Impulse Control with a Reactive Dog


For the most part, Mr. N is a polite little dog. He does not steal food off the table or your hand. He says hi to strangers nicely. He will stop in the midst of chasing a squirrel the majority of the time when you call him. But when he sees another dog walking down the street, he becomes a shrieking banshee. Or he used to anyway.

These days with lots and lots and lots of training, careful management and heightened dog radar, his over-threshold episodes are few and usually due to blind corners or me not being on the other end of the leash. He can go to dog shows and trials and classes without too much trouble. It’s walks where there’s a heightened chance of dogs running amok or on flexi-leashes or screaming at him from behind a fence that causes problems.

Dog Reactivity
Maintaining his stay while a dog walks by ten feet away.

With Mr. N, it’s not a case of being fearful or aggressive. It’s frustration based. He really really wants to say hi to that other dog. If your dog has to be reactive, It’s probably the best form of reactivity to have because at least you don’t have to worry about your dog being frightened or attacking someone. But it also means it’s immensely frustrating because you think if only your dog had some more impulse control, walks wouldn’t be a loud and stressful experience. I am much more sympathetic about his separation anxiety which stems from fear.

A dog trainer asked me what I wanted to achieve in regards to his reactivity. And I said I just wanted him to be able to walk calmly past another dog on the same sidewalk. He does not need to be able to greet dogs calmly on leash because I don’t let him greet dogs on leash anyway. Nor do I want him to. I want there to be a clear delineation between play time and walk/work time.

Until recently, we were still stuck on the opposite sidewalk. It’s kind of a hard gap to bridge as otherwise we would have to be walking in the middle of the street regularly to reduce his threshold distance.

Well this weekend, Mr. N walked past three separate dogs in close quarters. Without barking or lunging and barely a huff. One on a crowded patio and two on wide-ish trails. I was so proud. It was a Holy Grail moment. Mr. N knows how to do a lot of things. He can play the piano. He can clean up his toys and put them in the toy box. He can do a handstand. Nothing. And I mean nothing has come close to the amount of time and effort put towards curbing his leash reactivity. We’ve probably gone through a hundred pounds of treats in his lifetime just on this.

We still have more work to do. It helped that none of the dogs he walked past by were particularly interested in meeting him or barking. And it will be harder in our neighborhood as well as he knows all the spots with dogs that charge the fence when he walks by. But we will get there.

People often think reactive dogs are “bad.” Mr. N tries very hard to be good. And he is a good boy. But now people will see that all the time.





10 Responses

  1. Renee Dobbs

    May 9, 2018 4:18 am

    What methods did you use for impulse control? I have two that need it while walking. One doesn’t like other dogs and is aggressive. The other is like yours and wants to go play with the other dog.

  2. Beth

    May 9, 2018 10:16 am

    What a huge achievement! I know you are really proud of Mr. N, but I hope you’re giving yourself a lot of credit too.

  3. Jana Rade

    May 10, 2018 8:08 am

    Impulse control is one of the most important things one can work on with their dog. Cookie does fantastically with impulse control … unless there is a squirrel. Still didn’t figure that one out.

  4. Pamela

    May 12, 2018 1:03 pm

    Wow, what a brilliant success! Congratulations to both of you.

    Honey’s trainer put us in touch with a neighbor whose dog had the same issue as Mr N. Honey’s job was to be the calm dog as her pup practiced walking by at closer and closer distances. As you noted in your post, it is tough to do when you’re walking in the neighborhood.

    We try to play that role when we see people working with their dogs. Last year, Honey was the practice pup for a Seeing Eye dog in training. But wouldn’t it be cool to have a matchmaker site to pair practice dogs for training? A dog as smart as Mr N would probably have reached your goals for him even faster if you could count on calm practice dogs on your walks.

  5. Beth

    May 13, 2018 7:29 am

    Congratulations! Barley’s fine with walking by other dogs as long as I put her on my other side (she usually walks on my left, but when I see another dog coming, I’ll tell her side and she switches) and we can keep walking–sometimes we have to move a bit off the sidewalk/trail a bit to get a little more space, but it’s not something I ever thought we’d be able to do. Now, with Rye, we’re back at the beginning and just sitting and getting lots of treats while other dogs walk by (or changing directions in the neighborhood). Barley doesn’t object to going back to the basics when we’re with Rye because that involves a lot more treats than just walking nicely beside me 😉

  6. Jan K

    May 18, 2018 3:08 pm

    You are making such great progress with him! It’s so easy to get frustrated with reactivity and not giving up is so important. The way you’re tackling things slowly but surely is really impressive. I have no doubt you’ll get there with the neighborhood dogs too. I like how you said reactive dogs are not bad, it’s really important for people to know that!

  7. Lisa

    May 25, 2018 4:26 am

    Very well done, Mr. N.! Congratulations to both of you! I know how hard it is from my Happy, so this really is a big achievement! Keep going, Mr. N.!


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