Do you have a reactive dog? If you do, I’m sure you know (all too well) the feelings of embarrassment, frustration, and hopelessness that we all experience.
You’ve probably tried all sorts of reactive dog training methods trying to find something that will help reduce your dog’s reactivity . . . with no luck.
Having a reactive dog is hard on SO MANY levels:
- You feel like a failure, like you did something and you’re the reason they are reactive.
- You are dejected and discouraged because you have tried so, so, SO many different training methods and none of them are helping.
- When you are on a walk and your dog goes nuts at a passing dog/person, you are so embarrassed and feel like everyone is judging you – because let’s be real, they most likely are!
- You keep seeing video ads on social media showing reactive dogs that are magically fixed . . . but none of it works on your dog.
Suffice it to say that having a reactive dog is a really tough journey — but I’m writing this today to tell you not to give up.
My dog Tico is 8 years old, and it wasn’t until he was 7 that I stumbled onto a training method (more of a dog-owning method, truthfully) that is finally (FINALLY!!) paying off.
It’s not a magic pill.
Your dog won’t be a “normal” dog next month.
BUT YOU WILL MAKE SLOW, STEADY PROGRESS. Like it’s freaking amazing to see and experience something actually working.
So keep reading and I’ll tell you how I’ve finally made progress with my reactive dog.
Tico is an 8 year old border collie/German shepherd mix who we adopted from a rescue.
We did everything “right” when he was a puppy:
- We worked with a phenomenal puppy trainer
- We spaced out vaccinations to make sure we didn’t overwhelm his immune system
- We socialized him, exposing him to different people, places, objects etc.
Note: check out this great graphic on puppy socialization, it involves much more than you think!
But around Tico’s first birthday, our sweet puppy began to turn into a reactive dog.
It was heartbreaking. And as the years progressed, his reactivity grew worse.
My Theory About Tico’s Reactivity
So let me start by saying that this theory is not based on science, or on extensive training. I’m not a behaviorist, I’m not a dog trainer, I’m an owner of a reactive dog.
So I want to be up front that my theory is not the be-all end-all, and some trainers and behaviorists might want to cover their eyes at this point and skip to the next section.
But, I think it’s fair that as the dog’s owner -the one who knows it best – it’s OK for us to have opinions and theories.
And I have a theory – and who the heck knows if I’m right – about what things have contributed to Tico’s reactivity.
One thing I’ve learned is that reactivity is like a migraine headache. With migraines, there can be a number of things that make you more likely to get a migraine. These things “stack up,” and when the stack gets high enough you get a migraine.
Dog reactivity is like this. There are a number of factors that can “stack up” to make your dog feel more defensive and therefore likely to react (called “trigger stacking”), and when the stack gets high enough the dog reacts.
And then over time, the reactivity becomes more habitual and happens more quickly.
For Tico, I think his reactivity is a combination of pain, some food/environmental reactions that make him more amped up, and the messages I was sending him as a dog owner that his job was to help protect us.
Let me explain.
One reason I think Tico started reacting to other dogs involves pain. When he was 7, we ended up at a rehab vet after I noticed Tico was in pain any time I let him run off leash in a large fenced area. The vet determined that he had an impinged nerve at the base of his spine, something I suspect may have started we he was young as I can think of two possible incidents that may have caused it:
- Tico did agility training with my daughter, and when he was around a year old he fell off the dog walk (think of it as a wide balance beam with a ramp at both ends) and hit the ground pretty hard. This was right around when he started showing reactive behavior.
- We also owned a dog at the time who played too rough and would slam into Tico when they were running in the yard, mowing him over with pretty hard hits.
If Tico was dealing with chronic pain, he may have started to associate this pain with other dogs.
Let’s say another dog approached and after greeting each other they started to play. The play made Tico’s impinged nerve shoot pain down his leg, and after this occurred multiple times he started to associate this pain with other dogs.
The pain is just one piece of the puzzle though.
