Living (Happily) with a Reactive Dog

I have a dog that is just amazing – he’s sweet, loyal, well trained and extremely dedicated to his human family. He’s also not good with other dogs especially if there’s a barrier like a fence or a leash involved. This is an extremely common behaviour issue for many families and can be exhausting to live with.

Dogs develop reactivity for many, many reasons. My own dog became reactive because of traumatic experiences where he was attacked by other dogs. This increased his fear and he presents as reactive (he wants to create a threat display so they leave him alone).

Reactivity can also look different depending on your dog – some bark, lunge, growl while others are really stiff, quiet growling and wanting to move away. The one thing they have in common – they aren’t comfortable and their threat displays can often cause owners to be embarrassed and stressed.

Happily there’s a lot we can do to help our reactive and anxious dogs to relax and enjoy being dogs again.

Step 1 

Give your dog a quiet space to settle down each night and for breaks during the day. This is extremely important if you have other dogs or a busy house hold. Dogs need to sleep A LOT. They also like to rest for naps and then get up and about again. It’s important they have a quiet room where they can have a real nap without being worried that something might get them (a person stepping on them or feel competition with another dog in the home).

The quiet space should be away from main windows in the home where the dog can see or hear traffic. The last thing you want is your reactive dog practising the behaviour from your living each time a person or dog goes by.


Sleepy Pup – enjoying her own dog bed in a quiet spot.

Step 2

Engage your dog in interactive feeding – where they work for their food! There are many ways to do this and they all tire out your dog’s brain and/or enhance their bond with you.

Interactive feeding can include:

  • Feeding their kibble or raw food stuffed in a rubber Kong toy. Ensure you have an appropriate size for the weight of your dog and use as many Kongs as needed. For example my Pointer gets 2 cups each meal and that takes 3 Kongs. So each time he eats with Kongs he actually gets 3 of them to work on.
  • Use puzzle toys – try to find breed appropriate. Some small to mid size dogs love find it puzzles while larger bully breeds may appreciate a hardy Buster Cube. Pet stores are carrying more and more of these because dogs and owners love them. A new hit toy is the snuffle mat where you can easily make your own DYI style.
  • Use your dog’s food to work on impulse control training exercises in a quiet space. For example you could take your dog’s breakfast and use it for practice on leave it, stay, position changes and heeling all right in your living room or kitchen.
  • Create a find it game with meals by hiding food throughout your yard or a room in your home for your dog to search out (remember to keep dogs separate for this activity).

Step 3

Reduce high arousal activities like fetch and off leash play. This doesn’t mean you have to eliminate them but change how often and for how long. One of my favourite things to do is play disc with my dog. I’ll give him a few throws and we take a break to work on a trick like weave through my legs and then we may do a few more throws. This decreases the intensity of the game because we only do it for short periods of time and throw in a lot of “thinking” activity where he has to stop and learn.


The boys practicing stays on top of a big rock in a quiet hiking area. Great way to practice and reinforce impulse control!

Step 4

Consider using a calming supplement or medication if the situation requires. There’s plenty of options available to pet owners these days including Rescue Remedy, Colmicalm, and ADAPTIL. Using a supplement or medication along with training can greatly increase the quality of your dog’s life. Dogs who live in a state of reactivity often feel stressed even when they are resting. Their adrenaline from an episode lasts for days and many reactive dogs don’t even get days off in between of episodes which means they never actually come down.

Step 5

Reconsider what exercise is essential to your dog. Often pet owners have it in their head that their dog needs to go for a run every day for “x” amount of time. However the quality of the walk outweighs the quantity (this means more how often and the duration of the walk itself). It’s far better to take your reactive dog out for a walk every few days at non-peak times to smell and relax than it is to do a daily walk through a neighbourhood loaded with triggers. Consider driving out of town for a “smelling” walk where your canine can explore new scents and be away from other dogs or strangers.

Walk at non-peak times whenever possible including late at night and early mornings. These walks can be super short – the most important part is that your dog isn’t being bombarded and can actually just relax.

Even consider giving your dog a doggie vacation and take a week or two off walks all together. Focus on brain games, learning new tricks and relaxation. I know this may sound really difficult if you live with a “hyper” dog but I tried it out with my own young Pointer who is one of the most high energy dogs I’ve ever met and it did work well!


More smelling – went to a new spot in the woods so Ari could use his nose!

Step 6

Remember you’re not alone. Hundreds of thousands of dogs struggle with this issue – that’s why there’s so many classes for Reactive Rover now! Keep your chin up, understand that your dog is trying their best and take a minute to just relax and breath again.

About Where's Your Sit?

Where's Your Sit? is a dog training company based in Nanaimo, British Columbia. Owned and operated by Jade Zwingli who has over 15 years' experience working with animals of all kinds.
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3 Responses to Living (Happily) with a Reactive Dog

  1. Claudia Mahon says:

    Love this article. I have a dog that used to be very reactive to people (fearful) and is still reactive to dogs (excitement, frustration, anxiety). One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to take shorter walks, that quality of walks was more important than quantity. Also, just a note that a medication that has worked well for my pup is Zylkene. Thanks for such a great bit of advice.


  2. Joy Matthews says:

    Great article – thanks for sharing Jade Zwingli


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