Tools for the Difficult Dog

A portrait of me and my puppy, taking a walk in spring 2013:

Vesper scans the street, hypervigilant, jerking from one end of her leash to the other. Her tail is high and stiff. I hold on for dear life, her forty-five pounds of muscle almost more than I can manage. She occasionally stops to sniff or squat but if she spends too long I hurry her up–I have to get to work, after all, and this isn’t exactly a pleasant part of my day.

A woman in a headscarf pushes a stroller around the corner of the block ahead of us. Vesper’s neck stiffens. The hair on her shoulders and then on her rump stands up and her body goes tight. She barks once. I pull on her leash to get her moving, but she’s not going anywhere she doesn’t want to go. She yanks the leash, her front feet coming up off the ground, her tail wagging and her hair standing up everywhere. She barks and barks and barks at the woman, pausing in her pulling occasionally to spin in a quick playful circle. The woman gives me a horrified look and hurries past. Vesper follows her from the end of her leash. Her wheezing and shouting gets a dog down the street barking, and V whips around, lunges to the end of her leash in that direction, her considerable strength straining against my poor shoulders, and starts a new volley of barking, the wagging now stopped. The jovial look has gone out of her eye; now she’s ready to kill.

I drag her backwards to our house. This wasn’t actually that bad of a walk.

If you identify with this, you might have a reactive dog. Some reactivity is pretty normal–most get a little crazy at the sight of a squirrel, for example–and every dog has different triggers. But if you find yourself walking a wild beast that lunges and barks at everything, it can feel overwhelming and like there’s nothing you can do.

The ol’ lunge-and-bark.

But that’s not true at all.

Whether it’s fear-based or simply because your dog gets overexcited, reactivity is a fairly common issue. Here are some of the tools, physical and otherwise, that can help you navigate the world with your dog.

A front-clip harness. It’s not universal, but a lot of dogs are more reactive when they’re on a leash. Often simply switching to a front-clip harness helps a leash-reactive dog cool their head enough to start to respond to their handler’s cues.

Warning gear. It’s amazing how many people are honestly clueless. If your dog really needs space, make it clear by flagging your dog with a yellow ribbon on his leash, dog-people code for “my dog is reactive,” or make it even clearer with a leash that actually says what your dog needs. They’re available on Amazon and not too expensive.

This is Vesper's leash.
This is Vesper’s leash.

High-value treats. Vesper and I have been together for four years and I still don’t go anywhere without Cookie Pocket. (It is exactly what it sounds like–a pocket full of cookies.) I reward the behavior I want to see more of, so when she makes a good choice–like looking at me instead of staring down an oncoming dog–I reward the heck out of her.

Forethought. If your dog reacts to other dogs, don’t go out for your walk at 6:30 when everyone else gets home from work and takes their dogs out for their nightly walk! Wait a little while and go out when it’s quieter. If your dog gets nervous in crowds, don’t take her to the block party.

Your voice. I’ve had folks with dogs in tow stop and try to chat about the nice weather with me while I’m wrestling my slavering, screaming, muzzled dog who’s in the middle of a reactive meltdown. I’ve learned to speak up sooner rather than later. “I’m sorry, my dog is reactive. Could you please give us some space?”

Patience and determination. Don’t give up. Don’t do it! It can be a long road, but you absolutely have options. I found that once I stopped treating my dog’s reactivity like an emergency and started seeing it as the emotional meltdown that it was–kind of like a little kid’s temper tantrum–I got a lot more sympathetic and patient. Your dog is telling you they can’t handle their feelings. They’re not being jerks on purpose.

Thoughtful, compassionate and positive training. This is the most important tool of all, and it’s a little too complex to put in a blog post. But contact me at and we can work out a plan. I did it with my wild child, Vesper–I’m sure you can do it too!

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