I also noticed Tico’s reactivity got markedly worse when he ate certain foods. Could dog food sensitivities contribute to aggression?
I started to suspect food could be part of Tico’s “stack” of things making him more likely to react when, at the recommendation of his acupuncturist, I started adding oatmeal to his meals. In a matter of days after I started feeding him oatmeal he started growling, then muzzle punching, then all-out attacking one of our other dogs.
It was an extreme transition. He went from years of peacefully living with our dog Moose to jumping up and charging Moose whenever he entered a room, barking aggressively and snapping at him.
I was at a loss; the only thing in his life that had changed was the oatmeal, so although it made no sense I stopped adding it to see if it made a difference. Within days the aggressive behavior disappeared.
I wondered if the oatmeal caused inflammation in his body (maybe gluten?) which exacerbated the pressure on his painful nerve. Who knows, the bottom line was it was a freaking crazy change in his behavior that immediately disappeared once I stopped the oatmeal.
I tried experimenting later feeding Tico dog foods with oatmeal and each time I would see his behavior start to change, so I doubt this was a coincidence.
His reactivity was worse at certain times of year also. This supports my inflammation theory: allergies cause inflammation, which may have put pressure on his impinged nerve. If I’m honest, at those times of year he’s just plain amped and crazy too, who knows how allergies are linked into that behavior but every spring and fall for about a month I can tell you that they make him – and me – crazy.
The Need For Reactive Dog Training Intensifies
Tico’s reactive behavior progressed. At first he only barked and lunged at dogs, but soon it grew to include people, bikes, cars, trucks, roller skaters, skateboarders, pretty much anything that moved.
Walks were a nightmare, I was constantly on alert, scanning and changing course when needed.
I started trying to think of things I could do that would help, anything that would possibly help calm him down so he wasn’t on full alert 24/7.
One thing I tried early on was adding activities into Tico’s daily routine that might help engage or calm his brain down.
Basically, I incorporated things like:
- Mentally stimulating dog toys
- Dog puzzle feeders
- Cognitive enrichment for dogs
- Decompression walks for dogs
These were all great supplemental activities to help distract Tico and calm him a bit, but they obviously weren’t treating the root issue. So with reactivity as pronounced as Tico’s, I began trying various training methods.
Training Methods I Tried For Tico’s Reactivity
Note: This post contains affiliate links. When you click on a link and make a purchase, I receive a small commission.
That said, I don’t recommend ANYTHING I don’t believe in and hope will help others!
Patricia Mcconnel’s Look At Me Method
The first thing I tried was Patricia McConnell’s “look at me” method from her book Feisty Fido.
I had used it with my golden retriever foster-fail Wilson and it worked wonders. The gist of this method is that I trained Wilson to look at me, then started having him look at me when we passed people. At first we passed with distance in between us and them, and then over time we slowly closed the gap.
For Wilson it totally re-programmed his emotional response to people from fear to excitement; over the course of 3 months he changed from barking and lunging to getting happily excited when people approached. Then we slowly graduated to saying hello to those people, having those people give him treats, pet him,etc.
Unfortunately, when I tried this with Tico it didn’t work. This was primarily because Tico was barking at dogs who were really, really far away (vs.Wilson who only barked/lunged if we were passing them at close range) . Tico was so fearful that a dog had to be out of sight for him to not get worked up, making this method ineffective for him.
Look At That Game
Another thing I tried was teaching Tico the “Look at That” game from Leslie McDevitt’s book Control Unleashed.
For this, my goal was to teach Tico that each time he looked at another dog, he was going to get a high-value treat. And then hopefully passing a dog would become a “game” where he looks at the dog, gets a treat, looks at the dog again, gets a treat, etc. I think the idea is that it allows Tico to know where the other dog is but by looking away it interrupts his brain from getting all worked up. Plus, it changes his emotional response when he sees another dog from “oh no!” to “oh boy, treat time!”
