How to Introduce a Reactive Dog To a New Person

Research indicates that 10% to 15% of dogs exhibit reactive behavior. Raising a reactive dog and dealing with constant judgment and the potential legal ramifications stemming from your dog's unwanted behavior can be very challenging. While it's commonly believed that having a dog will bring great joy, many dog owners, those of reactive dogs, often discover that the reality can be quite different. Together, let's delve into the most effective practices to introduce a reactive pet to new individuals and other animals, and to foster harmonious interactions.

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Introducing a Reactive Dog to New People: Step-by-Step Guide

Have your dog first meet the person outside

First impressions are everything. When meeting a stranger, a reactive dog feels the safest when they have the option to maintain a certain distance. Thus, it’s advisable to have your dog meet with a houseguest outside of your home, perhaps for a brief walk, in the beginning. This will greatly reduce your dog’s anxiety when they first meet new people.

Let the person walk alongside to encourage your dog to warm up

Instruct the newcomer to stroll past your dog from a safe distance a few times. Rather than allowing the person to approach you and your dog, guide your dog slowly toward that person. At the beginning of the walk, ask the guest to completely ignore your dog. After a few minutes, ask the person to toss your dog a treat without making eye contact.

Avoid having the newcomer pet your dog during this first meeting. However, if the dog is able to stay calm, the guest may ask your dog to follow some basic commands and reward the dog with more treats.

Meet the new guest at home

After your dog has become calmer in the presence of the visitor, it’s time to move on to the next phase: inviting the guest to come inside your home and interact with your dog.

When the guest arrives, suggest that they throw a treat down the hall, or into a separate room, so that your pet can move away from the guest to fetch the treat. Repeat this step several times.

Make sure your guest avoids sudden movements or making eye contact with the dog.

Motivate your dog to reduce the distance using treats and games

Once your dog has grown accustomed to this, get the new person to drop the treat at a spot midway between them and your dog. Now, the dog will need to move closer to the person to reclaim the treat. Practice this game a few times, each time placing the treat slightly closer to the person.

If your dog feels comfortable approaching the guest directly for more treats, wags their tail, or even allows the guest to gently pet them, that’s a positive sign that they have established a positive association with the guest. Using counter conditioning, you may reward your dog here to reinforce positive feelings and good behaviors.

End the game if your dog shows any discomfort or continues to resist approaching the guest after a few rounds. This suggests that they have not been able to establish trust with the newcomer. Have the guest leave and try again another day. Remember to let your dog move at their own comfort level and avoid forcing the interaction.How to Introduce a Reactive Dog To a New Person


What is a Reactive Dog?

Broadly speaking, a reactive dog is a dog that shows an overreaction to normal occurrences and situations. Nervous dogs can easily get stimulated by even the smallest trigger, causing them to suddenly turn vicious, growl, bark, or lunge at the target.

At the core, reactivity is an emotional, and most likely fear-based, reaction. Dogs learn that by reacting to what they are afraid of, either by jumping or biting, they frighten the trigger and make it retreat. Over time, this becomes a learned behavior and eventually develops into a defense mechanism of the dog when they feel trapped.

Signs of Reactivity

Vocal Expressions

When a dog starts to excessively whine, growl, or bark, that’s a clear indication of reactivity. These vocalizations are clear signs of a nervous dog.

Body Language

Watch how your dog reacts when they are feeling frightened or overwhelmed. Typically, a fearful dog displays the following signs:

  • Tail between legs
  • Crouched body
  • Hiding
  • Scratching, lip licking, or yawing
  • Showing teeth
  • White eyes
  • Intense stare
  • Lunging

Be mindful of the external environment that your dog is dealing with, not all nervous signals come from reactivity. Pay attention to the types of situations or triggers that continually associate with your dog’s erratic behaviors.


As a pet parent, your goal should be to analyze your dog's triggers. Frequently it’s a stranger or a new dog. The sight of a mailman, someone with a beard, people wearing hats, or children can cause the dog to start acting dramatically.

Observe the trigger’s movements, whether when it’s approaching, running, or passing, and how it affects your dog’s mood. Ask yourself if there’s a certain threshold distance between your dog and the triggers before they get agitated. Determine how close the target needs to be, or how fast it needs to move before your dog begins to react.

Additionally, dogs may show different responses to the same type of stimuli in different contexts. For example, some dogs tend to become much more reactive when on a leash, in a crowded space, or in a place where many other dogs are around.

What Makes a Dog Reactive?

Introduce a Reactive Dog to a New Person


Genetics may play an important role in the personality of a dog with regard to its physical traits and temperament. For example, Border Collies are playful and energetic while Greyhounds are more laidback.

In addition, puppies habitually take after their parents’ personalities. A puppy can learn “reactivity” by watching his mom. For instance, if the mother barks at strangers, the puppy might think that strangers are a threat and they must react similarly.

Keep in mind that although genetics can influence a dog’s behavior, it’s not the determining factor. Through training, a dog that is genetically predisposed to certain behaviors can become balanced and well-mannered.

Improper socialization

Dogs are amazing at understanding and living with people, better than any other animals. This is due to the fact that they are social animals that can communicate well and can sense tensions.

However, in order for a dog to live comfortably around humans, especially when they meet strangers, training during their puppyhood is critical. By spending time with different kinds of people, they usually learn how to adapt and communicate confidently.

If a dog misses this crucial socialization period when they’re still a puppy, they might have a very hard time trusting and getting used to people as they grow older. Worst yet, they might develop fears of strangers, which is the case with reactive dogs.

History of trauma

Another common factor that causes reactivity in dogs stems from a history of abandonment and abuse.

A rescue dog that experienced traumas in the past can easily develop distress when facing changes. They become nervous and scared when they sense any instability in their environment. This usually derives from conditions they encountered at a younger age such as not having a safe living space or enough food to eat.

Final thoughts

Exercise patience if the training does not show immediate results. By applying steady and positive reinforcements, you can work toward alleviating your dog’s reactive tendencies. If your dog continues to express extreme fear when meeting new people, consult with a dog trainer or a veterinary behaviorist.