Reactive Dog: Foundation Exercises for Your Leash-Reactive Dog

20 | Posted:

By Dr. Sophia Yin

Download the poster with the Focus Exercises here.

My dog knows how to walk on leash but when he sees a cat that he wants to chase or a dog he doesn’t like, he goes bonkers, lunging and barking, and I can barely control him. I try to use treats to get his attention but it doesn’t work. Is there anything else I should do?

You might think the answer is that if you try treats and they don’t work you should move to a method that’s more severe, such as yanking with a choke chain or pinch collar or something so aversive that it makes the dog want to stop. What you really should do is improve your technique and work at the distance from the distraction where you can keep the reactive Rover focused on you. That means not only rewarding the dog for appropriate behaviors to replace the unwanted ones, but also rewarding quickly enough (within 0.2 seconds). It also means making your body cues clear, and leading the dog to perform exercises in rapid succession so that it’s easy for him to have fun focusing on you rather than finding you boring compared to the environmental distractions. You’ll want to learn to guide your dog through exercises in rapid succession the way a dancer would lead his partner through a series of different steps. No time to pause and figure out what move you should do next or fumble around trying to get the rewards to Rover. You need quick and clear treat delivery technique, to move in ways that provide clear guidance, and to be able to flow right from one exercise to the next fluidly. The more you pause the more you allow your dog to wonder what you want and then lose focus and pay attention to something else.

The following is a set of ways that you can combine simple exercises of repeat sits backwards, heeling, changes of speed, and repeat sits on the side.

Changes of Direction


Pattern 1: Repeat sit backwards, change direction by turning 90°-180° and continuing with repeat sits backwards.

In the following exercise, perform repeat sits backwards 3-5 steps, ideally backing up at a speed of about 140 beats per minute (use a metronome) and rewarding your dog on a variable schedule for sitting when you stop. Then after 1-5 repeat sits, change directions 90° in a backwards L or to a backwards U turn and continue with the repeat sits backwards. Backwards exercises are especially good for keeping your dog focused on you. Remember that the goal is that your dog is focused and looking at you while catching up and while sitting.

Pattern 2: Repeat sits backwards, then change direction by turning 90, 180, 270 or 360° and heeling forward.

If your dog heels on your left side, then you should turn clockwise. If your dog heels on the right side, turn counterclockwise. Make sure that when you walk forward, your dog is at a comfortable trot. For most dogs, your pace will need to be 135-140 beats per minute (bpm). You’ll know if you’re going too slowly because your dog will switch between walking and trotting or your dog will just amble. In cases where there are distractions, traveling that slowly allows him to be more interested in other things.

Pattern 3: Heel forward, then change directions by switching to repeat sits backwards 90° (L pattern) or 180°.

The L pattern is simple. Just heel forward and then back up 90° in repeat sits. The 180° turn is trickier because it requires a complete change of direction on your part. You heel forward at a brisk pace (135-140 bpm for most dogs) and then suddenly back up in the direction you came from, ideally at 140 bpm. He should be watching you when heeling forward and he should be used to following quickly after in repeat sits backwards. So this change of direction should be fun and exciting for him.

Pattern 4: Heel forward, then change directions by turning 90°-180° and heel in the new direction.

The exercises involving backwards movement are generally required for the more highly reactive dog and dogs earlier in their stages of training. Exercises where dogs can heel forwards and focus on the owner around distractions should be used only when you know you can keep the dog focused heeling forwards. You can heel forward and then do a 90° turn away from your dog or an about-turn.

Pattern 5: Heel forward and change directions by turning towards the dog either 90° or 180°.

Similar to pattern 4, in this case you’re turning towards the dog. The 90° turn is simple. The 180° turn requires your dog to walk up and down the same line and you to walk up one line and down a separate parallel line.

Pattern 6: Changes in speed—speeding up.

Another method for keeping dogs engaged with and focused on you is with changes of speed. Go from regular focused walking (135 bpm) to a sudden jog of 180 bpm for just 3-5 steps. Then decrease back down to a regular walk.

Pattern 7: Changes in speed—quick stops with repeat sits in heel position.