On the bright side, this game did teach Tico to look at me when he saw another dog . . . but only if the dog was far enough away that he didn’t feel worried/threatened.
If the dog was too close, or if it was moving towards us, Tico’s fear took over and he felt the need to protect us (i.e. barking and lunging).
So while this was a great management tool to use and was somewhat helpful, it didn’t solve the fact that Tico saw himself as the protector of the pack/family.
So, I moved on and tried BAT Training.
BAT stands for Behavior Adjustment Training, and is the brainchild of Grisha Stewart.
Full disclosure: I am going to describe BAT from MY POINT OF VIEW. As in, I may get some of it wrong or leave important details out – but hopefully I will be able to give you a general idea of how it can help your dog.
On Grisha’s website, she says
“BAT builds resilience instead of reactivity by creating scenarios that increase learner control,
build confidence, and reduce arousal.”
So what exactly does that mean?
Well, for me it meant working with an absolutely awesome trainer named Laska Parrow of All Ears Training, who 1) helped me find/create setups where Tico could see dogs in a scenario where he felt safe (didn’t feel he needed to react) and develop more confidence, and 2) teach me to better understand Tico’s body language and what things would help him diffuse his stress and decompress.
I learned things I had been clueless about until that point, for example:
Sniffing = Calming
When Tico saw a dog or person and suddenly pulled me somewhere and started to sniff (maybe a nearby tree or a spot in the grass), he wasn’t being annoying. (my previous interpretation)
He was self-soothing – whatever he saw stressed or scared him, but he was far enough away that he felt safe (i.e. didn’t need to react/bark/lunge) so he chose to sniff because sniffing calms a dog’s brain. (see my article about decompression walks for dogs to learn more about this amazing tool)
So basically sniffing for a dog is like giving a pacifier to a baby.
Know dog body language
I learned to read more subtle signs that Tico was worried or scared, things like:
- His mouth would close when he was nervous
- His ears would go up or down, one ear would fold and flop once he was really comfortable
- Don’t look at his “whole” tail to decide if it’s “up” or “down,” look at the base of the tail. I began to see slight movements at the base and know much sooner if he was getting worked up about something.
- If he suddenly sniffed I learned to scan the environment to be sure there wasn’t something visible that was making him nervous. (i.e. sniffs could mean he was self-soothing, or it could just be a darn good smell)
Watch for triggers
I also learned more about watching for triggers.
When I started working with Laska, 100% of my focus and learning was on Tico. Laska helped me understand I needed to also be watching the environment, and she taught me many subtleties of what triggered Tico. I learned to watch people and dogs that were nearby and adjust my distance based on things like:
- Is the person wearing a hood or hat? (scary)
- Are they shuffling or walking with a limp or other non-traditional gait? (scary)
- Are they (dog or person) staring at Tico? (scary)
- Is the base of the dog’s tail high, low or neutral? (all high tails were scary to Tico even if it was just a breed that carried its tail high naturally)
- Did the dog or person make a subtle direction change to angle in Tico’s direction? (scary)
- Did the dog stop and pee/poop when they saw Tico? (depending on how they do it there can be some pretty blatant dog messaging going on there)
- Is the dog or person running? (the faster they moved, no matter what the direction, the scarier it was for Tico)
The point of learning all these behavioral signals was so I could create success scenarios for Tico in which he felt comfortable enough to make choices like retreating to go sniff or create distance.
As he had more and more scenarios where he didn’t react and remained comfortable in the presence of something fearful, the goal was that he would increase his confidence, need less distance to feel comfortable, and slowly but surely his fear would dissipate.
I made some progress with Tico using this training, but at a certain point I stalled and just couldn’t make any more improvements.
The stalling may have been from me not doing the training enough or doing some things incorrectly. (Laska moved away – sniff, sniff – so I was working on my own)
But I also think that by standing behind Tico while he was watching dogs and people go by ahead of us, I may have unknowingly reinforced that he was supposed to protect us.
