5 Tips on Walking a Reactive Dog: What I’ve Learned

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Reactive Practice Group, @Jacqui Dowsett CPDT-KA, City Dog Country Dog

(I’m with Walt all the way in the back as we need more space)


Walter is on a long lead as we’re practicing recall constantly with him


Sweet, reactive Sherm

The National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity on a weekly basis. So let’s first establish that walking your dog is just good for your health.

What if you have a dog that’s reactive on leash and you still want to get out two to three times day and exercise with your best friend?

What I used to be fearful of?

  • Embarrassment that people would look at me like I’m a crazy dog parent with no control over my Beagle/Basset mix that looks like Snoopyand acts like Kujo
  • Sheer terror that someone would walk up to me with their dog so our dogs can greet on leash
  • A dog off leash would run up to us from a yard or the school near where we live and I wouldn’t be able to u-turn quick enough

So I would pick off hours for walking Sherm the first few years of living with him… since then over the last five years, I’ve learned a lot. I also am grateful for our dog walker of ten years! I’m happy to recently connect with a dog walker and pet sitter on Rover.com. She rocked our world and knew exactly how I felt when I walked her through walking all our dogs…separately and with high value treats like turkey. She’s coming back at the end of July too.

We’re also in a Reactive Dog Practice Group with City Dog Country Dog. I posted a picture at the top of this post as Walter is showing a lot of control!

Good choices and setting up Sherm for success:

  • IF I cannot walk Sherm, where do I turn? Rover.com has some amazing pet sitters and dog walkers. I’m eternally grateful to our dog walker, Juli Norman, who has walked Shermie for almost ten years and manages him with positive reinforcement. While Juli is an independent dog walker with her own company – I want to emphasize that there are options.
  • Enrichment: Since Sherm has very controlled walks (and sometimes we don’t get in a lot of sniffing in) we also participate in Nosework as  it’s a sport reactive dogs can take part in!
  • Look at me games: For five minutes each morning we use the clicker and play the look at me game with each dog – separately.
  • Recognizing signs of fear in dogs – I have this down to a science for Sherm – but Rover has a great article with some tips for pet parents (tail pinned, ears back, licking lips (Sherm does this a lot when fearful).
  • Take a Growly Behavior Class with trainers that specialize in this – we did this and it made a huge difference. We were taught the tools to set up Sherm for success… finally! This class didn’t “fix” Sherm but taught us how to manage his reactive on leash behavior.

After reading this article, I didn’t feel so alone:


  • I love Victoria’s articles: https://positively.com/victorias-blog/choice-training-working-with-a-leash-reactive-dog/


A Vehicle Search with Shermie! 




There are 39 Comments

  1. I’m not sure if Harley is “reactive” but – when he sees another dog and he’s on a leash after the sniffing greeting, he will start barking as if he speaking – saying hello. There’s never any aggression involved but it scares the other pet parents. They’ll yank their dog away and look at me like my fluffy doodle has become a Cujo too. Your thoughts?

    • That’s so interesting — is it consistent behavior? Every greeting? I bet because it takes folks off guard they send some sort of energy down the leash that their dog reacts to since the greeting is fine and appropriate.. it doesn’t sound like Harley is reacting BUT do you ever see any of those fear signs at the same time?

  2. Have you heard of The Midnight Dog Walkers? It’s a book by trainer Annie Phenix, and she started a closed Facebook group for people with reactive dogs to talk about their challenges in private. In the book, she outlines all the things that I should have done with my first reactive dog. It hit so close to home I cried when I read it!

    • Kari! I have not heard about this book or Facebook group and I bet I would LOVE to be part of this community. I’m on Amazon right now. I bet I’d learn a ton and even though Sherm is more manageable now Walter is reactive as well… which is awesome of course… Thanks!

  3. Erik N. says:

    Graham is the reactivest (English is hard) of my dogs. He thinks he can take on any dog he hears, and in crowded situations tends to go for people’s ankles. Fortunately he’s never gotten anyone and he’s small enough he’s easy to control. I KNOW I should train him better, and I think that’s what happens with a lot of small dogs. It’s easy to remove them from whatever situation they’re in and so training takes a back seat to solving the current problem. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    • Our old doxie is like that – he’s constantly looking over his shoulder like there is something waiting for him… he’s getting worse as he gets older. Thank you for sharing your experience! I live with two small dogs so I get it.

