Training a Reactive Dog to Stop Lunging an Strangers

By: David Codr

Published Date: March 16, 2022

lunges at people

For this West LA dog training session we worked with Boba, a Black Lab rescue dog who is sometimes a little anxious and barks and lunges at people who speak to him.

I had worked with Boba a few times during corona and while he has gotten much better in many regards, he is still reactive to people who speak to him and can be startled into barking when caught off guard.

How to Stop a Dog From Lunging at Unknown People

If you have a dog that is uncomfortable around unknown people or dogs or lunges at people who speak to them, you should check out the free dog behavior modification video below.

Stopping a dog from lunging at people is all about making sure the dog feels comfortable and confident. If the dog’s handler manages the situation by helping the dog move away from things before it gets startled or fearful, it is essentially practicing not reacting to strangers. This is a version of something called BAT or Behavior Adjustment Training and its a great way to help a dog who lunges at people.

The great thing about this exercise to stop dogs from getting upset around people is that it’s pretty easy to do – as long as you can find the right location. You want to make sure its a wide open place that isnt too busy.

I specifically chose a park in Santa Monica that had a lot of green open space and we picked a non peak hours time to meet. Sniffing is a displacement behavior that can calm down many fearful or anxious dogs, so green space is important. Sniffing is also a natural activity that dogs engage in when they arent stressed or upset.

It’s important that you teach your dog to find things before you start trying to do this kind of dog behavior modification. Teaching your dog to “find it” is easy to do, simply show your dog a treat and say “find it” as you toss it into the ground right in front of the dog. When the dog licks it up, say your marker word.

Sometimes it’s best to practice the find it exercise at home when there aren’t any distractions. Once your dog has learned to search for things hearing the “find it” cue, you can preemptively stop your dog from barking or lunging at people by tossing the treats away from whatever it is you know your dog’s going to react to. They key is to do this the instant your dog starts to feel anxious or uncomfortable. If you wait too long, the find it wont work.

Most dogs bark or lunge at people to get them to move away. Before the lunge, dogs will usually give a number of indicators that they are uncomfortable; freezing, breathing heavily or holding their breath, staring with a closed mouth, going from an open mouth to a closed mouth, burying teeth, growling or trying to move away.

If you spot a dog offering any of these indicators, immediately play the find it game or call them away from whatever it is they are looking at. If necessary, you can pull them away on the leash, but this should be your last resort. If you are monitoring the area, you should be able to get your dog to move away when it first notices something.

If you do it right, essentially you’re doing desensitization and counterconditioning simultaneously. I like to oscillate between giving the dog a treat directly into its mouth, the find it exercise and hand targeting or other easy cues. The reason we do the other exercises is so that we have a little bit of time in between them. Tossing the treats on the ground is a great way to stop dog from acting aggressive to people because they often sniff for other things that they detect on the ground when they’re looking for the treat.

I recommended that Boba‘s guardian practice this exercise a couple of times a week in 20 to 30 minute practice sessions. It’s important to not go to long as a dog will get overly tired if you keep at it too long and that can cause him to become crabby or reactive.

Since Boba is most reactive to people who call him by name, I recommended the guardian try to befriend some people who are at the park. If she goes on a regular basis, there’s a good chance she may run into the same people. This will give her an opportunity to explain her situation and ask the person if they could say hi Boba as they pass on future visits to the park.

She will need to make sure she has enough distance between her and the person, but eventually Boba should feel more relaxed and comfortable being around strangers, even if they have the audacity to talk to him, lol.

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This post was written by: David Codr