This exercise works best if you’re walking at 135 bpm and even if you sometimes jog 3-5 steps and then stop. Make sure that you lean backwards when you stop as that motion is the clearest indicator that you are slowing down. If you accidently lean forwards, your dog will actually walk past you before he realizes he should stop.

Now that you know the patterns, intersperse them into your regular walk with the goal that you can keep your dog focused on you the entire time you work on these. Once he can do these with low distractions, work with him around higher distractions on the walk. In other words, if you see a dog that he might react to, work at a distance from the dog where your technique is good enough to keep him focused on doing the exercise with you rather than on the dog. As you improve, you should be able to graduate from doing more of the backwards exercises to using the easier forward heeling patterns more often.

Stay tuned for the next blog where you will learn how to incorporate these patterns when you need to get by a distraction or let a distraction pass.

Download the poster with the Focus Exercises here.


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20 responses to “Reactive Dog: Foundation Exercises for Your Leash-Reactive Dog

  1. Love this article and the exercises provided. I see alot of people asking for help with this issue and this is a great article to help! My only complaint is that you used a bully breed in the picture, pulling forward and looking aggressive. It doesn’t help with the publics unfair and often false perception of these dogs. ANY dog can be aggressive and it would have been nice to show a pic of a dog, a mixed breed or a breed that is rarely if ever associated with reactivity or aggression (i.e. Golden Retr.), it could suggest that any dog can have these issues.

    Thank you again for the great information. smile

    1. My dog has been reactive for two years, I have taking him to training, stalk dogs at pet store parking lots feeding him treats when he sees another dog. He is a great student, knows when there are treats, changed the energy in my walk and still him will take me down if he see another dog. Not many dog owners in my small town like my German shepherd.

      1. One thing that you can try with your German Shepherd is the distance method. I had to do this with mine, (I’m not saying what worked for me will work for you but worth a try). You start far away from the distraction “IE” dogs. Come in to where he notices them but doesn’t pass the threshold of no return. Reward for not reacting and continue to get closer and closer but do not rush it. It will take you time and patience as well as alot of effort to remember where you left off last time. These methods do work it just takes time and patience that most people don’t have.

      2. I have the same problem with my GSD! She is 9 months and I’ve been in weekly group and private training. My trainer keeps insisting on the constant treat/conditioning around other dogs but she goes beserk and I can hardly control her. It’s embarrassing and hard and I’m so frustrated. I’ve had several people tell me to move to a choke chain…

        1. we ended up hiring a behaviorist…I just finished watching the Reactive Dog training video by Sophia Yin and it was super helpful. I’ve been working with my reactive Aussie since she was 9months old. 1) we gave her a break from all interactions that caused reactions (windows covered, no walks around other dogs to give her brain a chance to calm down) 2) Train for attention- counter conditioning works, but if you watch the video, you see that treat speed and delivery can make or break you 3) Train a distance (I take her to school, keep her in a field far enough away from every distraction that she doesnt react because I know 3-4 dogs will walk by to pick up kids from school and I can move further away/hide behind my car if need be. Do not use a choke chain: get a gentle leader and a front snap harness for extra control. I use a leash splitter and adjust it so I have a great deal of control. Also, a doggy backpack seems to help. She just turned two and goes to doggy daycare and is working on joining a big pack walk. She still has trouble keeping herself from reacting at first when she meets a dog or person on a walk head on, but I can ALWAYS calm her down almost instantly. My last resort for emergency situations that I cant get out of is to crouch down by her and gently hold her muzzle down so she cannot see the other dog. Train her to look at you, focus on you, and trust you to take care of everything.

  2. Thank you for the informational article. I found some of the tips and teaching to be helpful, and already do some of the techniques shown…

    I did want to comment that I was highly annoyed that a bully breed (no doubt probably a stock photo chosen by a less-knowledgeable individual) is what you chose to use for the article. Thank you for upholding the stigma of bully breeds.

    I have unfortunately seen more small breed dogs that are aggressive, and reactive on a leash (and scarily off leash as well), and my pitbull mixes do not “react”, and are rather submissive.

