Imagine this. 

You’re out for a walk…

Your dog is reactive, and you’ve been working on it for a while. You’ve been making good progress but you’ve still got a ways to go.

All of the sudden your dog’s ears perk up. 

His pace slows. 

He’s spotted something (you know because you’re watching him like a hawk…in fact, you may have run into a few light posts because you’re so busy staring at him for any signs of trouble).

What do you do? 

Well, if you’re like MOST dog owners with a reactive dog, you start scanning the environment, looking for whatever it is that’s captured your dog’s interest. 

You’re thinking to yourself…

Dog trainer, Meagan Karnes walks Malinois while in sight of a reactive dog.

What is it? 

Where is it? 

How can I avoid it? 

And you hunker down, and start preparing for the worst.

Here’s the thing. 

Dogs are MASTERS of body language. And the moment you start scanning the environment…

And your arms tense…

And you’re breathing quickens. 


What they don’t know is that you are nervous about THEIR behavior. You’re nervous about how THEY are going to react.

They just think “Other dog = Mom or Dad is nervous” and then they think “I better be nervous too”. 

And as you start scanning the environment, guess what they are going to do? 

I’ll give you a hint…

They won’t walk calmly by. And they certainly won’t relax.

Listen, if you’ve got a reactive dog, you’ve got to get YOUR behavior in check first. Because the last thing your reactive dog needs is an owner that’s reactive too.

Here are some tips to help you combat your own reactivity on walks.

  1. Look where you are going – Its common for dog owners with reactive dogs to focus all of their attention on the dog at the end of their leash while out for walks. They watch their dog for signs of trouble, and manage their every step. But fixing your focus on your dog eliminates a lot of the important body language cues they need to be successful on their walks. And how can they trust you to guide them through the environment if you’re not even looking at it? If you are staring at your dog, you are in essence, following their lead…worrying when they worry, and reacting when they react. But shouldn’t you be the one leading the way? 
  2. Take a deep breath – If you spot something that might cause your dog to be reactive, the first step is to RELAX. I know, easier said than done, but your dog needs to know you are comfortable around whatever is approaching. Did you know that it is far easier to manage your leash, and actually hold onto your dog if your arms are relaxed? Tension in your upper body actually makes it MORE difficult for you to respond if things should go South. That means the tension you’re feeling… it isn’t serving you. So take a deep breath, focus on making your exhalation longer than your inhalation, and relax your shoulders and arms. And rather than staring at the oncoming person or dog, and contemplating your impending doom, instead plan your route, fix your focus on something along the way and think only about getting there. 
  3. Sing a song – One of my students came up with this idea and I absolutely love it. To get your mind off of the dog or person in the environment as you navigate around them, find a point in the distance, focus on it, and start making your way there…and sing a song in your head as you go. This will help get your mind off of whatever is approaching, and will help shift your energy to a more positive one. 

Working through reactivity is no easy feat. It can be so easy to start becoming reactive to things in the environment right alongside of your dog. 

But in order to help your dog, you’ve got to lead your dog. And you can’t do that if you are tense, scanning, and hyper vigilant. 

So if you’ve got a reactive dog and you find that you’ve become reactive too, it’s time to stop…for your dog’s sake. 

Be the leader your dog needs you to be. Show him you’ve got things under control as he gazes up the leash. And don’t forget to breathe. 

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    2 replies to "Your Dog Needs You: Tips for Walking Your Reactive Dog"

    • Roman

      Hi Meagan,
      I read an article you wrote about the pitbull breed and I felt as if I heard myself talking.
      My name is Roman Dizon and I own calero canine education, you can visit on my Facebook page calero canine education.
      I was thinking of collaborating with a talented dog trainer and writer such as yourself.
      My phone 408-891-9291

    • Lauren

      I am struggling with the balance of watching my reactive dogs for cues here is getting close to threshold and making sure I am the one taking us for a walk and keeping tabs if the environment. I know I need to capture the moment he disengaged from something he finds a trigger but find I do this poorly if I am not looking directly at him most of the time.

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