Walking My Reactive Dog: Part 2

In case you missed it, check out Part 1 here.

So, I’ve been discussing Alma’s on-leash reactivity when seeing other on-leash dogs.

In an effort to fully assess everything, I developed what I’m now calling Alma’s Reactivity Matrix (details in part 1).

Alma's Reactivity Matrix

The point of this is to help assess where we’re at, and where we need to go for all of those boxes to turn green. Or at least yellow – I’d be happy with yellow. And I think green is noble, but probably unrealistic for almost any dog, considering that top right box. But hey, if you’re truly there: kudos. I call Moses our ‘perfect’ dog, but if I did this for him, even his matrix wouldn’t be 100% green.

So, Alma’s reactive. What am I doing about it?

Well, where the situation falls in the matrix really determines my response.

Getting a ‘Hail Mary’ lunging reaction from her is never the goal. If she does that, it’s a clear sign that the situation is too much for her (not to mention it’s not fun to deal with and can often been stressful and embarrassing for me, too).

And the green boxes – while totally awesome – aren’t learning opportunities (for this issue, anyway).

So that leaves me in yellow and orange – preferably yellow, but depending on the environment, it can be a very fine line between the two.



Yellow is the perfect learning opportunity – she’s aware of the other dog, but hasn’t lost her mind. She’s still paying attention to me and what I’m doing. I can experiment with proximity and gauge her reaction. If she stays calm, I can reduce distance (which is really what she wants in these situations – she wants to get closer and greet the other dog) and reward calmness.

If she starts to get more excited, we can pause, distract, or create more distance – this both relieves any anxiety or stress she may have about the situation and communicates that her exuberance doesn’t get her what she wants (which is to greet).

And we’ve seen some success. When we first learned Alma was reactive after adopting her, our definitions of proximity were much different – ‘too close’ was way farther away. But, as with all training, over time and as you have success you need to constantly redefine your goals – or redesign your matrix, as it were.

So here are a few of the strategies I’ve employed with Alma.

Note: our standard walking position is always at heel with a loose leash – Alma always walks in stride beside me on a regular 2 metre/6 foot leash. None of this pulling/flexi-leash business. We’ve walked like this since we adopted her, and it’s routine now. She pulls when she’s attached to the cart – that’s it. So the underlying context of these strategies is that she’s close and always starting in a loose leash/heel position.

The Sit & Wait 

Only useful when we’re in the yellow and Alma’s “intensely focused”. Obviously asking her to sit if she’s bouncing or lunging and completely overwhelmed isn’t a good option. It just won’t work; she won’t even hear the word. But when she’s still in tune with me, asking her to sit can be a great distraction.

But this is only if the proximity will never get too close. But if the dog is across the street, we’re usually fine.

Often, if the dog is approaching, I’ll have her sit with her back towards the dog and facing me. Then I’m still able to keep an eye on the other dog and owner, and Alma has to strain a bit to watch them – it’s harder for her to really focus on them looking over her shoulder. Once they pass, we continue on our way.

Alma working on a sit-stay

Alma working on a sit-stay

Changing Pace

Also useful in the yellow sections. This mostly means speeding up to jog past the distracting dog. If we’re moving quickly, Alma has to pay attention to me and where I’m going. Sure, she gets a little excited with the faster movement, but it’s excitement about me and what I’m doing, it’s not reactivity based on the other dog’s presence.

Unfortunately, if Moses is there too this doesn’t work as well. It’s like jogging with a piano tied to your ass. He’s got one walk speed – lumbering – and he likes it that way.

Moses' take on exercise

Moses’ take on exercise


If we’ve gotten to the orange section – or I think we might get there – I’m not above waiting behind a parked car for the distraction to pass. I’ve also definitely used this to gain some reprieve after Alma goes for a ‘Hail Mary’ too. Sure, the other owner might think I’m nuts, but that’s their problem, not mine.

Changes of Direction

I’ll use this in both the yellow and orange boxes – if I notice Alma’s escalated to orange (bouncing), my first step is always to change direction, create distance and get some focus back on me.

Back and forth direction changes while another dog is gaining proximity is a great way, I’ve found, to keep Alma in the yellow while distance is closing in. She’ll still keep an eye on them, but we’re able to create a situation where she knows they’re there and getting closer, but is still paying attention to me and staying relatively calm.

Even a quick left or right is helpful to maintain focus and calm, while creating some distance between us and the other dog.

