How To Socialize A Reactive Dog

Learning how you can train your reactive dog to socialize is certainly the top priority task for you as a dog owner.

Your dog needs to be able to explore his world in a calm manner and learn to interact and be comfortable with various stimuli (such as interacting with other dogs and humans) that are going to be present in his life.

A reactive dog can be trained to socialize through finding out his triggers, preventing trigger stacking and using positive reinforcement to reward his good behavior. Also, make use of some highly valuable treats to get his attention during the training.

To start with,

Get To Know The Triggers

Learn what sets your dog to react aggressively. One good way to get a feel on how your dog reacts to his surrounding is by bringing him to a dog park where there would be many stimuli that going to catch his attention.

You would certainly have to put his on a leash, move away from the crowd and maintain a safe distance during the walk.

Keep each walking session to only 30 minutes as you would not want to over stress your dog. Look out for what is causing his anxiety.

Does your dog behave reactively whenever he sees any dog or only some specific breed of dogs? 

Or does your dog bark at strangers when he is out for a walk, barking at a cat when he sees her on the street or chasing after mice found in an alley or running away from balloons that appear in front of him?

Did he react aggressively whenever another dog approaches you (a sign that he is being possessive of you) or bark excessively when he is on a car ride (he is excited because of the moving scenery from the car).

Factors that can trigger his anxiety include dog’s breed, size, age as well as “things” that he perceives as threat. How the other dog is behaving (is he barking or remaining calm) towards your dog also plays a vital role in affecting your dog reaction.

Dogs that walk calmly across the street usually will not cause any anxiety on your dog. But when a dog or puppy keeps staring or barking at your dog, he will likely get nervous and behave reactively.

You will need to give him more treats and get more distance away from the dog, preferably behind a car so that your dog’s sight of view is away from the stimuli.

Prevent Trigger Stacking

Just like humans who have a maximum level of stress that you can endure before “breaking” out, this goes to your dog as well.

Each day, your dog is subjected to numerous stimuli (triggers) the moment he wakes up and these stimuli will contribute some level of stress to him. As your dog gets with his day, his stress level will gradually build up. 

When the stress level exceeds his “threshold”, he will get “worked up”. This is what is often referred to as trigger stacking. 

Triggers such as your child screaming, your cat running around the home, a postman delivering the parcel, a dog walking past your fence which look normal to you might have a great impact on his emotion.  

So it’s important to monitor your dog’s triggering threshold (by observing his body language) so that you can immediately do some action (through treats distraction) to calm him down and remove him from these stimuli.

Bringing him back to his crate would be a good way to calm him down as your dog will find a sense of security and peace when he is in his crate. (This is assuming he is already crate trained).

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Keep Track Of The Triggers

Knowing what are the triggers that lead to your dog fear and anxiety is certainly going to help you in addressing his reactive behavior. 

You can then work on reducing these triggers so that your dog will not hit his trigger “threshold” to react aggressively.

If your dog is reaching his threshold much sooner than usual, did any special events happen today? Did you have visitors coming to your home or you are bringing him to visit your parents, and he finds himself in an unfamiliar environment? Or you have brought him for a car ride, and he sees other dogs along the way?

These stimuli could be mental stressing for him and cause him to react negatively.

Avoid Tension On His Leash

Having your dog on a leash is certainly a must especially if he is a reactive dog while bringing him out for a stroll. 

But be mindful of the tension on the leash. Do not put too much tension as your dog will be able to sense your emotional state when you keep pulling his leash and know that you are getting stressed or nervous. He will react to your emotion and get reactive.

So teaching yourself to be calm at all times when you are out with a reactive dog is extremely important. 

A tight leash will also make your dog stay alert, and he will always be on his guard as to what is going to happen next. This will put him in a tense state and trigger his anxiety.

So keep his leash loose and ensure you still have that control. (Just in case he goes all the way out to another dog). Loose leash is a signal to your dog that he should feel relaxed and enjoy the stroll.

Stay Calm And Make Your Dog Engage With You

You will certainly need a lot of focus and attention when walking with your reactive dog as you have to be mindful of the surroundings that could have adverse impact on your dog’s emotions. 

Be calm and do not get too stressed up whenever you see potential triggers that can cause your dog to react negatively.

If your dog finds that you are getting nervous, this will cause him to react accordingly.