And I still felt like I was missing a piece of the puzzle of Tico’s reactivity, something that when combined with all I had learned from Laska, would help me make strides in reducing Tico’s constant fear and reactivity.
But I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what that was.
Until . . . I stumbled onto a dog trainer named Nigel Reed, i.e. The Dog Guardian.
Nigel Reed/The Dog Guardian
Nigel has a free YouTube Channel, and the first video series I watched was called “The Journey to Transform an Aggressive Dog: Diary of a Rescue Dog.” (Spoiler: bring kleenex!)
It is a mini-series of videos telling the story of Nigel working with a reactive dog over the course of about 9 months.
For me, it was life-changing.
First, it wasn’t one of those stupid (sorry . . . not sorry) social media videos that shows a reactive dog transformed after one or two training sessions.
This story was REAL.
Like . . . it was HARD.
And it took TIME.
The videos showed how the small changes that Nigel made, over time, resulted in significant progress in his foster dog’s reactivity.
His foster dog’s reactions reminded me a lot of Tico’s, so when I saw the ending where the foster dog is happily interacting with other dogs I knew I wanted to learn more.
I started watching all Nigel’s free videos and read his book as well:
Nigel’s videos show “real world” situations that are so much more relatable
In Nigel’s videos, he shows all parts of the training process – not just the successes.
One video shows when someone let their off leash dog come running up to him and his foster dog, and how he reacted to make the best of the situation.
He shows times when the training session didn’t go as planned and his dog reacted. Then he talks through the event, thinking (out loud) what he would do differently next time and what he had learned about his dog from that situation.
As I watched all the videos on his YouTube channel, the thing that really resonated with me was the idea that I was unknowingly doing things – some small and subtle and some obvious – that were making Tico think that his role in our family was to protect us.
The gist of Nigel’s approach was this: if I could learn all of the subtle and not-so-subtle things that I was doing, and change them to communicate consistently to Tico that I would handle all dangers, then once he felt comfortable that I could – and would – handle them, he would stop reacting.
I Start Making Progress
After trying a few of the things I had seen on his YouTube channel and read about in Nigel’s book and seeing good results, I took the plunge and signed up for Nigel’s Dealing With Aggressive/Fearful Behaviors course that included a 1-hour Skype call at the end.
The training course had much more in-depth coaching plus a ton more videos showing examples of everything he was talking about.
- Video demonstrations and case studies
- Animation videos
- Questions after each module to ensure you understand the content
- A Skype consultation (optional) to discuss your unique situation in detail
Once I completed the course we did the 1-hour call, which really helped solidify my understanding of what I needed to do. During the call Nigel answered my questions, and went through a lot of the common mistakes people make. He also explained WHY I needed to do things in certain ways, and how incredibly important it was to implement ALL parts of the program – and do it consistently – if I wanted Tico to clearly understand the messages I was sending.
I worked my way through the course and started implementing all the things that Nigel guides you through in the course.
And the changes and improvements began to happen.
Before Nigel’s course, when I walked Tico he either pulled or walked ahead of me, ears perked, scanning the landscape constantly.
Within a month or two of implementing Nigel’s training program, Tico was walking by my side during walks, loose leash.
The distance that I needed to create between us and any people/dogs/bikes began to shrink.
Soon, he could walk past bikes and people – ON THE SAME WALKING TRAIL – without barking.
You have NO idea what a miracle that was. I didn’t even need to step off the trail or create distance anymore. It was freaking awesome.
The moment I knew I was making REAL, LASTING PROGRESS with Tico
I have to share a quick story, which I know those of you reading this with reactive dogs will appreciate.
So my favorite place to train Tico is at a popular Minneapolis Lake that has a walking trail FULL of people, bikes, roller bladers, and dogs.
One day I was walking on the trail with Tico, loose leash, by my side. A couple was walking towards me on the trail in deep conversation, and as they approached the man stopped talking to his wife and watched Tico. When I got close enough, he pointed at Tico and said “Now THAT’S a well-trained dog!”