    It made for mixed feelings while reading this…

    Proud Owner of 3 of 5 bully breed kids

  3. Hi Paige and Pamela,

    I wanted to clarify that this is a stock photo. There are a limited number of stock photos showing dogs being reactive on leash. We have used pictures of other breeds in past articles, but did not want to reuse the same photos over again. That did not leave us with much choice as to which photo we could use that clearly illustrated a dog being reactive while on leash. I’m sure there would have been complaints from people no matter what breed we used. I do not think the photo detracts from the content of the article.

    Production and Web Marketing Coordinator
    Cattle Dog Publishing

  4. I wish people would follow through with their dog’s training. It seems like a lot of work, especially for a person working full-time. Unfortunately, one reads too often of a dog (such as a pit-bull) attacking and killing humans and other dogs. I blame the dog owners.
    My own Portuguese Water Dog, who loves to play with other dogs, was attacked by a pit-bull on a local beach. The pit-bull was leashed, but the dog owner could not control the dog. The dog dragged the woman on the ground while the pit bull had my dog by the throat. A passer-by assisted by smashing the pit-pull in the face with a rock so he would release my $2,000, playful dog. I don’t think a leash on either dog would have prevented this confrontation. Dogs trained to kill in the ring should not be kept as pets under any circumstances.

  5. This information is great — AND my first reaction was to be disappointed that a bully breed was shown being reactive. There is a great deal of effort towards rehabilitating the reputation of pit bulls. In the future, some support of that would be appreciated.

    The article itself is great, and I’ve already shared with two friends who have (non pit bull, very small mixed breed) leash reactive dogs. Thank you.

  6. I have this issue with a 200 lb. English Mastiff. I have learned to prevent it before it happens by standing in front of him and making him watch me. I had to learn not to let him walk point because he thought he was on guard duty. There are still things that set him off but I watch him for cues and redirect him. He hates when people have hoods on. Nothing worse than a agitated 200 lb. dog.

  7. As a passerby reading this article I did not notice the picture till I read the comments by defensive bully breed owners. I was mostly focused on all the great information and diagrams shown in the article. I love Dr. Yin she always seems to post things on her website that I am currently wanting to understand better, I don’t know how it seems to synchronize that way but I’m grateful! Such clear guidance and direction is what makes me happy I found her site. Thank you! Please come to Orlando and teach a seminar or workshop!

  8. This was great information on dealing with reactive dogs however I have to also say that the picture chosen was very insensitive and for me disappointing. As someone who works hard on dispelling the image of pit bulls being ferocious people killers and also on eliminating BSL it was disappointing to see this image used by such a highly respected resource. While I understand the explanation that Melissa gave, what it also said to me is that she could just as easily picked another photo. No one in the dog business could be ignorant of the fact that pit bulls are a huge source of controversy and severely maligned. Knowing that, I feel that the appropriate thing to do would have been to give the image choice a bit more thought and think about how many places that picture/article will end up and what it connotates on a subconscious level. As a psychotherapist (to people) I teach people to realize that words and images, although seemingly benign, subconsciously reinforce beliefs that we are trying to dispell so they are counterproductive. One must change the words we use and the images we use to change our thinking and subsequently changing thinking changes our feelings. It is the only way it works for humans who are the audience you are reaching out to. This creates a dilemma. The average person is going to see this and subconsciously have that image and the subject reinforced! As well they make make a subconscious connection to Dr. Yin who is a highly respected leader in the field of animal behavior and extrapolate that she feels pit bulls are a typical “reactive breed” which I doubt she does. Few are going to say or think , “well it could have been any breed, we just didnt want to use the same pictures over again”…. I urge you to remove this photo and pick a breed that is not as controversial!
    Incidently, I have a pit bull who is as sweet and calm on the leash as can be, my beagle on the other hand, due to some trauma (being hit by a car a few years back) is absolutely unwalkable in public as he goes completely beserk outside of his home environment. This is what led me to this site to begin with. Post a picture of a breed that doesnt already have to fight that erroneous image please!

  9. I, too, own 3 pit bulls and I am probably overly protective of their reputation. To be honest, though, I did notice the picture for the article but my immediate thought was that it was to show to the people that do not think pitties deserve to live because they think of them as the picture depicts that even they can be trained. I didn’t take offense to it at all. I thought of it as a positive thing.

