How to Socialize a Reactive Dog

A reactive dog will overreact in certain situations. Reactivity in a dog can be caused by lack of training, past abuse or lack of socialization. Usually it is fear that causes a dog to be reactive. Reactivity in a dog can be confused with aggression and some behaviors of both overlap.

So before we look at how to socialize a reactive dog- let’s look at the behaviors of a reactive dog.

Behaviors of a Reactive Dog

Some behaviors of a reactive dog can include lunging and barking at dogs or people, consistent alertness, restlessness, consistent barking and whining. Other signs of a reactive dog can be defecating or urinating when stressed, excessive licking themselves or spinning in circles.

Prepare to Socialize

Anytime I work with dogs- I always use a harness and leash.  Using a harness I have more control while training and if my dog does react to a situation – I have more control over my dog than I would using a collar.

I suggest the PetSafe Easy Walk Harness that has a front-chest leash attachment that allows me to have control over my dog’s center of gravity which is the chest. With the front-chest leash attachment I can lead and control the direction we walk.

The PetSafe Easy Walk Harness also stops pulling and lunging without choking or gagging your dog. It has a martingale loop at the front that tightens up gently giving me control and helps to prevent and stop my dog from lunging.  This harness made the world of difference while walking and training my dogs.

The PetSafe Easy Walk Harness can be purchased from Amazon.  Amazon also offers the PetSafe Deluxe Easy Walk Harness with padded straps.

I also suggest having some yummy treats on hand reserved only for training and good behavior.  I use Beggin’ Strips Dog Treats.  The dogs love them and I can break each strip into 4 pieces so I am not filling the dogs up with treats and the bag lasts longer.

Remember whenever you give your dog a treat always say her name.  This will help with her recall.

How to Socialize a Reactive Dog

Owner talking to dog.It’s important to remember that no matter what happens while socializing your dog – always say calm. This takes practice. I have broken up dog fights, been jumped on and bitten by dogs. I have learnt over the years the more I stay calm – the calmer the dog is.

When I have worked with reactive dogs in the past I have always tried to find a balance of teaching new experiences but not stressing the dog out to the point that they react. I feel that a dog should not be pressured to socialize – it may cause more behaviors.  I gauge the speed of socialization according to the dog.

Trigger Exposure

One way to socialize a reactive dog is to use trigger exposure.  I will use the example of my reactive Shepherd – Archer. Archer is one of our rescues that became reactive and an aggressive dog due to past abuse and neglect during the first year of his life.

I always do trigger exposure after he has had some exercise-playing fetch in the back yard or after a walk.

I found an enclosed park that wasn’t busy with a quiet spot outside of the enclosed area.  I had Archer on a harness and leash.  We watched people and dogs (his triggers) from a distance. First we started with 10 minutes, the next time we did 20 and so on.

If Archer watched calmly for a few minutes I would give him a treat. I spoke to him in a calm voice giving pats and encouragement. As we watched I took note of his body language. When we first started – Archer would be on high alert-barking, sometimes lunging and growling. After a few times- he would lean forward and still be on high alert. Eventually he became more relaxed, curious and calm.

When a person or a dog did get too close and Archer reacted– I would bring him close, pivot and walk the other way. We don’t stop and I don’t give him time to look back or linger.  This changes his direction and focus.

There were a couple of days when it was just too much for Archer and that’s ok. But we kept trying.

When we got home I would give Archer his ball or bone to chew away any excess energy and it’s good for the teeth. For a dog ball I suggest the Chuckit! Ultra Ball in the 2 pack.  The Chuckit! Ultra Ball has a good bounce and is very durable for aggressive chewers.  I have purchased them for our dogs in the past and they are the most durable at a reasonable cost and you can order different sizes for your dog.

I use Benebone Wishbone Durable Dog Chew for aggressive chewers – also good for keeping teeth clean.  It comes in real flavors- bacon, chicken and peanut – allergy aware.  This  favorite chew comes in different sizes suitable for your dog.

Routine and structure go a long way with all dogs.  Regular scheduled meal times, regular exercise and play time promotes predictability for your dog so she can relax and know she is in a safe and stable environment.

Avoiding Some Types of Triggers

I would never put Archer in a situation where he was forced to socialize with a group of unknown dogs or people. I have been able to get him to a point where he can see other dogs and people unknown to him without overreacting. I would never take Archer to a busy dog park and expect him not to react.

I know there are people that would disagree with avoiding triggers such as busy dog parks.  I look at it like this – I wouldn’t want to be forced to be in a crowded place that stressed me out with a bunch of strangers where I felt unsafe.  So why would I do that to my dog?

At home Archer socializes with our other dogs and cats no problems. You can visit our home and Archer would bark a bit but not overreact. He is a well-behaved dog but can’t handle the stress of overstimulation.  Compared to when I first started working with Archer-he has come a long way.  He’s an amazing guy.

Bottom Line

Dog licking owner's face-owner smiling and patting dog.If your dog is showing extreme reactivity, aggression or fear it maybe a good time to contact a professional. I always recommend doing your research when deciding on a dog trainer or behaviorist.

With time and practice your dog will feel more at ease and safer to the point where they will feel that they don’t need to be reactive.  When a dog starts to experience more positive events rather than negative – they learn to relax and enjoy their environment.  Remember to stay calm-you’re in control.

If you have any questions or comments – please let me know in the comments below.

Thank you


“It’s tough to stay married. My wife kisses the dog on the lips, yet she won’t drink from my glass.” — Rodney Dangerfield

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