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How to Socialize a Reactive Dog

September 01, 2022 3 min read

dog growls

By Agnes Kantaruk / Shutterstock.com

Reactive dogs may bark, growl, lunge, and even try to bite when confronted with one of their triggers. This makes them hard to socialize and sometimes even take them out of the house — but with proper training, you can eventually desensitize your reactive dog to their triggers and start socializing them in public. Here are six tips for training a reactive dog:

Identify your dog’s triggers.

While there are some common triggers for reactive dogs, every dog is individual and has their own idiosyncratic dislikes. Take some time to sit down and make a list of everything that your dog reacts to, whether that’s a specific breed of dog or men with beards. Rank each item in terms of how reactive your dog is to it. If they are only a little bit nervous around a trigger, that’s completely different from trying to bite or attack another person or dog.

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Save triggering situations for later.

When it comes to socializing a reactive dog, don’t try to go the exposure therapy route and flood them with their triggers. This will only result in traumatizing your dog and potentially making them even more reactive. If the dog park or doggie daycare makes them super reactive, skip these overstimulating situations and choose another scenario that won’t trigger your dog instead. In most cases, the best way to get a reactive dog ready for socializing is to slowly expose them to their triggers in a controlled environment and reward them with natural dog treats until they no longer react so strongly.

Make them feel loved and taken care of.

Ensuring your dog’s basic hierarchy of needs is key to successfully training a reactive dog. This means not only covering basics like food, water, and shelter, but also making sure that your dog feels secure and loved by you and the rest of your household. Don’t smother them with affection if they don’t like that, but make sure that they know they aren't in trouble and that you love them. Tiring them out with enough exercise may also help make them less reactive. If going on walks is out of the question, try playing fetch in the house or backyard to work off some of their excess energy.

corgi puppy scared

By Paul's Lady / Shutterstock.com

Recruit a training buddy.

Once your dog is ready, you want to slowly expose your dog to their triggers in a controlled environment. To do this, you will need to recruit a friend (ideally one with a lot of experience with dogs) to pose as the trigger. If your dog is triggered by other dogs, try to find a friend with a very calm, nonreactive pup who won’t respond easily to your dog’s reactive state. It’s best to introduce your dog to them in a familiar environment, either in your home or on the street outside if they are territorial.

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Shower them in rewards.

Wait for your dog to quietly notice the trigger, and once they take notice, reward them with a natural dog treat. Don’t give them the treat until they acknowledge the trigger, however. You should also avoid rewarding them if they react negatively by barking or lunging. Wait for them to calm down. Then, reset the situation by moving further away from the trigger and try again. Gradually reduce the distance until your dog can walk by the trigger without reacting. This may take multiple sessions. Consider giving them a more substantial treat such as bully sticks for dogs at the end of each session to help them decompress. Jerky is another great option for training your dog because it is available in larger sizes for the end of training session as well as bite-sized versions.

german shepherd

By Dan_Manila / Shutterstock.com

Get professional help.

For highly reactive dogs, the most effective way to get them ready for socializing is to work with a professional trainer. Reactive dogs aren’t a lost cause, but they do require a careful approach to avoid accidentally enforcing their problematic behavior. A professional dog trainer with experience helping reactive dogs will be able to identify their triggers and create a training plan that can help you socialize your reactive dog in less time.

At Best Bully Sticks, we sell a wide variety of treats that work well for training a reactive dog — from antlers for dogs to collagen chews. Shop today and get free U.S. shipping on orders over $79!


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