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Canine Behavior/Dog Growls/Leash Reactivity



Thank you in advanced for your help! We have two dogs, they are both rescues. Our first one, Brooklyn, is about 3 and she is a boxer/lab mix. Our second, Gibson, is about a year old and he is a pit bull. We have had them both since they were each around 4 to 6 months. We have a few issues we are trying to iron through with them and have received a lot of mixed advice on how to handle. I am hoping you may be able to shed some light on how to move forward.

Brooklyn’s only prevalent issue is her leash reactivity. She was attacked by two boxers when we lived at our apartment complex about two years ago now. She hasn’t been the same on a leash since. Before being attacked she could approach any dog, played in the dog park wonderfully. To the point where if a fight did break out or things got escalated she would run away from it and come to me without me even having to call her. After she was attacked she started becoming involved in the escalated issues at the dog park or she would even be the one to escalate. We have since stopped going. On a leash she became reactive to almost every dog she saw. From about 25ft away she would start to react and bark at the other dog. I can get her under control about 85 percent of the time. We went to a leash reactivity class. It helped a little but not a whole lot. It also seems to depend on the day for her. Sometimes we can go for a walk and see three dogs and she doesn’t even look at them. Sometimes we go and see another dog and its instant reaction from 25ft away. Any advice you offer on how to better handle this would be great. Oh and it also worse in our neighbor hood. She seems to be more reactive to dogs when we are within the block of our house, most of the time I cannot get her to listen to me when we are that close to our house.

Gibson has a few different issues. Our main concern is his growling at us. We have gotten the growling under control with his toys (I think). He used to growl if one of us would try to take a toy from him. Not every time but sometimes. We started using the word “leave it” every time and that seemed to help. He would never snap at us if we would actually go and take it was just a “under the breath” growl and he would let us take the toy. Our bigger concern is when he is sleeping and or resting. If we try to move him when he is sleeping/resting it is world war 3. He will growl and snap. We have made adjustments to getting him to move when sleeping but my concern is the fact that he would even do that in the first place. He has never bitten one of us over it, he does have good bite inhibition as he did get my hand one time but didn’t bite down what so ever (no blood) and released right away when he realized he actually got my hand. He is also great at playing and biting. If you wrestle around with him he doesn’t bite at all, if he does get your hand in his mouth he basically just gums it. Like moves your hand out of his mouth with his tongue and we are make sure to tell him “good boy” when he is playing great like that. Do you have any advice on how to approach the growling when sleeping/resting? Our approach now is to just gets treats out and make him come to us that way. But I feel like we are only rewarding him for not moving in the first place since he won’t come when we call him initially if he is resting or sleeping. His few other issues include barking and other dog interactions but I can ask those in a separate form if that is ok? I feel like I have gotten too lengthy already!
Thank you for your help!

You have two complex situations with each of your dogs and they must be addressed individually, on and off the "street".  This will make counter conditioning and day to day living more difficult but it must be done in that manner.

The first situation:  counter conditioning is not desensitization: it is changing the dog's fight/flight reaction BEFORE the dog is fully involved.  This means: when another dog approaches, you immediately begin to walk in medium size circles while using an up beat tone of voice "Let's go, yay, oh now calm down, let's go" until the dog is visibly calm.  Stop.  Wait.  Dog will most likely "sit" or "sniff" ("go shopping" as John Fisher used to say), then go forward.  Given the trauma that produced this dog's problem, it may take weeks or even months for the counter conditioning to work.  Obviously you CANNOT have the other dog WITH YOU on these walks since the other dog will acquire a fight/flight reaction also OR will even aggravate the one the primary subject is experiencing if the primary subject perceives your other dog as lower in social hieararchy.

Second situation:  some dogs growl during play and that means nothing except: ONE NEVER REPEATS any "play" experience that elicits a growl unless one can stop the dog in the middle of the "play" experience, keep the toy, and walk away with NO reaction from the dog except acquiescence. NEVER play ANY "game" with this dog that gets him over excited to the point where he is using his mouth.  "Play" between dogs or between dog and human is not what we perceive between Human children.  "Play" is fun, yes, and healthy social interaction given a proper social hierarchy, but it is ALWAYS a test of strength AND a test of social hierarchy.  The Pit Bull uses its mouth; the dog appears to have bite inhibition to some extent.  I wouldn't trust it.  His other issues "barking and other dog interactions" are not something that can be addressed in a TEXT BOX.  I can't see anything from here.

Regarding his behavior upon being awakened, addressed, touched, while sleeping: there is an old adage, "Let sleeping dogs lie" for a reason.  Anything could have created this sleep disturbance fight/flight reaction including food allergy, past experience, strong startle impulse that is inherited, incorrect management by owner.  If a dog has a problem with sleep disturbance, one creates a conditioned response, slowly and deliberately over weeks, to approaching that dog when it is lying down, whether visibly asleep or not (a dog can appear to be sleeping and yet not be).  That approach is a signal: a special word, a low whistle, used every single time you pass the dog when he is lying down and relaxed: use the word or whistle, approach ON A CURVE, make NO direct eye contact, DO NOT USE HIS NAME, do not attempt a "recall" using his name unless you wake him in another manner from another room so that he is curious and comes voluntarily to see what's happening.  

Both your dogs have some serious issues and I think you need a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) NOT A DOG WHISPERER WHATEVER YOU DO, OR ANY DOG TRAINER.  In NY there are many CAABS.  Each dog must be evaluated and observed as an individual in situations that cause problem behaviors and each dog must be evaluated for placement in social hierarchy.  A behavior modification program to put both dogs at "ease" should be implemented.  I can't ethically do that because I can't see your dogs.

To find a CAAB: if you are close to NYC, call the Animal Medical Center.  If you are upstate, call Cornell Veterinary College.  Otherwise, check the following lists:

What you MUST AVOID at all cost: any behavior on your part or experience that provokes aggression from the dog(s), whether toward other dogs or toward you.

Canine Behavior

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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