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The Space Between Reacting and Thinking - Why It's Important for Your Barking or Lunging Dog

If you have a dog who over reacts on leash, pulls on leash, barks at the littlest noises, or want to go after things quickly-

This post is for you!

Every dog that struggles with leash pulling, to not bark, not lunge on leash, not go running after wildlife, people, cars, or other dogs is struggling with impulse control.

Something happens, and they react.

There is no thought in between, it essentially just happens to your dog.

It's an emotional experience that takes over your dog which is why when you tell them to stop, or try to get their attention it's almost like they can't hear you.

Most likely they actually can't!

I was working with a beautiful year old German Shepard who struggled a lot with this. He listened beautifully to commands in the home, and around the yard, but out on a walk he would start to pull on leash and mentally disconnect from his people. Almost as if they were on two different walks.

The Shepard looked very alert and like he was just waiting for something to pop out of the bushes.

So it's no surprise that when a neighbor rounded the corner or a dog appeared walking along the road as well, that this Shepard was ready to react!

He had been showing signs of it from the second he walked out the door.

His body language was more alert and tense.

He had trouble listening to commands, and was excessively pulling forward.

It was difficult to get his attention, and if his people were still for too long on a walk he would start to whine and pace.

When a squirrel, or a person, or another dog appeared to him out on a walk he followed a very familiar sequence

  1. Look

  2. Lock

  3. Load

  4. Lunge

This is a sequence commonly heard in dog training circles when discussing dogs that are hunting, becoming reactive in the house, or reactive on or off leash.

What's great about this is it gives you the chance to see the pattern happening to your dog so that you can change it.

We humans actually follow a very similar pattern although it might not be so physically apparent as it is in our dogs. When you feel overwhelmed by an emotion, let's say you have to go give a speech or presentation and you are not prepared.

Your pattern might look like

  1. Panic! (racing thoughts)

  2. Sweaty Palms

  3. Racing Heart

  4. Tense muscles, tongue grows sluggish

  5. Walking on stage and having trouble speaking or getting the right words out

If you have no preparation or training it's going to be impossible to change this pattern, and it actually might get worse with continued exposure.

The same is true for our dogs!

If they are struggling with an overwhelming emotion and we don't introduce pre-trained skills that we can apply to this exceptionally difficult circumstance when they are ready nothing will change.

In either case we need to start adding in a breath of fresh air.

Sometimes quite literally!

And we need to practice in a learning environment, like a quiet classroom with no distractions, before we will be ready to go on stage and do the speech. That way we have the skills we need in the challenging situation.

So for your dog you can practice skills that teach them how to calm down even when excited. Play is a great way to introduce this concept. Maybe you squeak a tennis ball and then work on a skill that patterns your dog to get calmer and calmer.

Once your dog can do this you can start to bring it slowly and from a distance to The Challenging Circumstance.

So that their pattern starts to look like

  1. Look (treat)

  2. Look (treat)

  3. Look, Look Away (treat)

  4. Look, Look Away, Walk Away and go on with life

Paying attention to the fact that Lock, Load, and Lunge have been eliminated from the pattern. There are now little spaces being offered in this pattern that allow your dog to take a breath and think rather than just react in the only way they know how to, in response to The Challenging Circumstance.

Which is the main goal. Once your dog can think, they can work with you, listen to you for guidance, and become motivated to do what you want them to. But it all starts with breaking up that pattern.

Just like for the human example of giving a speech. You may incorporate breathing exercises or interrupt thought patterns that don't serve you in the moments going up to and during a presentation.

But we all need the skills, the practice, and a good environment to learn to make it happen.

I hope this was helpful and I would love to hear about your experiences (human or dog) with this concept of learning to think rather than react in challenging situations!

Valerie works with dogs of all breeds and temperaments and focuses on teaching dogs to want to make the choices that we want them to without causing conflict. For their sake as well as yours!

She believes in building deep trust and connection with the animals she works with and has found that this is always the final ingredient in a successful partnership.

To find out more about Valerie you can visit her About page at

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