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Walking Your Reactive Dog in a Dog-Friendly Neighborhood

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Alexandria, VA – Do your dogs lunge and bark at other dogs on walks? Do they react to triggers such as cars, people, loud noises, and the like? Are they on high alert the moment you head out the door on your walk? Are they unable to respond to your cues to get them to calm down or move in a different direction?

Alexandria is a very dog-friendly community. Dogs are everywhere and come out of nowhere. This makes walking a reactive dog very challenging. Sometimes, it’s hard to avoid keeping your distance and keeping your dog under the threshold.

Think of a threshold between a doorway separating two rooms. When your dog is on one side of the threshold, they can take direction and process information. But when they cross that threshold into the other room, they basically lose their mind. Unfortunately, the more they go “over threshold,” the more they will display these behaviors because they work.

Dogs do whatever works for them until they’re trained to do something else. At that point, the trigger (another dog, person, car) does not come any closer, so that behavior works. Because a dog over threshold cannot process information, it becomes their emotional response.

Reactivity takes several forms. Their behaviors may appear aggressive but can also be fear-based, frustration, or over-excitement. When a client tells me their dog is aggressive, I always ask them to describe what is happening and what they observe. Many dogs are labeled aggressive when it is something else.

Understanding the triggers that cause your dog to go over threshold is key to understanding how we keep the dog under the threshold. Here are some of the common body language signals that indicate that something in their environment has the potential to send them over threshold:

  • yawns
  • lip licks
  • tongue flicks
  • panting
  • furrowed brows
  • tight mouth or slight movement of the corners of the mouth
  • piloerection (raised hair)
  • pulled back ears
  • intense gaze, staring at trigger
  • tense body language, frozen

It’s helpful to look for these signals because this is your last chance saloon and the final opportunity to be successful. So, how do we keep your dog from practicing this behavior and work on reducing these triggers in a dog-friendly, urban environment?

In general, the best ways to limit or eliminate exposure to triggers is:

  • Increasing the DISTANCE between your dog and the trigger when you or your dog see the trigger in the distance.
  • Decreasing the INTENSITY of the trigger by taking your dog to a quieter environment for their walks. This may require getting in the car and taking them to a quiet park area in off-hours.
  • Decreasing the DURATION of exposure to the trigger by moving away, going behind a parked car, and changing direction.

We also need to teach your dog how to observe the environment and the triggers by changing their emotional state. We can do this through games and exercises involving behavior modification techniques such as desensitization and counterconditioning.


Desensitization means very gradual exposure to the trigger or scary thing, starting at a very low level and building up very slowly. It should be systematic, which means you have a plan to build up gradually. At every step of the way, your dog should be happy and comfortable. If not, you have gone too far, too soon. Counterconditioning means making a new and positive association to the trigger. Instead of your dog associating the trigger with bad things, they learn that the trigger predicts something good is coming and instead turn their attention to you. For this to work, you need controlled situations with neutral dogs and a professional to guide you.

Being able to change your dog’s emotional response to triggers also involves management, such as leash techniques that teach you how to turn your dog away from the trigger without pulling them, which can add frustration; always bringing high-value reinforcers on every walk so you have a better chance at getting your dog’s attention before they go over threshold and get out of dodge.

Finding certified professional dog trainers with significant experience in this area is essential but not always easy. A trainer who is excellent at teaching a manners class may not have the skills, knowledge, and expertise to employ strategies to change your dog’s reactive behaviors. And slapping a prong or shock collar on a dog with reactivity will not change your dog’s emotional state; it will only suppress the behaviors.

The good news is that your dog can learn different responses to the triggers that cause their reactive behaviors. It takes work and time. There is no quick fix. We have to teach your dog to observe the environment instead of react to it so you can enjoy walks with your dog instead of dreading them.

Sandy Modell, CPDT-KA, is the Founder, Owner, and Head of Training of Wholistic Hound Academy, Alexandria’s award-winning, premier canine training and learning center — offering classes and private lessons in puppy training, adolescent and adult foundation and life skills, behavior modification, agility, nose work, sports and fitness, kids and dogs, pre-pet planning and selection. Classes are starting soon! Check out our Dogs With Big Feeling class! Visit to enroll in our programs, like us on, and follow us on Instagram at

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