Understand why your dog barks at other dogs, and find out how to stop it
Updated: Jul 15, 2021
Having a dog who barks at and pulls towards other dogs on walks really sucks. You worry about what people think, you get embarrassed each time they have a meltdown, and you wonder why your dog is doing this in the first place.
Dog trainers call this ‘reactivity’, but you may have also heard terms like ‘leash aggression’. Regardless, it’s an incredibly common behaviour problem that doesn’t have to ruin your walks.
I’m going to answer some common questions about reactivity, and help you train your dog to stop barking and ignore other dogs on walks.
What is Reactivity?
Reactivity is a common term that means your dog overreacts to normal, everyday situations. Whether it’s a person, dog, cyclist, runner, or even a cat, your dog is ‘reactive’ if they react unusually intensely to the situation. Usually this means barking, growling, lunging or pulling towards them, and even snapping or biting.
Often people will label their dog as ‘aggressive’ or ‘protective’ when they do these things, but there’s more going on here than that.
These behaviours mean that your dog is experiencing very intense emotions, and they’re trying to cope with those overwhelming feelings by doing things that make them feel better. More often than not, they learn that barking and lunging works for them! It gets them what they want. But what do they want?
That all depends on why your dog is reactive to start with.
Why is my dog reactive?
Reactivity often develops in adolescence - your dog’s teenage phase - which starts when your dog is around 5 months old. This is when your dog has finished forming their initial ideas about the world, and now they’re going through a lot of physiological changes. They’re getting larger and stronger, experiencing new hormones, and dealing with a lot of emotions.
They also tend to have what’s called a ‘fear period’ or ‘fear phase’ in adolescence. This is a short period (around 2 weeks) where your dog is particularly suspicious and cautious of things they were previously completely comfortable with. For instance, they might bark at the bin you pass on your walk every day, or growl at your friend who’s just grown a nice new beard.
Essentially, adolescent dogs have big feelings. They’re particularly susceptible to feeling very worried or very excited, which leads to some big behaviours too.
The reason most dogs become reactive is down to one of two things:
They’re fearful of other dogs because they had limited experiences of other dogs as a puppy, or have had a particularly negative experience. They bark and lunge towards other dogs to try and make them move away or leave. The fearful dog is reactive on-lead, and either reactive or very scared and avoidant when off the lead.
They’re frustrated by other dogs because they usually get to meet every dog they see, and now they can’t. They bark and pull on their lead because they’re so excited they just can’t handle not being able to say hello, and they desperately want to get closer. The frustrated dog is often fine with other dogs off the lead, but doesn’t listen to you and might even be a little rude or over the top when they play.
Sometimes, your dog is fearful and frustrated. The mixture of positive and negative feelings causes conflict, which you can imagine like two gears in your dog’s brain grinding against one another. One gear says, “I’m really worried about this, I don’t think this is a good idea” whilst the other says, “I really want to make friends with them, let’s go say hi!”.
The result is a dog who is insecure and under-confident with dogs they don’t know, usually preferring to sneak up from behind for a sniff but very anxious if the other dog tries to sniff back. Generally, conflicted dogs have a circle of friends that they’re calm and happy with, but they struggle to make new ones.
It’s easy to look back over your dog’s life and try to find the moment it all went wrong, but remember: you did the best you could with the information and resources you had at the time. The best thing to do now is work on how to change it.
How do I train my dog to stop barking at other dogs?
It’s important to avoid training methods that make your dog uncomfortable, in pain, or worried. This includes tools like slip leads, choke chains, e-collars, prong collars, and ‘no-pull’ harnesses, and techniques like hitting your dog when they bark, or pulling sharply on the lead. Adding more ‘big feelings’ onto a dog who already can’t cope with their emotions tends to make their reactivity worse: they’ll start barking from even further away, or they’ll become more intense in their behaviour.
It’s vital to work with a qualified dog behaviourist and trainer to address your dog’s reactivity to make sure you’re actually addressing the root of the problem. That’s why I offer free phone consultations, one on one coaching, and behaviour consultations to help people address their dog’s individual behaviour problems
As a dog trainer, I focus on how you can teach your dog what you want them to do, rather than always telling them what you don’t want them to do. This helps them learn much faster than just telling them “no”, because you can offer them choices of what to do instead.
Understand your dog’s ‘triggers’: what they react to, and how close they have to be before your dog starts barking and lunging. It may be that particular breeds, sizes, or sexes of dog make your dog react more intensely. Or perhaps it’s particular places (e.g. near home) or times (e.g. when it’s dark). This helps you understand how to make your dog more comfortable.
Socialising your dog by simply exposing them to more and more dogs won’t help at this point. Instead of seeking out other dogs, walk at quieter times in quieter places to avoid meeting other dogs up close. Any time you do see a dog when you’re out, it’s important to move out of view or create as much space as you can in order to help your dog stay calm.
It's also important to avoid high-intensity exercise like playing with other dogs, doggy daycare, and fetch. These kinds of activities are intense and often release adrenaline, which can make it harder for our dog to relax and make good choices.
Try this for the next 2 weeks and see if you notice a change. You should find that this helps your dog de-stress, lowering their adrenaline and cortisol levels so that they can cope more easily when they next meet another dog.
Enrichment is exercise for your dog’s brain. As much as they need physical stimulation in the form of walks and playtime, dogs also need mental stimulation to help them manage their emotions and calm down.
Things that encourage licking and chewing are particularly effective in soothing your dog. Lickimats, Kongs, and chews are a great way to encourage your dog to try these naturally calming behaviours. But you don’t have to buy things to give your dog this mental exercise. Simple games like scattering food in the garden, stuffing it in toilet roll tubes for your dog to shred, or hiding it in a scrunched up blanket for them to sniff out work just as well.
Take your dog’s favourite treats out on walks with you to reward them every time they see a dog. As soon as they look at a dog, say “yes!” and give them a treat before they even have a chance to think about barking. Keep doing this as long as the dog is in view.
If your dog starts to bark that means it's too much for them, and the other dog is too close. Make a mental note not to get so close next time, but continue to reward your dog for being around their trigger - no matter what they're doing!
This won't teach them to bark at other dogs. Instead it teaches them that other dogs are a really good thing to see, and it's best to focus on you for a reward instead of barking or lunging.
As you practice this over time, your dog will gradually worry less about the other dog and focus more on you. If they’re able to look at another dog and look back at you without barking, that’s when you know you’re starting to make a big difference in their training.
This works much better than asking your dog to sit and wait as a dog walks by, or telling them “no” when they do something you dislike, because it’s working on the root of the problem: your dog’s feelings. But remember, this is only the very first step in helping your dog. The next stages depend very much on your dog's personality, history, and emotions.
Dogs usually bark and lunge at other dogs because they're experiencing some big feelings, but they're definitely not trying to be dominant, naughty, or protective. They don't understand that their behaviour is 'wrong'. They're just trying to make themselves feel better.
The best thing you can do is take a breath, give them some space from their trigger, and work with an accredited dog trainer to help you build your dog's confidence and teach them more appropriate ways of expressing their emotions.
WoofWHYs is a series where I answer your dog behaviour and training questions. If you've ever thought, "Why does my dog do that?" then this is where you'll find out! Feel free to get in touch with your own WoofWHYs for a chance to be featured next time.