Dog owners! Trainer reveals how you might be escalating your dog’s reactivity and how to stop this

Dog snoozing on the sofa
(Image credit: Getty)

Many dog owners unknowingly escalate their pet's reactivity by using certain techniques. Don’t worry if this is you, especially if it’s never been highlighted to you or you've never been told otherwise. But learning how to promote a calmer mindset in your furry friend and putting an end to unwanted reactions can really enhance your relationship with your canine.

One common mistake highlighted by Bethany Johnson, seasoned dog trainer and owner of Walking Dog Training, is the use of food and toys as distractions during walks. While keeping your pup’s attention with their favorite dog treats may seem like a helpful strategy, it can actually nurture an excited mindset in your dog. Constantly stimulating your dog with treats or toys can keep them in a state of heightened excitement, leading to reactive behaviors.

Reactivity often arises from overexcitement and overstimulation in dogs - you can read more about this in our list of three causes for reactivity in dogs. In today's world, where many dogs are encouraged by these triggers, it's crucial to reconsider our approach. Instead of using distractions, such as the best puppy toys or food rewards, to redirect their focus, it's essential to help them practice a calmer mindset.

Johnson discusses this in an Instagram post which we have included below and you can also read on to find out more.

To combat moments of excessive excitement, Johnson recommends giving your dog a job that encourages a calmer state of mind. Tasks like heeling on walks, following the "place" command indoors, or practicing the "down" command in new environments can help your dog tap into their calmer mindset.

Instead of relying on food or toys as fuel for an amped-up mindset, focus on giving your dog a job and teaching them to refrain from behaviors like barking or pulling during walks. This approach helps deescalate their excitement and encourages them to make better decisions from a calmer state. Need evidence to show that giving your dog a job is actually helpful? Read this owner’s very own experience: I gave my working dog a job and it transformed our relationship.

Consider practical examples for applying this approach. For dogs prone to fence fights in the backyard, prioritize calm coexistence rather than constant zoomies. Focus on commands like recall and the "place" command to promote a more serene environment. Similarly, if your dog tends to react on walks, emphasize heeling over too much free sniffing time. Giving your dog a job to focus on often results in a calmer demeanor. 

The Walking Dog Trainers also recommend using an e-collar to de-escalate dogs when they're overstimulated. However,  it's important to address the controversy surrounding this tool. The use of e-collars is a topic of debate, as concerns about cruelty and potential harm to dogs have been raised. Therefore, alternative methods that prioritize positive reinforcement and clear communication should be considered.

Ultimately, the goal is to shift the focus from your dog always looking at you to the type of mindset they are practicing. By returning to basics and letting your dog practice walking beside you without constant games or treats, you can help them develop a calmer mindset and reduce reactivity.

Jessica Downey
Staff Writer

With over a year of writing for PetsRadar, Jessica is a seasoned pet writer. She joined the team after writing for the sister site, Fit&Well for a year. Growing up with a lively rescue lurcher kindled her love for animal behavior and care. Jessica holds a journalism degree from Cardiff University and has authored articles for renowned publications, including LiveScience, Runner's World, The Evening Express, and Tom's Guide. Throughout her career in journalism she has forged connections with experts in the field, like behaviorists, trainers, and vets. Through her writing, Jessica aims to empower pet owners with accurate information to enhance their furry companions' lives.