Real World Reactivity

Jamie Flanders CDBC

In the real world you do not always have the luxury of avoiding triggers and getting the space you need to systematically desensitize and counter-condition your dog. You will need to rely on many rehearsed skills in your dog and in yourself to get you through your walk. You must also realize and come to terms with the fact that you cannot predict and prepare for every possible scenario you may find yourself in. There will be times during and even after training, where you or your dog are faced with a situation that you were not prepared for and there will be a reaction. And that’s okay. You must not have the expectation that your dog will never react again, because in a suburban, densely populated world that is just not realistic.

Our dog’s reactivity also triggers our own emotions. We may feel embarrassed, angry, and frustrated when our dogs react out in public and this causes us to behave in ways that are not helpful to the situation. While you are working to reduce your dog’s reactivity you must also work to change the way you think about the situation. Your dog is struggling and needs help.


The skills you need to build in yourself:

·       Smooth leash or long line handling – Whether you’re trying to avoid a reaction or deal with your dog while they are reacting, fumbling with the leash or long line makes the situation worse and more dangerous for both you and your dog. Your leash mechanics should be practiced at home and in places free from triggers before you take it out in the real world around triggers.

 ·       Smooth food delivery – Timing and reinforcement placement i.e; in the dog’s mouth or on the ground can make or break the effectiveness of your training. Food delivery mechanics should be practice at home and in places free from triggers before you take it out in the real world around triggers.

  • Timing of your marker i.e clicker or verbal – When you are working on building a behavior or counter-conditioning your dog around his triggers you will need something that communicates that a behavior hes done is correct or in the case of counter-conditioning, that the trigger he just saw earned him something special.

  • Food delivery through a muzzle- Having to deliver food to your dog through a muzzle is cumbersome and should be well rehearsed before trying it around triggers.

 ·       Smooth direction changes with the leash or long line – When you need to abruptly change directions you do not want to trip or wrap yourself or your dog up with the leash or lone-line, this makes the situation dangerous for both of you. Your leash mechanics while you make left, right, and 180 degree turns as well as watching where you’re going so you don’t back into something or run your head into a low tree branch, must be practiced at home and in places free from triggers before you take it out in the real world around triggers.

 ·       Clear, consistent communication with your dog – Your verbal cues must always be the same word said in as much of the same way as humanly possible. Our emotional state changes the sound of our voice which can make it a challenge to say the verbal cue the way we trained it with our dog. For this reason you may decide to train with a whistle or anything else that sounds the same consistently. This is also why clickers can be far better at communicating to our dogs exactly what, why, when, and how.  


The skills you need to build in your dog: Keep in mind that once your dog is over-threshold all trained behavior breaks down. Emotional behavior trumps learned behavior! This is why counter-conditioning is a very important piece of behavior modification. Counter-conditioning addresses the emotions.

 ·       Name recognition – The goal with name recognition is that it is one way in which you can get your dog’s attention on you and away from the trigger. After you have your dog’s attention you need to provide more communication by choosing any of the other skills discussed below.

·       Eye contact – The goal with eye contact is that it is another way in which you can get your dog’s attention on you and away from the trigger. It differs from name recognition in that it can be trained to be sustained eye contact around distractions.

·       Recall – The goal with a strong recall is to be able to bring your dog close to you, especially if you are using a long-line. The recall can and should then be paired with any of the other skills.

·       Stay (any position) – If you are far enough away from the trigger that your dog is not over-threshold it will be handy to have your dog remain still while you watch the trigger go by and work on counter-conditioning.

 ·       Get behind – The goal of get behind is to have your dog positioned behind you if a trigger is approaching. This works best with dogs who are fearful and do not display barking, lunging and pulling. For dog’s that bark, lunge, and pull, keeping them moving away from the trigger is a smarter option than trying to stay put.

 ·       Find it – The goal with find it is to keep your dog’s attention on the ground searching for food as you quickly move away from the trigger. The food you toss on the ground for find it must be done quickly, frequently, and in such a way that you are able to keep moving.

 ·       Quick direction changes – The goal with changing directions quickly is to turn your dog around and moving away from the trigger as fast as you can.

 ·       Muzzle acceptance -  If your dog has a bite history, it is irresponsible to bring them out in public without the safety of a muzzle, especially because you can not predict what others or their dogs will do.


These are just some of many useful skills to have when working in the real world with a reactive dog. So are you ready to learn how to implement all of this and get to work solving your own dog’s real world reactivity? Contact me to set up your first consult!







Jamie Flanders