How to Train a Reactive Dog on Leash with a Parallel Walk
Step 23 of 25 in the Dogly Reactivity Channel
with Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw, Training Advocate

Is your dog reactive or generally anything but calm and well-behaved around other dogs? A parallel walk can be a highly useful skill in so many situations if you have a reactive dog.

Certainly those of us with a leash-reactive dog or a dog who is sensitive or over-exuberant on leash need this skill most of all. But all dog owners will find that the parallel walk comes in handy in a surprising number of scenarios with other dogs.

Honestly most dogs, not just those with leash reactivity, could stand to slow down and learn to casually co-exist with new dogs in the way that a parallel walk makes possible. In this guide, we'll go over the steps to successfully train your leash reactive dog with a parallel walk.


What exactly is a parallel walk?

A parallel walk can be a bit of a misnomer because it creates the image of two dogs, side by side, walking in the same direction. This can be a great goal to work toward, but the walk may start out with LOTS of distance, and the dogs can often be staggered. The point is that the dogs are parallel, not perpendicular or face to face.

The idea of a parallel walk is allowing two dogs in close proximity to one another while both on leash, either walking side by side or staggered. This enables them to build up positive associations with each other and begin to see that being near another dog can actually be a good thing.

What's the objective of a parallel walk?

The goal of a parallel walk is to have two dogs with separate handlers or dog parents walking the dogs more or less in the same direction (as opposed to walking toward one another) with enough distance for it to be no big deal.

I like to set these walks up in places where there are plenty of interesting bushes and other sniffy things around to engage with, too. Obviously, dog parks are out - you want interesting but the relaxing, sniffy, rewarding kind of interesting... not any additional triggers.

The idea is that the presence of the other dog should not be the most exciting or intriguing thing on this walk. The goal is for the dogs to learn that there's nothing special about walking near or with other dogs, it's just a normal part of their day.


The secret to success of a parallel walk

The challenge with explaining how to parallel walk two dogs is that the dogs really dictate a lot about how the walk is going to look. The important thing is to set up both dogs for comfort and success with however much distance is needed.

Since you're not dealing with dogs off leash, you and the other dog owners are in control of the distance and spatial relationship between your dogs - a great advantage to individualize your training for what works.

Some dogs need to start out with a great deal of distance between them. Or one dog may be on the sidewalk while the other is in the grass. Be mindful of your dog's body language and adjust distance and positioning as needed. Use treats to reward good behavior and as positive reinforcement that being near another dog is a good thing.

Try staggering - depending on your individual dogs

Staggering can also be helpful for leash reactive dogs. Some dogs prefer to be ahead, some dogs do better walking slightly behind the other dog. Or you may find that one dog is more comfortable on the left side while the other prefers the right. This can all vary depending on your individual dogs, and it's important to observe and adjust your training sessions accordingly. Many leash reactive dogs triggered by other dogs respond well to staggering.

For my dog Muchacho, walking slightly behind the other dog helps him feel like he's getting to check out the other dog without as much pressure. When he's ahead, he tends to nervously look behind him, increase his pace, and has a harder time settling into the walk.

It's also helpful to have different paces during the walk. Sometimes a fast pace can cause tension between reactive dogs, so mix it up with some slower walking or even some stops to allow for sniffing and exploring.

Understanding your particular dog's body language, and making adjustments as needed is really important when dealing with your dog's leash reactivity.


How to teach your leash reactive dog to parallel walk and keep progressing successfully

Executing the parallel walk to get the full benefits is about setting your dogs up for success and keeping the progress going.

Here are 5 dog training tips to completing a success parallel walk:

1) Both you and the other dog handler want to mark and reinforce your dogs with high-value treats for choosing to disengage from the other dog.

Staring is rude and direct eye contact is upsetting to many dogs, so practicing being aware of another dog but being able to remove focus from the dog is a great skill. Whenever your dog looks at the other dog and switches focus away, mark with a clicker or verbal marker word (like "Yes!") and treat!

2) As your dog's body language relaxes, the distance can slowly be decreased.

This can be a bit of a back and forth sometimes. Body language clues that you're getting too close and stimulating your dog's reactive behavior may be that your dog is unable to remove his/her focus from the other dog, that your dog is taking treats harder or faster, or not taking treats at all, vocalizations like whining or growling, or hackles being raised, and definitely barking and lunging - lots more distance needed in those cases!

3) Sometimes multiple walks are needed, or simply going for a walk with some distance is the goal.

Keeping your training program successful and ending at whatever distance is still comfortable for your dog is great. If the goal is to make friends and interact a bit, releasing slack for both dogs on leash as they find something interesting to sniff together is a great walk to ease them into closer proximity.

4) Allow your dogs to get together and take breaks - when it makes sense.

One dog may take the initiative to sniff the other, which is great, as long as both dogs still seem relaxed. If the sniffing is going on a little long, or any body language stiffness is observed, it can be helpful to call the dogs away in a chipper, happy voice to help regain a little distance and remind the dogs that they can take breaks as needed.

5) Keep communicating with the other dog handler.

Keeping communications going with the other human is also very important, since you may not know their dog's body language signals as well as they do, or you may observe something from an angle that they're not able to see. Pointing out stiffness, asking if their dog is okay or needs a break, communicating something you're seeing from your own dog - all great ways to make sure everyone is on the same page during a parallel walk.


Why distance and time are our best friends with a reactive dog on leash

Dog introductions are often done with two dogs moving face to face with tight leashes. By allowing head-on approaches when both dogs are at peak arousal, we tend to make the interaction more intense, and the intensity can easily fuel a dog's reactivity and spill into conflict. Dogs who are fearful or have been practicing fear behavior and reactions often benefit from more distance when meeting new dogs.

Remember our goal - gradually decreasing distance

The goal of the parallel walk is to gradually decrease distance with the other dog without a lot of intense focus on the other dog. For an insecure dog, getting the extra time to take in the other dog and get comfortable is really helpful.

Taking it at your dog's own pace

For many reactive dogs, the reaction is often a defensive mechanism, and by moving slowly we are able to eliminate the perceived need for the "big scary dog" show with barking and lunging.

For dogs with a pushy or rude approach to greeting other dogs, taking this slower approach allows arousal to decrease so they can interact in a more polite way that is more likely to be well received by the other dog.

How I use a parallel walk for a range of safe dog introductions

You can put the parallel walk to work for you and your dog in a range of situations where you want safe, dog-to-dog introductions. A parallel walk is how I introduce new dogs into my dogs' lives, as well as how I conduct dog training and dog introductions at the shelter where I work (both with shelter dogs for playgroup and to introduce them to potential adopters' dogs).

Whether you're working with an adult dog, younger puppy, a big dog or small, the parallel walk is a great go-to skill to have in your repertoire.


Next up in the Reactivity Channel on Dogly

Now that you and your dog have solid parallel walk skills and know how to use them in your reactivity training, you can put these new training skills to work in potentially reactive and introductory situations with other dogs. For more training tips to handle leash reactivity, check out what's next here in Dogly's Reactivity Channel.

If you have any questions on teaching and using parallel walks or would like to share your experiences, jump into our Community Discussion. Continue in our Reactivity Channel where you'll learn everything you need to know for your dog from our community of Dogly Training Advocates, each one a force-free, certified professional trainer.

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

Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw

Training Advocate
Dogly loves Tressa because she sees training as a journey to better canine communication.

Tressa guides you

Anxiety - Kids & Dogs - Manners - Bite Prevention - Reactivity - Walking

Tressa is certified

Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner - & Family Paws Parent Educator