Is your dog reactive? Try this trainer’s super simple game to help them relax

Jack Russell Terrier lunging while on leash
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It takes a lot of time, patience, and consistency to learn how to calm a reactive dog and help them feel more comfortable around their particular set of triggers.

As a pet parent, dealing with reactivity can feel incredibly challenging — particularly when you and your canine companion are out and about. 

Whether it's lunging at people or barking at other dogs, encounters with unfamiliar people and animals can feel very threatening if your dog struggles with anxiety. 

It's something that accredited and certified dog trainer, Lyz Knight, has struggled with in her own life with her dog Molly. 

"My dog Molly can be fearful or reactive when she encounters unfamiliar people, especially if those unfamiliar people are also carrying strange items or making a lot of noise," she explains.

After recently moving to a new neighborhood with a lot of new people that Molly was suspicious of, Knight decided to play a game with her to help her relax.

"The Engage-Disengage game has two levels," Knight explains. Level 1 is Engage, where I mark and reward Molly for engaging in some way with something in her environment."

This could be something as simple as your dog looking towards a person or object that's captured their attention, or flicking their ear towards a weird sound.

"Level 2 is Disengage, where I mark and reward her for disengaging from that thing and turning to check in with me instead," says Knight.

When doing this with your own dog, you can switch between the two levels depending on the intensity of a distraction or how close something is.

For example, your dog may need to be further away from their trigger in order to be able to give you their attention and be successful at the game. 

"In Molly's case, she was able to move from Engage to Disengage within just a few repetitions of the game — the trigger of "unfamiliar person moving patio furniture" started to turn into a cue to check in with me!," says Knight.

When it comes to the Engage-Disengage game, Knight explains that this is one of many strategies we might use when helping nervous, fearful, or reactive dogs to develop more positive feelings around triggers.

Reactivity takes time, patience, and consistency to deal with. If you feel you and your pup would benefit from some extra support, we recommend reaching out to a qualified dog trainer for help.

Kathryn Rosenberg
Freelance writer

Kathryn is a freelance writer who has spent the past three years dividing her writing time between her two great loves - pets and health and wellness. When she’s not busy crafting the perfect sentence for her features, buying guides and news pieces, she can be found hanging out with a very mischievous Cocker Spaniel and a super sassy cat, drinking copious amounts of Jasmine tea and reading all the books.