Keep feeding your dog with treats and make sure that he is engaging with you. Remember, your goal is to make him feel that it is much more rewarding paying attention to your than his stimuli.

You can make use of some verbal praise along with the treats to improve his engagement with you. 

Get To Know Your Dog Body Language

Brush up your knowledge to interpret your dog body language. This will certainly help to improve your communication with him and build his trust and bond.

Knowing from your dog body language when he is feeling relaxed, alert or fear will certainly put you in a good position to prevent him from being reactive.

Fear signals includes pulling back his ears, tuck his tail or even tremble.

Alert signals includes frozen forward stance, closed mouth, high tail and forward ears.

Relax signals include soft eyes, loose open mouth and low relaxed tail.

By knowing how to interpret these signs, you are in a better position to “read” your dog’s mind when he is out in the street.

For example, if your dog starts to tuck his tail when he sees another dog coming his way, you know that he is feeling nervous and afraid. You can then move him away in another direction so that the dog is out of his sight.

Knows What Work For Your Dog

Each and every dog is unique and what works for one might not work for another. So find out what works best for your dog to maintain his calmness.

For example, I have found that making my dog remain in sit position on one corner works great when I observe that he is showing signs of anxiety (his body is trembling) when he sees a bigger dog across the street. He will maintain his focus on me as I feed him with treats. This distraction approach works extremely well to calm him down.

Some dog owners find success by just letting their dog keep walking and using treats to distract his attention. Do what you feel works best for your dog.

Use Your Body To Block His View

In the event that your dog starts to act aggressively when facing another barking dog, stand in front of him to block his view and use the high value treats to catch his attention.  

This is to use your body as a barrier to block his focus on his target. This will help him to regain his control.

“Buddy” System

This “buddy” system works by having a well-trained dog to be your dog partner during the training. This is how it works:

  1. Do the training in an area with little distraction and your backyard will be an ideal choice.
  2. Have the well-trained dog sit in one corner of the yard.
  3. Put a leash on your dog and lead him to the well-trained dog. Stop approaching once your dog shows signs of anxiety. This will be the “calm distance” that your dog is comfortable with when facing another dog without reacting negatively.
  4. Call out to your dog by his name and when he focuses his attention on you, give him a high value treat and praise him for being calm.
  5. Progress with this training daily, with the goal of improving the “calm distance” so that your dog will ultimately be able to stay calm and play with the well-trained dog.
  6. He will also get to learn socialization skills from this well-trained dog during their playtime.
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Get Ready Better Treats For The Training

When working with your dog on his reactivity behavior, it’s important that you get hold of some really high quality treats that your dog simply cannot resist.

I would recommend hot dogs or string cheese as dogs usually crave for these rather than those frozen kibbles or green beans. Remember, the more unique the treats, the better it will be to get his attention.

Bring the 2 types of treats with you when you take him for a walk down the streets. The normal treats that he had daily and some “special” treats that he will only get once a week.

For a normal standard walk that is on a quiet street that does not have many people or dogs around, you can give him the usual standard treats.

When you are reaching a much busier street where there are cats, dogs, kids, runners or bikers along the way, change the treats to high value ones.

The idea is to reward him for being calm when he sees stimuli that might raise his anxiety and to keep his focus on you. 

It’s all about the treats versus the stimuli that he is encountering. The treats had to be tempting enough to act as a distraction and motivation for him so that he would pay his focus on the treats rather than the stimuli.

Your dog is likely going to experience a high level of stress and anxiety when he sees another dog across the street that keeps staring at him but with compelling high quality treats, you can make him focus on you.

I would not consider this as “bribing” but rather a form of positive reinforcement for rewarding his good behavior which is to remain calm when facing his stimuli.

Frequency Of Dispensing The Treats

Adjust the frequency of giving your dog his treats based on how challenging the environment that he is in. If your dog is on a walk on a wider street that has less contact with stimuli, you can give him a treat every few steps.

But when he reaches much narrow street where a dog is going close to you without any barrier or distraction, you will have to increase the frequency of the treats to keep “holding” on to his attention till the other dog walks pass.


Reactivity behavior is not something that can be addressed within a short time period. It may take months or even years to have your dog’s reactive behavior corrected and learn to socialize at ease without any troubles.

Take small steps and gradually build up your dog’s confidence so that he would feel comfortable when facing any stimuli in his life!

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