Dr. Sophia Yin has this really great resource on changing direction (and speed), which I would highly recommend checking out by visiting this link.

Caution: if you’re walking two dogs, pay attention to where your other dog – and their leash – is, before you just suddenly change direction and potentially walk into them. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything….



Get the Hell Outta There

In the orange – and definitely in the red – my strategy is simple: leave.

Alma weighs about 100lbs. If she’s lunging for another dog, my best option is just to head the other way and create as much distance between her and the dog as necessary to get her to let go of her focus on the dog and pay attention to me again.

Especially because, in my experience, the other dog’s owner isn’t going to be much help. Upon seeing Alma get excited and bounce (orange), people have stopped and watched, or decided it’s a good time to try to talk to us. To that I say: WTF! Keep it moving, nothing to see here.

Schmidt demonstrates this technique

Schmidt demonstrates this technique

Complete Avoidance

Say we’re in the green, or not even in a situation covered in the matrix. I see another dog way on the horizon way before Alma’s even aware of them, and instead of continuing on in that direction, I’ll just head the other way.

Do we learn anything here? Nope. Reactions are prevented, sure, but this does nothing to help Alma work through it.

But you know what? Sometimes that’s okay.

Sometimes. It’s not a beneficial tactic to take all the time – or often – because you won’t improve, but everyone has days where they’re just not up for it. You’re tired, or sick, or just not of the capacity to deal with a reactive dog. That’s fine.

It’s hard work! It can be stressful and frustrating and embarrassing, and I admit there are nights when I’m just not interested. Rather than put myself – and Alma – in a situation that might not go well if I’m not up for it, I just won’t.

We all have those days from time to time

We all have those days from time to time

Granted, it’s mostly unavoidable; we live in the ‘burbs and see other on-leash dogs on almost all of our walks, so it’s always better to be prepared and optimistic than resigned (a certain amount of dog training, like anything, is a self-fulfilling prophecy).

But it’s still okay to take the odd night off. (Not from walking! Just from reactivity.)

And that’s about it.

There are lots of ways to work with a reactive dog; these are the ones I’ve found to work for Alma.

But, like I said, this is Alma-specific. This could be the completely wrong or unhelpful approach for a different dog. All reactive dogs – their triggers, their reactions, their owners, and their environments – are different.

So this isn’t advice. Or data. It’s an anecdote. Take from it what you will.

In the meantime, Alma and I will continue working to change the colours of those red and orange boxes.

What about you? Are you dealing with a reactive dog? What strategies do you find helpful?

This post is part of the Thursday Barks & Bytes Blog Hop, hosted by 2 Brown Dawgs and Heart Like a Dog. Go pay a visit to the hosts and check out other hop participants.


About ThatJenK
Writing from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. 90% pictures of my dogs; 10% miscellaneous opinions nobody asked for.

30 Responses to Walking My Reactive Dog: Part 2

  1. Bailey says:

    I think it is helpful that you post what you need and try to help the rest of us. As the other dog owner, I tend to move away when I see a potential conflict about to occur. I think protection first and worry about offending later. However, I’ve had owners be upset because they are trying to train their dogs to work around other dogs and feel I’m not being helpful.

    My thought is if you want a working partner talk to me at some point and we can try it when we both are prepared. However, if your dog is showing signs of not being under control, I’m not risking my dogs. Your dog could just slobber and be pulling, but if I don’t know you, I’m not risking it.

    So, we have both sides of the challenge.

    • ThatJenK says:

      Yep, definitely agree! Sometimes it seems that other owners use Moses and I walking by as training opportunities – but he’s not reactive, so I have no issue with that. And if other owners head the other way when they see me and one (or both) of my dogs coming, I don’t mind. If I want to seek out a place to specifically work on Alma’s stuff, there are lots of very busy city paths to go to where we’ll see lots of people.

  2. Thanks for sharing your strategies. I have one reactive husky out of three, so I suppose one out of three is not bad? ahaha! I find changing direction to be especially helpful. This way, we can stay away from her threshold and whatnot. Also what you said, about making things more exciting and that way our dogs will pay attention to us more then the other dog.
    ღ husky hugz ღ frum our pack at Love is being owned by a husky!

