Originally published on ArlNow.com 

Some dogs react to the presence of specific stimuli with aggressive barking and lunging. When a dog does this specifically in the presence of other dogs, we call it dog reactivity.

There are many reasons why a dog might be reactive. Fear, a lack of early socialization or a traumatic event are just some possible reasons. Some dogs may be reactive on leash but play really well with dogs off leash.

No matter the reason, walking a reactive dog can be a real challenge. We often call it the “midnight dog-walkers club” since owners of reactive dogs tend to go out of their way to walk their dogs when there are as few other dogs around as possible.

Walking a reactive dog can be a really big challenge in an urban environment. When working with reactive dogs we usually recommend a program of counter-conditioning and desensitization, where slowly, over time, we teach the dog to tolerate the presence of other dogs without reacting with barking and lunging.

During the training phase, I usually teach handlers a three-pronged approach about what to do:

  1. Click then treat
  2. Treat bomb, and
  3. Get outta Dodge.

The first thing to do is “Click then treat.” If your dog is able to pay attention to you and is not barking or lunging you can treat them, very rapidly, in the presence of the other dog.

Once your dog reacts with barking or lunging, we need a new plan. This is when I resort to a “treat bomb.” In this situation I throw 15 -20 very small treats down in front of the dog. Hopefully the dog will be sufficiently motivated by the food to stop the barking and lunging and eat the treats off the ground. Once they finish the treat bomb, they are often now able to refocus on you and you can go back to clicking and treating for good behaviors. The treat bomb is simply a behavior interrupter to distract the dog and give you a moment to get them back under control. If all else fails and you find yourself in a difficult situation, it time to “Getta outta Dodge.” No amount of treating or pleading or yelling is going to resolve the situation. Your dog is over its threshold.

Their thinking brain is no longer working so there is no point is asking them to follow even the most simple of commands. At this point, your best bet is to take off in the opposite direction and remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible.

Dog reactivity is probably the number one behavior problem we are called in to help with. The good news is that over time, and with consistent positive training, reactivity can improve a great deal.