Dog owner advice: How to stop barking, lunging and other reactive behaviours

Woodgreen Pets Charity worker holding a reactive dog

Reactive behaviours such as barking, lunging and pulling on the lead are common and can be tackled with basic training methods - Credit: Woodgreen Pets Charity

While we all want our dogs to be friendly and calm in different environments, unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.   

Some dogs can have extreme responses to people and other pets, which is known as reactive behaviour. Luckily, it's never too late to train your dog to be less reactive, and there are steps you can take as an owner to improve their social skills.  

Below, Lindsay Arliss, dog behaviour and training specialist at Woodgreen Pets Charity, shares her advice on how to stop your dog from barking, lunging and displaying other reactive behaviours.   

Q: What causes a dog to be reactive?  

Woodgreen Pets Charity worker calming a reactive dog

Triggers vary from dog to dog and can be caused by poor social skills or a bad experience they have had in the past - Credit: Woodgreen Pets Charity

A: Some dogs may have poor social skills and feel nervous around other dogs or people. It may also be that they have had a negative experience in the past. Dogs who are frightened have a ‘fight or flight’ response and when they can’t escape the situation (because they are on a lead, for example), they respond by barking or growling as a warning for the person or dog to stay away.   

Other dogs can be over-friendly and become frustrated if they can’t play with others. In these cases, they can respond by pulling on the lead, spinning around or leaping up at their owner.  

The triggers for reactive behaviours differ from dog to dog. These situations can be very emotional for your pet, so you may find that they ignore cues or won’t take treats during this time.   

Q: How can I train my dog to be less reactive?  

Staff member from Woodgreen Pets Charity, practicing recall training

Practising basic training so they have good recall can help to build trust between you and your dog - Credit: Woodgreen Pets Charity

A: The good news is that you can do something to alleviate these behaviours. At Woodgreen, we advise these three steps:   

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1. Go back to basics  

Start by revisiting basic training, including recall and cues like ‘sit’. This can improve trust between you and your dog and make more challenging behavioural issues easier to solve. Using words like ‘yes’, ‘good’ or a clicker can let your dog know that they are being praised for their behaviour. Teaching them to wait for their food or problem solve with enrichment toys can also help to encourage calmness.   

2. Avoid triggers wherever possible  

While we can’t control all external situations or environments, it’s important to try and remove your dog from stressful situations wherever possible. This is especially important when you are training them. Try going for walks at less busy times of the day, taking them to a quieter area or even playing games in the garden instead of going out in public.   

3. Help them learn alternative behaviours  

If your dog is exposed to a challenging situation, try teaching different actions to distract them. This could include ‘sit’, ‘find it’ for sniffing out treats, or saying ‘this way’ and walking in another direction. You can then reward them with a treat or their favourite toy. Start by teaching these cues at home and then outside in a relaxed setting, gradually increasing their proximity to triggers. Over time your dog should start to associate the stimuli with positive outcomes.  

Q: What should I do if my dog is still being reactive?

Lindsay Arliss, dog behaviour and training specialist at Woodgreen Pets Charity

Lindsay Arliss is a dog behaviour and training specialist at Woodgreen Pets Charity - Credit: Woodgreen Pets Charity

A: It can be an uncomfortable experience if your dog is reactive in public, but it’s important to be realistic about what they can achieve and to go at their pace. Remember, they are only acting this way because they are scared and it takes time to learn new behaviours.

If someone is approaching you with a dog and you feel that it won’t go well, politely ask them to keep their distance. Don’t give up – try to be patient and go back to basic training if you need to. If you require help, our dog behaviourists are on hand to offer free advice and support.  

For more information and tips, join Woodgreen’s free monthly ‘Helping reactive dogs’ event online. Sign up at woodgreen.org.uk/events