I felt like crying and jumping for joy all at the same time. This man, this kind, wonderful man, thought Tico was well trained. MY dog. The dog who has caused me more tears, more shame, and more discouragement than I thought was possible.
I can’t even explain this moment. I have always had people stare and point at us because Tico was barking, lunging, and acting like a complete lunatic. And now someone had just paused and noticed him being GOOD.
That was the moment I knew I had found the right training method to help Tico. And it felt so good.
Progress with passing other dogs
Tico’s need for space between him and passing dogs began to shrink as well.
Soon I began to regularly walk around the lake I mentioned above – one that I had given up trying to walk around once I got Tico. By the 6 month point we had progressed to the point where we could pass other dogs if I created distance. (remember – before Nigel’s course I could not walk Tico around this lake at all – no amount of distance between him and dog worked)
If a dog was approaching on the trail, I would continue forward but step off the trail and continue our walk past them with about 15 feet in between us. Or, if I was in a spot where I couldn’t step off, I would pull out my high-value treats and scatter a few on the side of the trail then stand between him and the approaching dog to show him I would handle it. And . . . Tico was more interested in eating the treats than watching the other dog.
Previously, he would have watched the other dog and exploded into a barking and lunging maniac – his fear and his need to protect us trumped any treats I could offer.
Tico rocking it at Lake of the Isles, Minneapolis, MN:
Keep in mind:
- Tico used to bark and lunge at ANY dog in sight, even dogs that were 100+ yards away
- Tico used to lunge at joggers and bikers that went by as well
And. . . LOOK AT HIM NOW!
Walking loose leash and relaxed
Passing a jogger!
Passing dogs . . .
AND NOT BARKING!!
Using treats in a pinch when space isn’t possible
Passing a bike!
The Hurdle I Need To Work On
My biggest hurdle in implementing this training method, I discovered, has nothing to do with Tico.
It’s MY issue that’s holding us back.
On the call with Nigel, he talked to me about the important stage of letting your dog gradually get closer to, and meeting, other dogs.
And I was like “no, you don’t understand . . . people don’t want you to stop and ask if your dog can meet their dog.” (and plus . . . I’m thinking in my head . . . what if Tico barks or lunges?)
Nigel talked me out of the tree and gave me some fabulous tips:
How to engage other dog owners in conversation
- Comment on how cute their dog is
- Ask what breed it is, then ask questions about the breed and what they are like
Because – and he’s right here – most people LOVE to talk about their dog, and they are happy to stop and chat to do so.
And then, once you have a willing conversant, you can say “I’m doing a bit of training with my dog, would you mind if they meet?”
It sounds so easy, and it looks so easy on Nigel’s video when he does it, but between my hypersensitivity to being brave socially and my fear that I will misjudge their dog and it’s actually not a nice, calm dog that would be good to practice with, I fail horribly at this step.
So, I have stalled a bit, and I’m fully aware that I NEED to figure this out to move forward and to get to the point of progress where Tico and I can pass other dogs on our walks without veering off the trail.
My Summer Training Goals
So, based on that, this summer I have 2 goals:
1. Practice meeting other dogs
The first is to practice meeting other dogs. To do this, I’m thinking I need to do three things
I know this is stupid, I need to just get over it and suck it up and do this.
Find a few friends
I’m going to ease into this, and I’m hoping if I post a message in the rescue community I volunteer for, I can find one or two people with extremely mellow dogs who will do some setups with me so I can practice doing this.
If you watch Nigel’s videos, he holds his dog behind him and greets the other dog first, then lets his dog say hello, and it would be nice to figure out how to hold the leash so Tico doesn’t surge ahead of me before I’m trying it with total strangers (to avoid looking like a complete idiot with no control).
