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Barking, Lunging Leashes: Training Reactive Dogs

Barking, Lunging Leashes: Training Reactive Dogs

Confessions of a Reactive Dog Owner

You know that feeling when you’re out on a nice stroll with your furry best friend, enjoying the fresh air and scenery, only to have it all come crashing down the moment another dog comes into view? The sudden barrage of barking, lunging, and uncontrollable energy that leaves you feeling helpless and embarrassed? Well, let me tell you, I’ve been there. In fact, I’m the self-proclaimed poster child for reactive dog ownership.

About 7 years ago, I moved from a cozy suburban-rural area into the bustling heart of New York City with my pup, Charlotte. She was generally a little anxious, but nothing too out of the ordinary. That is, until the daily encounters with other dogs on the city streets brought out a whole new side of her. Suddenly, I had a dog that would bark, lunge, and fixate on any canine that dared to cross our path. It was a nightmare, and I felt utterly lost.

As a professional dog trainer, you can imagine the internal turmoil I experienced. “How could I, of all people, have a ‘bad’ dog?” I thought to myself. I was so self-conscious about Charlotte’s behavior that I even avoided wearing my company-branded clothes for the first month, worried that potential clients would see me as incapable. A dog trainer with a reactive dog – the irony was almost too much to bear.

Understanding Reactivity

But you know what they say, the first step to solving a problem is understanding it. And that’s exactly what I set out to do. I dove headfirst into the world of canine reactivity, determined to find a solution for my beloved Charlotte and, in the process, help other dog owners struggling with similar challenges.

Reactivity, in essence, is an overreaction to external stimuli. For dogs like Charlotte, the sight of another canine on the leash can trigger a sudden burst of barking, lunging, and general panic. This behavior can be directed towards people, animals, noises, or any combination of the above. The key to understanding reactivity is recognizing that it’s not a result of spite or a “bad” dog – it’s a coping mechanism, a way for our furry friends to deal with something that makes them feel uncomfortable or threatened.

According to Behavior Vets NYC, dogs can be reactive towards other dogs for a variety of reasons. Some may have had a bad experience in the past or were under-socialized, leading to a fear or dislike of other canines. Others, like Charlotte, simply love other dogs so much that the leash frustration boils over into barking and lunging.

Training Techniques for Reactive Dogs

Armed with this knowledge, I set out to find the best training methods to help Charlotte – and by extension, other reactive dogs – overcome their challenges. It wasn’t an easy journey, but through trial and error, I discovered a few techniques that proved to be game-changers.

The Emergency U-Turn

One of the first tricks I learned was the “Emergency U-Turn.” Essentially, when faced with a trigger (in our case, another dog), I would quickly turn around and lead Charlotte in the opposite direction. This allowed us to create distance from the source of her reactivity and gave her a chance to calm down before attempting to continue our walk.

Face Front

Another effective technique was the “Face Front.” Instead of allowing Charlotte to fixate on the approaching dog, I would call her to face me, effectively creating a physical barrier between her and the trigger. This not only redirected her attention but also helped me maintain control of the situation.


The “Switchback” maneuver was also a lifesaver. By weaving in and around parked cars, I could use them as a visual barrier, keeping Charlotte’s focus on me as we navigated the obstacle course. This allowed us to pass by other dogs without triggering her reactivity.

As the folks at RSD Training suggest, it’s important to be wary of oncoming traffic when using this technique and to keep your dog between you and the parked cars.

The Power of Positive Reinforcement

Of course, no training plan is complete without the use of positive reinforcement. I quickly learned that the traditional method of simply distracting Charlotte with treats wasn’t quite cutting it. She was so fixated on her trigger that she barely registered the reward in my hand.

Instead, I started rewarding her for calm, relaxed behavior – even if it was just a brief moment of stillness before the inevitable barrage of barking. By pairing these calm moments with high-value treats and praise, I was able to slowly but surely condition her to associate other dogs with positive experiences.

As Victoria Stilwell, renowned dog trainer and TV personality, notes, “Walking a lunging, barking dog on leash is not much fun.” But with patience, consistency, and the right training methods, it’s absolutely possible to transform your reactive pup into a calm, confident canine companion.

The Road to Recovery

It wasn’t an overnight success, but with time and dedication, Charlotte and I started to see significant progress. She still had her moments, but the barking and lunging became less frequent, and her ability to disengage from triggers improved dramatically.

One of the biggest breakthroughs came when we discovered that Charlotte was actually a social butterfly at the dog park. Away from the constraints of the leash, she thrived in the company of other canines, playing and interacting with ease. This realization helped me understand the root of her reactivity – it wasn’t fear or aggression, but rather frustration at being unable to freely greet and engage with her furry friends.

Embracing the Journey

Today, Charlotte and I can confidently stroll through the city streets, encountering other dogs with a calm and collected demeanor. Sure, we still have the occasional hiccup, but I’ve learned to embrace the journey and appreciate the progress we’ve made.

As a dog owner, I know the immense joy and companionship our furry friends bring to our lives. But with that joy can come challenges, and reactive behavior is one of the most common issues many of us face. Through my own experiences, I’ve learned that with patience, the right training techniques, and a whole lot of love, even the most reactive dog can blossom into a well-adjusted, confident pup.

So if you’re currently in the trenches of reactive dog ownership, take heart. The road may be long, but the destination is worth it. With a little determination and a whole lot of treats, you and your canine companion can conquer those barking, lunging leashes and enjoy the freedom of a peaceful walk together.

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