Reactive Dog: Moving Past Distractions on a Walk

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By Dr. Sophia Yin

My dog loves to jump on people and dogs who pass by. He’s friendly, but often dogs and people aren’t appreciative. Once he even tripped a jogger. He’s ok if we can get 10 feet away but sometimes we can’t get far away. What should we do?

If you already know the patterns for keeping your dog focused on you and can perform these in the presence of distractions relatively close by, you’re 80% there. Here are examples of how you can apply these exercises to situations where you see a human or dog approaching on a path and need to keep your dog focused so he won’t bark, jump or lunge at them.


Pattern 1: Repeat sits in the opposite direction, then turn 180° and heel away.

In this case, you’re walking down the path, and as soon as you see the distraction, get your dog to focus on you while heeling. Then before he gets so close that he can no longer focus on you, switch directions by doing repeat sits backwards and then turn around and heel away in the direction you came from. Of course, in this pattern, you don’t actually get to go in the direction you originally had planned to travel. If that destination is important, then go to the next pattern.

Pattern 2: The L-Pattern.

In this case, you start heeling with your dog focused on you, and before you get so close that your dog has to look at the approaching person or dog, turn 90° away from your dog and do repeat sits backwards into the street. Then, once the distraction has gone by, continue in the original direction.

Pattern 3: Reverse L-Pattern.

In the case, where you can’t do an L away from the dog, you can do a reverse L-pattern. In this case, when having your dog heel while walking forward, before he has a chance to look at the distraction, you do a repeat sit backwards away from the distraction and then do an L off the path. Once the distraction goes by, you can heel on your way.

The reason you have to do repeat sits backwards first is that if you just tried to turn 90° and back up, you’d move right into the dog!

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Pattern 4: Repeat sits backwards away from the distraction.
In some cases you don’t have the option of moving off the path easily. As with pattern 1, before your dog has a chance to focus on the distraction in front, switch directions by doing repeat sits backwards away from the distraction. Continue in rapid succession far enough away so they can pass by. Generally, you’ll want to start a repeat sit backwards a couple of steps before the dog or person passes. Once the distraction has gone by, then you can switch and heel in the direction you were originally walking.


Pattern 5: Repeat sits in heel position.

For dogs who are more advanced and can already do the repeat sit backwards or L-pattern with distractions, you may be able to heel past distractions. If you can’t quite heel easily at a steady pace you can work on repeat sits in heel position. Make sure you walk fast enough (135-140 beats per minute) and that when you do the sits, you lean backwards and you are slowing down since that makes it clearer to the dog that you are about to stop. This exercise is easiest if you are between your dog and the other dog. It’s a little more challenging if the other handler is between you and the other dog. It’s most challenging if your dog is heeling on the same side as the distraction.  Some dogs will do better if you jog in-between sits. Others will get too excited when you do this. Choose the pace that works best for your dog.

Pattern 6: Repeat sit backwards away from the distraction, then Backwards U turn right as the dog passes.

This pattern is similar to the previous one except that you do repeat sits backwards, and then as the distraction is passing, do a U turn backwards away from the dog. Then turn and heel in the direction you were originally headed.

Pattern 7: Repeat sits towards the distraction.

Sometimes it works best to get in front of your dog and do rapid repeat sits backwards in the direction you were originally walking as the approaching dog and human pass. We use this less commonly since it’s generally easier to get your dog to focus on you when you’re doing repeat sits away from the distraction.

Pattern 8: Heel but speed up past the distraction.

Another technique is to just heel but speed up a little as you get closer to the distraction. The speeding up tends to get your dog focused on you.  Avoid this technique if the increased speed causes your dog to get overly excited.


So there it is. 8 patterns to help you get by distractions when you’re on a sidewalk or path. Make sure you practice the focus patterns from the Reactive Dog: Foundation Exercises for Your Leash Reactive Dog blog first. Then once you have them down, work on these passing patterns. Start with the ones involving repeat sits backwards. These are more effective for dogs who are not as advanced and who have more trouble focusing. As needed, add the other exercises. Remember that the speeds at which you walk forwards (135-140 bpm) and backwards (175 bpm) are important and that changes of direction help keep Rover entertained so that he will focus on you. Be sure you always work at the distance where you CAN keep your dog focused on you. Move closer to distractions as you improve.


Dr. Yin passed away in 2014 but her legacy lives on.

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6 responses to “Reactive Dog: Moving Past Distractions on a Walk

  1. This is a really helpful article and has great tips. I particularly like the last one of speeding up to pass the distraction. Thanks.

    However, the picture you chose to go with this article does not help with common perceptions of reactive dogs as dangerous. Reactive dogs are not necessarily dangerous by any means; in fact, reactivity can be based in fear or the result of being startled. My herding breed is reactive but would herd the other dog/person/bicyclist rather than attack them, as an example. The snarling dog picture chosen to headline this article is unfortunate in that regard.

    1. It’s true that reactive dogs are not necessarily dangerous. But when they’re reactive they usually look like they want to kill the other dog. My dog goes to daycare and loves to play with dogs generally. But she is still often reactive on leash (we’re working on it) and looks like Cujo. What kind of a picture could you use for a dog who is being reactive that doesn’t look threatening? That’s the whole point for most dogs–look threatening so the other dog/person/cat goes or runs away.

      1. Thank you for remembering us.I am so sorry you lost your best friend. May you find another one soon, knowing nothing can replace the lost one. Kay and Bailey

  2. this is very helpful but I am amanual wheelchair user and it is very hard to do all the reversing etc. I have a look command but once he knows a dog is coming it is really hard to get focus

  3. This is good information…I’m interested what to do when on a walk and we are approached by a dog that is off leash and the other dog parents are clueless. And 5hen there are the ones who don’t care because their dogs are fine. Any suggestions please!

    1. I work with very large reactive rescues often and when we are moving in to public work I try and watch out for those clueless folks so that I can be ready for them. What I will do is have bait (treat) ready, move off the path/sidewalk, put my dog into a sit then bait them to look at me and not the other dog. Often this set of actions alone gives warning to the other dog person that something is “different” with your dog and they usually gather their dog in. As mine are very large dogs, this usually works for me. If not, I then call out to the other person that my dog is not friendly and to please leash or call off their dog. Other than that, all you can do is to continue work with your dog enough so that they don’t react in an defensive or aggressive manner towards other dogs or look for places to walk where there are no stupid people.

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