  3. Will and Eko says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts in depth, these two posts have been really interesting reads. As you note, there are so many factors at play here that it makes consistency or predictability in training very difficult. And I’ve definitely been there (big dog pulling your shoulder out) and know how frustrating/embarrassing it is. When you’re out walking the neighborhood, all your training is with “live ammunition.” I was able to recruit a friend and her dog to help practice walking past other dogs without pulling. It took a lot of stress out of the equation for me because all parties knew it was a training exercise. Very helpful post, gave me a lot of good stuff to think about with pup #2 on the way. Thanks!

    • ThatJenK says:

      We did training classes that were really good allowing all of the dogs to practice walking near other dogs – this was really good because it was several different strange dogs. Alma doesn’t react to friends’ dogs that she knows, so the opportunities there are more limited. But I agree with the approach – it’s an excellent way to practice in a safe space!

  4. Mia Celeste says:

    Too funny. I love the level of distraction cube. I need one of those to chart my writing/ homework distractions.


  5. Jodi says:

    I’m sure you know my strategies. Most times I just want to kick the other owner in the face. Like you and Alma, my strategy depends on the given situation, while I don’t have a chart like you do 🙂 I do employ similar tactics with Delilah.

    Sampson is different as he wants to get to the person for lovies, and he is big and stubborn, plus with his surgery leg….well it’s difficult. I usually try and grab his attention with food and when that doesn’t work, I reach down and grab his collar and stop him. I don’t like doing that, but I don’t know what else to do. With him, I’m very limited at this point.

    Thanks so much for joining the blog hop, love having you!!

  6. Another great and helpful post. I laughed at your examples and the piano comment caused me to wake Bentley from his nap at my snickering. I think the sitting and facing you is one that I will try. Bark More, Growl Less Barking from the Bayou!

  7. These are great strategies, ones I employ even with my non-reactive dogs just as preventative measures to the OTHER dog being reactive. Jack is slowly getting better. We live in the boonies and we don’t see other dogs very often. It can be weeks, and the place where we walk we seldom encounter them. I don’t know if that’s good or bad…no training opportunities, but no confrontations either…I’m hoping maybe he’ll forget he’s reactive.

  8. These two posts have been great learning experiences — and perspective adjustments — for me! Thank you!
    Ducky is reactive to people and other non-canine animals. And our one neighbors’ chihuahua — but that is a whole other story I’d rather not divulge online. Callie is reactive to other dogs, especially dogs that are smaller than herself. Shadow is easy-going for the most part unless Callie is in the red zone. Since we rarely go to the park these days, I don’t have to worry about it too much with the Golden Girls. Ducky is a different story. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just say that I have to really be aware of my own energy with Ducky, especially in situations that are stressful for her.

  9. FleaByte says:

    It may be Alma specific, but it also sounds like good advice in general. Thank you.

  10. Jessica says:

    This is a very good series.

    Because Silas isn’t so much reactive as “unpredictable,” avoidance is a pretty common tactic for me. We do most of our walking on narrow trails, and it’s almost impossible to let two on-leash dogs walk directly toward each other with BOTH of them staying polite. If the dog seems friendly I’ll pull Silas over to the side of the trail to wait them out. If the other dog starts looking uncomfortable, I will get out of there any way that I can. Silas has so much of the “reactive dog” personality that I’m always afraid our next bad interaction will be THE ONE that makes him hate all dogs forever.

  11. I like “Hail Mary” better as a description than “Red Zone.”

    We had a situation the other night when I was walking both dogs. A child was running directly toward us, and I tried to get out of her way and onto an adjacent trail, didn’t quite make it, wound up in the bushes, tripping over Mia. Leo barked and lunged, and the little girl just stopped and stared. I don’t blame her; Leo must have looked terrifying. But I had to say, “Keep going.” Because he wasn’t going to stop barking.

    Not my proudest moment. It’s been a long time since Leo’s reactions have embarrassed me, but I was embarrassed this time.

    • ThatJenK says:

      Yep, I’ve definitely had to tell sternly people to “keep it moving” when they stop to stare at a reaction. If she’s reacting to you and/or your dog, just standing there is actually making it worse!

  12. jan says:

    Love this post. I confess to relying on Misty the alpha dog to convincing the other dogs that they should not react to anything unless she tells them to. And she seldom does.

  13. This technique will definitely not work for you(!) but we’ve found that if we pick Mr. N up and cover his eyes before he sees a dog, we can usually pass without incident. I don’t do it all the time but in situations where other options are lacking (passing on a trail, dogs on both side of the street etc.).
    We also play the “look at that” game a lot. Mr. N managed to walk by a dog daycare yesterday (that has full-length glass windows facing the street) without more than a hard stare. I was very proud of him.

