How do I stop my dogs reactivity? Essential Tips

What Are The Most Reactive/Aggressive Dog Breeds?

It needs to be noted that reactivity and aggression are not one and the same behavior. Reactivity can often become aggression. Every breed can produce reactive dogs, but they certainly are more prevalent in some than in others. In order to understand which breeds are the most reactive, we need to look at their origin.

All breeds except toy breeds (such as Cavachons) were originally bred to perform a certain task. The specific requirements of this task determine their behavior to a large extend.

Herding dogs such as Border Collies or Heelers were developed to spend their days in solitude, surrounded only by sheep. Our modern herding dogs’ ancestors never socialized with large groups of people or dogs.

Other dogs were bred to be guard dogs, such as the King Shepherd. They as well were not developed to be social butterflies. Now that we keep many of these previously hardworking dogs as pets, their original function and current use collide.

In my work with reactive dogs, I have found that Australian Shepherds and German Shepherds are the breeds that owners experience the most reactivity with. These breeds are very popular and wide-spread. Some irresponsible backyard breeders produce dogs with thin nerves, and some owners do not invest sufficient time into socializing them.

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You want to take a relaxing walk with your dog, but at just the sight of another dog or a person, they start barking hysterically, forcing you to drag them away. This is a reactive dog — one who overreacts to normal situations that other dogs would take in stride. Reactive dogs are not necessarily aggressive dogs, but reactivity can turn into aggression, so your attention to training becomes extremely important.

Reactive dogs become overly aroused by common stimuli. They may lunge, bark and growl, becoming so preoccupied with whatever is triggering the emotion that they can be difficult to control and move out of the situation. A reactive dog is usually a fearful dog. Causes can be genetic, but they are more likely due to a lack of socialization, prior bad experiences or a lack of training.

Aggressive dogs show similar signs but are determined to cause harm and destruction. Any reactive dog can be pushed into aggression, which is why a reactive dog needs to be taken seriously.

Avoiding reactive dogs

Ideally, you don’t want a reactive dog in the first place. Adult dogs can be evaluated or taken on a walk for a “test run,” but predicting a puppy’s adult behavior can be more challenging.

Dr. Katherine Houpt, the James Law Professor Emeritus of Behavior Medicine in the Department of Clinical Sciences, recommends asking to meet the parents of a litter if possible, since puppies do often take after their parents’ personalities and reactivity can have a genetic link. If that’s not possible, at least visit the litter before weaning. Mother dogs are protective of puppies, but they should not be aggressive. Puppies should be friendly, confident and outgoing, approaching you for attention instead of cowering or hiding.


One common behavior that frustrates dog owners is reactivity and/or aggression toward other dogs. This can be a very challenging and time consuming behavior to work through to gain control and to get your dog exercising self-control at least in your presence. Many dogs are out of control when they see another dog. They will whine, bark, lunge, etc… even when the dog is at a great distance. Dogs can act this way out of excitement, frustration, fear, pain, and sometimes out of aggression. There is a much greater chance of improving our dogs behavior when it is predictable. Context is important when working through these issues and it can require the help of a knowledgeable individual to determine the reasons for a dog’s reactions. Most dogs can learn to be in the presence of other dogs without acting out. For some dogs the behavior can be greatly improved but they will always need to be supervised and managed in every situation. Although dogs may come to enjoy or at least accept dogs, we must always keep in mind this is not likely to apply to every dog they meet. Another important consideration is a dog’s bite history. If a dog has a serious bite history, or escalating bite history increasing in damage consult with a professional for an assessment. Review the “Dog Bite Scale” here.

Often people say they would like their dog to be friendly toward dogs they meet and or they would like them to learn to play with other dogs without it getting out of control or turning into aggression. I think a more reasoned position would be how do we keep a dog from reacting to dogs who are acting appropriately and respectfully, and not rude. A realistic and reasonable primary goal is to prevent dogs from feeling the need to react to other dogs and at a minimum ignore or tolerate appropriate respectful dogs.

With aggression displays (Reactive) it is often for the purpose of increasing the distance between them and the target, but it can simply be due to excitement or frustration (over-arousal). Acts of aggression (Intent to do harm) are for the purpose of gaining control of territory, resources, protection of others, protection of position, or protection of self.

Most fearful dogs that I have encountered I would classify as “reactive” and not “aggressive”. I consider “aggressive” as the intent to do harm and most fear based dogs have no such initial intent, but rather default to being reactive in order to accomplish what they need; time and distance.