  4. Lindsay says:

    Both of our boys are good on the leash, pulling a bit sure, which could be better but overall good. They love saying hello to other dogs. My biggest issue when walking the dogs is people stopping to say hello and then going over Baxter’s head to pet him when I tell them if they want to pet Baxter, to do so under the chin and scratch his chest. He does not like anyone going over his head. Often times, I will just tell people to love on Charlie, as he’s the love bug, social butterfly of the two.

    Baxter used to be a different and would lunge at you out of fear. So rather than you scare him first, what he would do is scare you first. Never made contact, but would lunge as though he was going to. It took a couple years of work, patience and growth and he’s now completely different. And this was all due to his fear so he’d be reactive and try and ‘get you’ before you could ‘get him’.

    Have a great day Christy! 🙂

    • Hi! My dogs HATE being pet on their head and it makes them super uncomfortable. Under the chin is best so I’m totally with you on that point. It’s nice your guys can greet other dogs without a lot of hassle. What did you do to help Baxter get over the lunging first behavior?

      • Lindsay says:

        For the longest time, I walked him separately and told people if they asked to stop and pet him to not make any eye contact with him and ignore him. I also learned that body language is huge and that he’ll pick up cues from me and how I’m feeling so I learned to present myself as more neutral. When I added walking back in with Charlie, we would approach people but I’d ask them to ignore Baxter and he’s come to them when he was good and comfortable. And with patience and consistency, it helped and has made him a lot more trusting of people.

        Huge changes!

  5. Love your suggestion about Nosework for those dogs who don’t get to enjoy sniffing along their walks!

  6. Elaine says:

    I can sure relate to so many of these issues since Haley was a pretty fearful pup when she was younger. I especially hate when off-leash dogs storm us when we’re out walking.

    I’m so glad you’ve found so many different ways to help Sherm feel more confident. It seems nosework is a great option for reactive dogs.

    • Thanks so much Elaine! Walter was too – since he was small, he had some fear issues and I really tried to use treats and take him to various places and tons of car trips. Even various floor textures are had for him sometimes. I’m super grateful for nosework it’s such a great option for my guys!

  7. Rachel says:

    Great tips here. I definitely need to put them to use with our dog. 🙂

  8. Jean Dion says:

    I took shy Sinead to a Shy Dog class at my local humane society, and it’s worked wonders at reducing her alert level while on a walk. Instead of consistently looking for things to be afraid of, she looks at me most of the time. We both enjoy our walks a ton more.

    Jean from Welcome to the Menagerie

    • Thank you Jean! I was just looking at Growly classes for Walter now as a refresher this summer. I’m so glad the Shy Dog Class worked so well for you. Looking at me is my fav game and it works. Thank you for sharing!

  9. Valerie says:

    Great article! I forwarded it to my mom, who has a Border Collie with similar issues. These are some great tips!!

  10. Cathy says:

    I’m actually pet sitting right now for a reactive dog who requires 2 daily walks. She’s fine with other people unless they have a dog. She also tries to attack passing cars. Fortunately she lives in a quiet neighborhood and there isn’t much traffic but when a car does go by, she about yanks my arm off trying to get to it.

    • I also live with a dog that car chases – it’s hit or miss but if Sherm is having one of “those” days… he will chase cars too. I can typically tell when he’s about to do it but it’s scary as hell. So I’ll put that in the “attack cars” category… I’m so glad you’re in a quiet neighborhood!

  11. Valerie says:

    I have to share this with my mom! She has a Border Collie who can be quite reactive to other dogs. Sometimes, she just feels so desperate because she feels like she is the only one! It’ not that he would attack the other dogs, but he is slightly aggressive, so unfortunately he can’t be off leash 🙁

  12. Emma says:

    Great article. It’s hard when dogs are reactive. I don’t like other dogs much, but as long as they leave me alone, I’m fine. I always ignore them. Best of all, we love those boots you are wearing in the vehicle search! Great photo too! Bailie just got into an NW2 trial next Sunday. She was #22 on the wait list, so never give up if you are on a wait list. We will be going to WI, 6 hr drive, and hope to be successful. Nose work is such an awesome sport for so many reasons, including reactive dogs!

