable and solid with your dog's positive reaction.

Real-life note: it can take time to rewire your dog's brain to expect good things when he/she sees a trigger. Be patient and know that there will be days your dog regresses.

We all have good and not-so-good days. Just get your dog away from the trigger and into a safe, comfortable space on those not-great days and start fresh another day!


Next up in the Reactivity Channel on Dogly

Once you've got a good handle on focusing proactively and positively and how to use counter-conditioning to change your dog's (and your) feelings around triggers, check out the next guide to understanding and anticipating "sudden" reactivity.

If you have any questions on reactivity and your dog, just ask us in our Community Discussion. Continue in our Reactivity Channel where you'll learn everything you need to know for your dog from our community of certified dog trainer Dogly Training Advocates.

If you ever need more personalized training guidance, get started in your dog's training plan here.

Karen Chapdelaine of TheTimelessDog

Training Advocate
Dogly loves Karen because she helps us live life with our dogs in a way that's rewarding, calm, and happy - and does it with empathy.

Karen guides you

Aggression - Basic Manners - Marker Training - Enrichment - Leash Manners - Reactivity

Karen is certified

Certified Professional Dog Trainer Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) - Fear Free Certified - DN-CET (DogNostic - Canine Enrichment Technician)