If you or your dog are anxious outside the home due to our of control dogs come prepared. Your dog should be securely fastened to a leash, and often its best to just create distance from the thing of concern and walk away if it can be done safely. It is your responsibility to keep your dog safe, and other people’s responsibility to keep their dog from bothering you or your dog. If someone is concerned or complains about one of these tactics you used to protect yourself or your dog, don’t waste time arguing with them. If they were responsible and reasonable their dog would not be free to bother you or your dog.

Loose dogs approaching can be a problem so come prepared for uninvited encounters. To keep dogs at a distance and from making contact with you or your dog there are several things you can try.

I often carry an extra slip lead in case I need to lasso a loose dog. Sometimes the sight of the leash in an outstretched hand toward the dog will keep the dog gives a dog pause and they will stay out of reach because they do not want to be leashed.

Although it not advisable for everyone or every circumstance capturing the loose dog as long as you can control both dogs may be a feasible option at times.

Dealing with people can be just as challenging as dealing with loose dogs since it’s not unusual to be faced with people who are well-intentioned, but are either misinformed or uninformed to put it politely. Some rude people hold the strange opinion that dogs need to learn to accept the rude approach, attention, or space invading from other dogs. When meeting these people you need to be your dog’s advocate and be politely assertive and clearly state your dog does not like dogs unsolicited attention. Reasonable people with take responsibility for their dog’s actions, not offense. But don’t be surprised if you come across many who take offense and not responsibility for their actions. Just be polite and assertive and move on.

Some dogs could be introduced in a closet without incident. But if you are reading this page that does not apply to your dog, nor would I recommend it for any dog. Since we only get one chance to make a good first introduction and impression set dogs up for success. Avoid face to face greeting and any greeting with tension in the leash. If your dog has shown reactivity toward other dogs in the past make sure your dog has been well-exercised before any necessary introductions.

On the day your dogs will meet scent swap the dogs by taking a towel and wiping each dog’s mouth and then their bottom (bum/lift tail and wipe) and then exchange towels and wipe the towel on your dog’s neck and shoulder, both sides. We want the dogs when they do finally meet to pause and quietly say to one another “I’ve think we met before” and only exchange pleasantries like polite society.

Structure introductions to take place in a new environment that is neutral territory. (not someplace your dog frequents or walks) If we choose a stimulating environment the dogs are more likely to be interested in exploring it and less focused on the other dog. Start with parallel walking at a distance both dogs can maintain some level of self-control. Keep both dogs on the outside of the humans and all walking the same direction. We want the dogs to focus on walking straight ahead and not the other dog. If a dog pulls to get to the other just pull (guide/no jerking) them back to your side and keep walking and the faster the pace the better.

If the dogs get to a point where they are showing no interest in the other dog for a good amount of time we can move the parallel walking a bit closer but not so close either dog lose their mind and become reactive. This can require a long, long walk with some dogs. If both dogs continue to ignore the other dog we can continue to walk a little closer until eventually we get to a converging path if both dogs are still under control, non-reactive and still walking on the outside of the humans. When doing dog to dog intro’s it’s important that both dogs be well-mannered and under control. If they are not, avoid doing any introductions. This requires both dogs to have good loose leash walking skills. Walking on a Loose Leash

At some point I will stop at an interesting place for the dogs like a group of bushes and permit them free time to sniff the surroundings. Many times after they have explored the bushes or area they will greet briefly before I get everyone focused on walking together again. Keep the greeting very brief, maybe 2-seconds and then get moving again. Walk with purpose. When the dogs have ignored each other for at least 30-seconds you can find another interesting place for them to stop and explore. I would continue this until they are good at ignoring one another and focused on walking and exploring. It’s important that we don’t misinterpret “no reaction” as “calm”, “comfortable” or “confident.” There is a big difference between a dog that approaches another with a soft fluid body and a look of relaxation, and another who slowly, cautiously or tensely moves toward another.

Once the dogs are truly comfortable and/or ignoring one another only then would I consider taking them inside a home together. But before taking the dogs into a home (or business) remove anything a dog may consider theirs; e.g. water and food bowls, bed, toys, etc… If their are two dogs in total place 3 new water and food bowls down preferably ones that are different from the one the dog was previously eating using. (I prefer stainless steel bowls) If at all possible place the new bowls in a different location even if its only a couple feet from the old location. Do the same with beds If two dogs, place 3 beds down neither dog has used before. We don’t want any dog to start a new conversation with the words “mine” which can start a conflict. If introducing new toys follow the 50-300 rule.

Only after the dogs are still exercising self-control would I walk them into the home (or business) and attempt to manage any interactions keeping them brief. Review the page on Multi-Dog homes for more guidance.