    • Thank you so much! That’s how Shermie is too – if he was just left alone and basically didn’t see any other dogs other than his pack, we’d be in good shape. Thank you 🙂 Those boots are so silly but it rains here so often I need a sturdy pair! Sherm loves those vehicle searches. Good luck in NW2 next weekend. It’s amazing you got in which I think is good luck! Nosework kind of save us.

  13. Jan K says:

    Those are great tips – I suck in all the information I can about working with reactive dogs. I mostly practice avoidance, meaning I don’t walk my two reactive dogs very much, we get most of our exercise playing in the yard. But I know that’s not the answer and I need to buckle down and get working with them so we can take walks.
    I am planning to take an online course for Nosework too through Fenzi Academy. We’ve done some of our own nosework games in the past and they love them.

    • Thank you! You know, I find these reactive practice groups to be really awesome. All the people there are dealing with reactive dogs and folks are super respectful, they totally help. LOVE Fenzi Academy for Nosework, I know two friends that love Staci, one of their trainers and she’s been taking Fenzi online classes all year.

  14. Jodi Stone says:

    Lots and lots of good tips here. Both my dogs are reactive and walking them separately has eased my anxiety immensely. I’ve gotten Delilah to the point where I can get her past just about anything!

    Of course I live in the DADO (Dumb A** Dog Owner) capital of the states, so I’ve learned LOTS of managing techniques.

    • Thank you so much – these tips certainly come from many many years of living with Sherm and managing his behavior. Walking separately just makes everything more manageable and I also feel more relaxed knowing I can handle him solo. That’s awesome about Delilah! I also live in the DADO capital — so I’m constantly getting creative.

  15. One of my dogs is reactive most of the time and occasionally he surprises me and just ignores things. It is definitely a challenge to walk him and I know I need to take him out more, but sometimes it is just exhausting. I’ve been in touch with a trainer a few times, but our schedules haven’t lined up yet.

    • Thanks so much for this comment – I feel you, it is exhausting. I know exactly how you feel. We have a lot of discussions around when and what time to walk Sherm. Sometimes I just go for it and use treats to the best of my ability and hope for the best!

  16. Sorry I’m so late commenting on your post – my husband fell hard on our concrete driveway last Saturday and most of my week has been spent “nursing” him, taking our reactive pup to doggie daycare, and finding ways to keep our senior Golden Girl entertained while she heals from an inflamed CCL in her left knee.

    Like Jan K, most of the exercise my girls and I get is from playing in the backyard. But not just because Ducky is people reactive. We live on an extremely busy road with no sidewalks. Walking alone on this road would be dangerous enough, let alone with even just one dog at a time. Picture walking down the middle of a California freeway and you’ll have a pretty accurate visual of what I mean.

    Anyway, you have some great advice/tips in this article! I play the “look at me” game with Ducky every time we go out in the yard.

    • You’re so nice just to comment!! That’s horrible – how is he doing now? When either one of the dogs is ill or my husband or I are having any health issues, life gets really complicated, quickly. I totally get it. Trying to manage both a senior dog and a reactive dog that needs special activities is really tough. I hope some of these tips were helpful – I’ve tried a large variety of things for sure so hoping one of these will resonate with folks. I also love the look at me game!! Hey – a trainer the other day told me to look up Ian Dunbar’s Watch Me game so I’ll post on that if it’s different…

  17. […] 5 Tips on Walking a Reactive Dog: What I’ve Learned from My Life With Dogs (PDX)– I have reactive dogs. I know how hard it can be to fit into the world with your dogs especially when out trying to enjoy a walk. Christy shares how she helps her Sherm take a stress-free walk. […]

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  19. Jane says:

    My biggest fear of walking my chi is that a off leash dog would approach us. She’s do tiny and I don’t want her to get hurt. I would really love to take her more places. I guess I need the training, not her!

    • I hear you – and she’s so tiny. She’s not reactive on leash, right? I know you all are still getting to know each other but I didn’t remember reading that in your posts. I’m so glad all is well and you are now thick as thieves!

      • Jane says:

        Thanks Christy, she is a blessing in disguise for me.

        As far as I know she is not reactive. She did well at the vets office with other dogs in the waiting room. In fact she was super happy to see other dogs!

        Guess I need to try her out with some trusted pooches ❤

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