How to Walk a Reactive Dog

Walking your dog should always be relaxing and fun – but for reactive dogs and their owners, a quick stroll through the park can become very stressful! If your pup is frequently barking, pulling, and acting aggressively on the leash, it’s worth learning how to walk a reactive dog with patience.

When walking a reactive dog, keeping calm, establishing a routine, and avoiding stressful triggers can help to make your outings more fun. It will take some effort, but starting your dog slowly and gently will encourage healthier long-term behavior.

Why is my dog behaving badly on walks?

Reactive dogs may behave badly on walks as they’re overstimulated, or they may face triggers they feel need an aggressive response. For example, seeing or smelling another dog may make your pet feel frightened and defensive, especially if they’re poorly socialized. 

Conversely, dogs that pull their leashes while walking may simply be over-excited – all pets love getting exercise, and while it’s great to see our dogs so happy, establishing authority is important.

A reactive dog misbehaves in specific situations, so you’ll need to establish a calm, predictable routine. Sometimes, you may even need to distract your pet from scary situations altogether!

Top tips for walking your reactive dog

The key to walking a reactive dog revolves around how you respond to their triggers. Here are a few tips you may wish to try on your next trip out:

Keep your behavior in check

Dogs pick up on emotion more than many people imagine, so setting off on a walk with a calm, positive frame of mind is a must. Reactive dogs are likely to sense your anxiety or negative mood in how you hold yourself and speak to them. Naturally, they’ll think there’s something to be anxious about and will follow your lead.

Always try to walk your dog in a good mood, or even try listening to some music to help soothe you. The calmer you behave, the less likely your reactive dog will anticipate triggers.

Keep things fun and interesting

Dogs love routine, but they all adore exploring new sights and smells. By switching up your walking routes, your pup will have plenty of new distractions to keep them happy.

You may also wish to take a few toys with you on your walks. Why not stop for playtime in a quiet spot – throwing a ball or playing tug, for example? Stopping to play can make for a welcome surprise and may help to take your dog’s mind off potential distractions.

Some dogs can struggle to focus on walks, so it’s important to practice recall training and reward them with treats where appropriate. Practicing positive reinforcement while stopping to play ball or tug can help to encourage responsiveness from your dog in various situations.

Avoid any triggers (if you can)

While it’s not always possible to avoid meeting other dogs and their owners while walking out and about, avoiding your pet’s common stressors is a good short-term fix for reactive behavior.

When training a dog not to be reactive, you should note their body language and cues when they’re likely to start misbehaving. For example, they may spot or smell another animal in the distance that you’ve not yet noticed. If you see your dog’s ears pick up and their hackles start to raise, it may be time to move on.

Try to watch for body cues and, where possible, walk your dog in areas where they are less likely to face triggers. Occasionally, you may even be able to block visual triggers by walking your dog in a different direction! It’s a great opportunity to practice and establish healthy recall techniques.

Make triggers fun

You can’t avoid every trigger that might come your way – so when you do, it’s worth trying to appease your pet with a treat or surprise toy. This associative exercise encourages your dog to react less negatively to triggers. For example, if they see another dog roaming in the distance and start to growl, let them react – and encourage them to focus on you.

Be sure to praise your dog every time they focus back on you away from a trigger or distraction. This isn’t blanketing over the issue – it’s teaching your dog they don’t have to associate mundane events with negative feelings or behavior.

A word of warning – this training exercise will take some time to work effectively! The most anxious and reactive dogs out there will need lots of patience, and you’ll need to be consistent when each trigger appears. If your dog starts reverting to bad behavior, you’ve not followed through enough. It can be easy to give up, so remember to balance this training with some of the avoidance techniques listed above.

Help them burn off energy

Dogs bursting full of energy are more likely to overreact and get over-excited when they see triggers on walks – consider playing with them a little before you set off. While you should never exhaust your dog, getting them to burn off some energy before your walk may help to lower their reactivity.

Some dog breeds are less responsive to this training than others – border collies and Australian sheepdogs, for example, are virtually tireless! If you’re unsure about your pet’s energy levels, always consult your vet for advice before trying this technique.

Should I hire a dog trainer?

Getting used to walking a reactive dog will take time and patience, but it’ll lead to relaxing fun for years to come. If you’re trying the methods above and feel you’re getting nowhere, why not consider taking your dog to training school?

At Delaware K9 Academy, our award-winning trainers help owners – and dogs of all sizes and reactivity levels – find the fun in behavioral training. Helping your dog to become less reactive on walks won’t just be a weight off your mind – your pup will grow more confident, too. Why not reach out to our team and book a private session – or a spot at our famous two-week bootcamps?