Find a good spot
Ideally I want to find a spot to hang out where I might encounter people with dogs. I thought maybe to start off I could stand outside the fence at a dog park where I can case out the dogs in the park and hone in on the ones that look like big marshmallows, then strike up a conversation as they walk back to their car.
2. Practice judging dog temperaments
The second thing I need to do is practice judging dog temperaments so I can get better at noticing subtle signs that tell me about a dog’s temperament/energy.
Why? Here’s the perfect example:
On one of my walks around the lake, I got myself in what I call a “dog sandwich”: there was a dog approaching me, and when I veered into the grassy area I noticed a dog lying on the ground next to their owner about 10 yards away.
So I had to decide if I should leave equal distance between the dogs or pass a little closer to one or the other.
The approaching dog had a lot of energy, while the dog on the ground was a senior black lab (gray muzzle) and seemed to be pretty chill.
So I made the decision to leave a little more space on the energetic dog side and go a little closer to the black lab, and I focused my attention on the energetic dog as we passed.
Moments later the black lab jumped to his feet barking like crazy at Tico.
The lessons I learned?
- Make no assumptions — i.e. old and gray doesn’t always mean calm and chill
- Watch BOTH dogs if you’re sandwiched, especially the one you’re closest to.
Obviously, I need to get better at assessing dogs and deciding if they would be good dogs for Tico to meet, so I came up with a plan:
Sit and watch dogs at dog parks
One of the best ways I can think of is to go to a dog park (by myself not with a dog) and watch the dogs interact.
The bonus of this method is I might meet some owners of chill dogs who would agree to let me bring Tico and meet their dog in the parking lot down the road.
Re-watch videos on Nigel’s YouTube Channel where dogs are interacting.
An example of this would be the beach scene in the Diary of a Rescue Dog series. There are multiple dogs on the beach interacting with each other, and each time I watch I can focus on a different dog, noting changes in their tail, their ears, their posture, etc. when they meet.
About Nigel Reed’s Training Method
I can’t emphasize enough how effective this training method has been with Tico.
And it’s based on simple, VERY doable principles that anyone can do, that show your dog that YOU are the guardian of the pack.
This is NOT about alpha-rolling pack leadership where you “dominate” your dog.
This is about showing your dog in simple but effective ways that they aren’t the guardian of the pack: they don’t need to protect you and they don’t need to be fearful about anything because that is your job as the guardian of the pack.
For example, some of the things I do now to show Tico he is not the guardian, or protector, of our family are simple things like:
- When I get home, I ignore everyone for 5 minutes. Then I call them over to me to say hello.
- When I feed the dogs, before setting their food bowls down I stand there and eat a handful of nuts. Sounds crazy, but I’m showing the dogs that I eat first.
- When we walk, Tico walks by my side. He’s not out ahead pulling on the leash. I decide where we go and how fast.
These are all things that pack leaders do in the dog world, and by doing them I am telling my dogs that I’m the head of the family. Once the dog understands that I’m the guardian, they also know that it’s my job to handle threats – they don’t need to do that.
Get A Discount On Nigel’s Course
Nigel was kind enough to offer a discount for Happy Natural Dog readers for his reactive dog course.
Those of you who read Happy Natural Dog know I only recommend things I truly believe will help your dog. I’ve never recommended a course before, but after seeing Tico slowly but surely transform and improve I want other people with reactive or fearful dogs to know about this.
Here are the discount links:
If you can, I would highly, HIGHLY recommend paying more for the package that includes a 1-hour video consult, it just takes it all to the next level – Nigel is SO insightful and helpful.
Let’s DO This!
If you have a fearful or reactive dog, give this training method a try. Be ready to commit to daily work sessions, and you will see them pay off in no time.
If you have any questions about my experience with Tico and Nigel Reed’s training course please put them in the comments below and I’m happy to share more about how this training method is helping Tico (and me!) enjoy our time together 1000% percent more than I ever thought possible.
Until next time-
Want to save this article for future reference? Save this pin to your dog training board!