  10. I’m sorry your dog was hurt by a Pitbulm – but no. If your dog was leashes it never would have happened. YOUR dog was not in control, either. Never assume that because your dog loves other dogs, that other dogs will love it. Look up SINKs on Facebook, you may learn something.

  11. Yvette – was your dog leashed? Was this a designated place for off-leash dogs?

    If the answer to those questions were no, then I hate to say it but YOU were in the wrong. It doesn’t matter how friendly your dog is, or how playful, or how much they like other dogs. You failed your dog as an owner by not ensuring the dog he was approaching was friendly. He wasn’t – and the owner had it leashed and therefore in better control than yours. I have a reactive Great Dane, which would have done MUCH MORE damage than a little Pitbull. He is reactive to other dogs because he was attacked by a random loose dog, while his owner was yelling “HE’S FRIENDLY!!!” as the dog ran up with his teeth bared. Now because of that, my dog does NOT like strange dogs approaching him. You can only control your dog so much when you have it on a leash when a LOOSE dog sticks its face where it doesn’t belong. People need to realize that not every dog is friendly and we all have the right to take our dogs for walks just as much as anyone else. Just because you have a friendly dog does NOT give you the right to think you are better than everyone else and therefore your dog can be off leash and violate the space of people and dogs who don’t care how playful or expensive (really? Why bring up how much you paid for a purebred dog? Is it BETTER than others that were less expensive than it?) your dog is.

    I do feel bad for you that your dog was attacked – but it is YOUR job to ensure your pet is kept safe, as well. And by allowing your dog to approach a strange dog (and you obviously have something against Pitbulls, so I’m unsure why you’d let your dog near one in the first place) without the owners permission, then you failed your dog.

  12. We like to focus on solutions (what can be done instead) rather than problems (what someone wishes someone else would not do).

    If you can provide a solution rather just presenting your problem, we would be happy to accomodate your wishes.

    Here is the issue: We cannot just go without an appropriate main photo in our blogs. The stock photos we have already represent many hours of searching, plus money. What we need are some professional grade replacement photos in that spot and for our related articles that are upcoming.

    If you are able to provide 3-5 professional grade photos that are not duplicates of the ones we have already or of those same breeds (chihuahua, australian cattledog, german shepherd, belgian malinois, labrador retriever, jack russell terrier), then we would be happy to use them. In fact, one way to help media outlets use a wider variety of stock photos for aggressive dogs would be to get people to contribute their high quality photos for this use. They need to be royalty free (even if available through royalty free stock photo outlet). We would need verification that these photos are either in the public domain, or owned by the person providing the royalty free usage.

    We have also used photos and videos of bully breeds behaving nicely (in our main page video, on blogs, on Facebook, in lectures). If you have professional grade photos of your bully breed behaving politely (heeling, focusing, coming when called, etc) and would like to share them (and the photos belong to you), feel free to send them our way and we can use them for upcoming blogs as well.

    If you have a possible replacement photo for this blog or our upcoming blogs on the same topic, please email it to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). It must show a dog being reactive on leash.

    Thank you for understanding.

    1. What kind of email address is this bunch of numbers? I would be more than happy to send them in as we take them but please give a better email address.

  13. Oh Yvette, how ignorant you are. People like you, stuck up snobs who are ignorant to dog breeds and behavior, are the problem.

    Who cares what your dog cost? What a snobby thing to mention. The amount you paid for your dog has nothing to do with the situation. What, another dog will know “Oh that’s a fancy expensive dog I better not attack it” and leave it alone?

    “Dogs trained to kill in the ring should not be kept as pets under any circumstances.” Again, your ignorance. They’re not trained, and I’m sure this woman was not a dog fighter.

    People who are ignorant, should not keep pets under any circumstances. Putting the blame on everyone else is not the answer. Your comment was unnecessary.

    This article illustrates there is a lack of owner responsibility that creates a reactive dog. It is NOT just training, however. Breeding has the most to do with the temperament correctness of a dog.

    FYI – That pic used in the article is NOT a Pit Bull!

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