Dog-to-Dog Reactivity

Four simple steps to curb your dog’s reactive behaviour toward other dogs.

Brownie, a shy shepherd cross with the kindest eyes, was one of those foster dogs that you just don’t ever forget. She was so perfect in nearly every way, except I dreaded taking her out for walks. As soon as another dog came into view, she switched on the drama. That is to say, Brownie’s response to the innocent passersby included vicious snarling, relentless lunging, and aggressive barking.

Sometimes I think that dog training would be so much easier if we weren’t caught up in worrying about what other people think. But our dogs do have a way of making us feel varying degrees of embarrassment, don’t they? Therefore, I succumbed to feelings of mortification, and I wondered what my neighbours thought about me and my ‘bad’ dog. I wanted to chastise Brownie so they would at least see me doing something about her undesirable behaviour. After all, the typical and expected response is to follow with a verbal barrage of ‘no!’ and ‘bad dog!’. However, I did the exact opposite. There I was, rapid-firing treats into her mouth and singing her praises while receiving more than a few strange looks from my neighbours.

Why was I rewarding ‘bad’ behaviour? Counterintuitive as it may seem, I was by no means reinforcing her barking and growling response to other dogs. So, let me explain my bizarre response to Brownie’s barking using a step-by-step guide for you to follow.


  1. Set-up practice scenarios with friends and family who already have a social and friendly dog.
  2. Keep your Barking-Brownie under-threshold.
  3. Use behaviour modification activities like ‘Look at That’ to create an appropriate response towards other dogs.
  4. Keep training sessions positive regardless of your dog’s behaviour.

step 1: Set up practice scenarios with friends and family who already have a social and friendly dog

Set up scenarios with someone who already has a well socialized dog – this is your ‘helper dog’. No dogs in your social circle? There are usually lots of local online communities for dog owners that you can post on to see if anyone is willing to give you a hand.

step 2: Keep your barking-brownie under threshold

Keep a comfortable distance between Barking-Brownie and other dogs while you work on modifying her reactivity. This is called keeping your dog ‘under threshold’, and here are some tips to help you identify when she is under threshold:

  • She has loose and relaxed body language.
  • You are able to call her attention back easily.
  • She is still taking treats from you.

Here are some tips to help you identify when she is over threshold:

  • Her body language is stiff.
  • Her mouth is closed and tight.
  • She is staring at the other dog.
  • She may already be lunging, barking, and growling.
  • It is challenging or impossible to get her attention back.
  • She is no longer taking treats from you, or she is taking treats with a hard mouth (this is a good indicator that your dog is stressed).

It is nearly impossible to modify behaviour when your canine is already over threshold. So if you know Barking-Brownie starts barking when she sees another dog from one block away, always do your best to stay one block {and three steps} away from other dogs when possible. Especially important when you’re conducting training sessions.

step 3: Use behavior modification activities like ‘Look at That’ to create an appropriate response towards other dogs

Time to put an exercise called ‘Look at that’ into play.  When Dog A looks at Dog B, mark this behaviour with a ‘yes’ and then quickly follow up with a high-value treat. When I say high value, think pea-sized pieces of steak, chicken, hot dogs, cheese, etc.

If you say ‘yes’ and your dog does not immediately return her gaze back to you, you can place the treat in front of her nose and use it to lure her eye contact back to you.

After 10-15 sequences, give your dog the opportunity to look back at you without immediately prompting her with a ‘yes’. If she looks back at you, great! Mark the behaviour with a ‘yes!’ and treat. If she doesn’t look back at you within 3 seconds, prompt her as you did previously.

Is she is reliably offering ‘automatic eye contact’ after looking at Dog B yet? Good! Try taking 1-2 steps forward. The goal is to very gradually close the gap between Dog A & Dog B, but this could take multiple sessions. Don’t rush it. The end result is worth it.

step 4: Keep training sessions positive regardless of your dog’s behaviour

Okay, admit it – you’re probably thinking that my advice is all well and good until you suddenly find yourself faced with your neighbour and her perfectly well-behaved Great Dane. Boom! Barking-Brownie is suddenly snarling and lunging towards the unsuspecting pair, and all you want to do is hide behind the nearest tree in shame. I get it.

Do your best to stay calm, and move Barking-Brownie in the opposite direction. Distract your dog as much as possible during your exit – using praise and treats as you briskly walk or jog away.

Above all else, we want our canine companion to see that other dogs predict good things. Regardless of the behaviour you’re seeing from your dog, do your best to reflect the behaviour that you would like to see from her.

I made this video to demonstrate exactly what I mean!

Also read: Facilitating Safe & Successful dog-to-dog intros.

Thanks for stopping by!

Love, Sammy & Bear

Author: sammymusgrave

I reside in Calgary, Alberta, and work as a Behaviour Coordinator at a local animal shelter. My heart is in rescue, and rehabilitating the dogs who come through our care. My passion resides in helping other people understand canine behaviour, and the science behind why we primarily use enrichment, force-free training, and positive reinforcement to modify challenge behaviours. During my free time, I enjoy hiking and exploring the mountains with my husband, and dog, Bear. I also really love nerding it out with any book or article I can get my hands on by Dr. Ian Dunbar, Dr. Sophia Yin, Jean Donaldson, Nicole Wilde, and the list goes on. I invite you on my journey to creating a better and kinder world for animals and people alike.

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