    • LOL imagine picking Alma up and covering her eyes!

      Donna’s a strange one. Some days she totally ignores other dogs even when we walk by each other on the same path. Some days, she really wants to meet the other dog and will sit and refuse to move and look longingly at the other dog as they disappear into the distance. 😉

      But I agree, some days the human just needs time off too and walk the other way.

    • ThatJenK says:

      Ha! I think I’d wind up with a black eye if I tried that strategy! But that’s definitely a huge bonus to having a smaller dog!

  14. Dogs N Pawz says:

    Great post! I have to say, we do the complete avoidance thing when it comes to Teddy and Ash. On the other hand, Scout never meets a stranger and loves other dogs. Your Alma and Moses are absolutely beautiful! I love looking at pictures of them!

  15. 2browndawgs says:

    Thanks so much for joining the hop. I really enjoyed reading your strategies for dealing with Alma’s leash reactivity. I will have to go back and read part 1 after we finish hunt testing this weekend. 🙂

  16. Hello, I’ve been doing some reading up on leads and collars and I have a question. I know sometimes it bothers you to be asked about dog training just because of your experience as a trainer so please don’t feel obliged to answer.

    Is there a difference between the metal choke chain and the nylon or non-metal slip collar? Kind of confused since they looked structurally the same, just made of different materials. They make the slip collars look quite decorative in same pictures – e.g. http://instagram.com/p/oBkrxqjZvJ/ described as a cruiser leash so I’m not even sure if it is a slip collar and more confused than ever – so I’m wondering if it has the same effect as the choke chain or no because of the way the leash is looped around or the material used to make it.


    • ThatJenK says:

      Hmm… I’ve never seen a leash like this before – that rope is thick! At first glance, it does just look like a choke chain made out of rope other than metal. Because it’s thicker, it might not dig in as much, but it will still get infinitely tight if the dog (or owner) is pulling on it. And because it’s rope, it probably won’t release as quickly as a metal one would, so you’re risking the tightness remaining for longer. My initial thoughts (without any experience): I don’t like it. Looks like a gussied up choke chain, but doesn’t seem functionally different in anyway. Not a fan; wouldn’t recommend.

      • Great, it does look pretty but I’m glad I got my definitions sorted. I wasn’t sure if the material or the structure makes it a choke chain or not. Thanks alot! :)Hope you managed to see the graph snapshot I replied you with.

        • They use slip leads in a positive fashion for sports. Because they’re easy to get on and off, they’re used in agility and lure coursing before entering the field/ring.

          • ThatJenK says:

            Interesting! I honestly didn’t know they were used in agility. We used one in the show ring with Moses. I didn’t care for it in that setting (on my dog, or for what I witnessed with other dogs – lots and lots of tension/pulling).

  17. RunwithLab says:

    With my pooch, I try to give her a chance to get it right when we see other dogs. I give her space between her and the other dog, and give her treats for doing tricks in the presence of the other dog. However, if she decides to lunge/bark (which is very unusual now) she will receive a physical and verbal correction. She usually keeps her cool, even when other dogs freak out at her. Now if only she could behave half so well around rabbits…

  18. Oh, gosh – I do all these on a regular basis. Unfortunately changing pace doesn’t work as well with Rita as it did with our reactive beagle. She loved to run so much, all I had to do was get her jogging and she’d forget about the other dog. Not the same with Rita! Also, for the sit, I believe my trainer said to have Rita sit so she can still see the other dog – said if she can keep an eye on them, she’ll know they’re not coming closer/”threatening” to get her. But I should probably ask him about that again!

    • ThatJenK says:

      Oh I definitely think that depends on the type of reaction/the dog. Alma’s isn’t based on fear, and if we let her focus too much, she’ll escalate, so that’s why I have her face away. But I can see why a dog that would feel fearful or threatened, having them sit and watch – reassuring that the other dog isn’t a threat – would definitely be the more appropriate strategy.

  19. Clowie says:

    I’m fairly relaxed about most situations now I’m adult, but some situations would be a yellow box.
    My biped laughed about the bouncy Alma pulling your shoulder out because I was like that in adolescence and it was hard to keep hold of me!

  20. Pingback: Bouncing like Tigger | Clowie's Corner

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