Stranger reactivity

Reactivity to strangers is a common behavioral concern seen in shelter animals. Reactivity is a term used for a combination of behaviors such as lunging, barking, and growling. This protocol is designed for dogs that choose fight over flight when faced with a challenging situation. For fearful dogs who avoid humans, see Fear of Strangers Protocol.

Classical counterconditioning

The first step in this protocol is to create a positively conditioned emotional response to the sight of strangers. If you do not already have an established relationship with the dog, you can use yourself as the stranger while the dog is in the kennel. The dog doesn’t have to perform any particular behavior, they can be standing, sitting, laying down, etc. as long as they’re not reacting. Start by clicking and feeding the dog any time it looks at you. Do not try to hand the dog the treats directly, instead, try to slide them under the kennel door. Once the dog is comfortable with you, repeat the process with new strangers but at a safe enough distance where the dog is not reacting to the stranger.

Step 1: Dog looks in the direction of the person.

Step 2: Handler click’s the clicker.

Step 3: Handler feeds the dog a HIGH value treat.

Step 4: Repeat every time the dog looks in the direction of the stranger.

Step 5: Limit the session to 10-15 minutes before letting the dog walk away and do something else. End the session on a positive note.

Step 6: Repeat over several days with a small number of people (use the same 1 or 2 people at first).

Step 7: When the dog begins to wag their tail at the sight of the stranger, you’ve created a CER+.


  • Don’t allow the stranger to approach!

  • If the person is coming towards you, practice the steps briefly before moving to another location.

  • If the dog is fixated on the person, you’re probably too close. Move further away and try again.

  • If the dog is not eating the treats, the dog may be too stressed, you may be in an environment that is too distracting, or you haven’t built enough trust with the dog yet. Don’t force the dog to take the treat. End your session early before a negative incident occurs.

Engage to disengage

Once the dog has a positively conditioned emotional response to the sight of people at a distance, you can begin to work on engage to disengage. This protocol works similarly to counterconditioning in that the dog is creating a positive association to the sight of the stranger. The difference is that with this protocol, we’re waiting to mark and reinforce the dog until they look back at the handler.

Step 1: Start by following the counterconditioning steps above.

Step 2: Repeat a few times to get your dog in the mode.

Step 3: Let your dog notice the stranger but wait 1-5 seconds for the dog to look away.

Step 4: When the dog looks away from the stranger, click and feed your dog.

Step 5: Repeat the disengage steps several times.

Step 6: End the session after 10-15 minutes. Praise the dog and let them get away from the stranger by jogging away.

Step 7: Repeat the process over several days while gradually decreasing the distance between the dog and the stranger.

*Make sure to not go too far, too fast. The dog needs to remain under threshold to progress. This behavior will need to be generalized to people walking in addition to standing and sitting.

Muzzle Training

Once the dog is successfully able to be within 6’ of a stranger without reacting, you’re ready to start training in preparation for meeting strangers. If the dog has a bite history or there is a chance the dog may bite, it’s important to acclimate the dog to a muzzle for the safety of the stranger. Remember, once a dog learns a behavior works, they’ll continue to do it. If the dog bites the stranger and the stranger goes away, they learn that it works.

See Muzzle Training guide for step by step details on muzzle acclimation.

Hand Target

Teaching the dog to touch the palm of a person’s hand with their nose is a great way to teach the dog to interact in small doses with strangers. First, teach the hand target using your own hand before attempting to practice with strangers.

Step 1: Rub a smelly treat against the palm of your right hand, making your hand smell yummy.

Step 2: Hide the treat behind your back with your left hand and show your right hand to your dog – keep it at their eye level.

Step 3: As soon as your dog sniffs your hand, say “Yes!” or click and give the dog the treat you were hiding.

Step 4: Repeat the above steps switching hands each time so your dog learns to target both hands.

Step 5: As your dog is successful, begin saying the cue phrase of “Say Hi”, before presenting your hand. Repeat several times. When the dog is successfully fluent in the behavior (responding to the cue 90% of the time), begin asking the dog to sit and stay before walking away from the dog, saying the cue phrase, and presenting your hand. Repeat so that the dog begins to travel to the hand target.

Go say "Hi"

This protocol combines the Hand Target “Say Hi” along with a recall away from the stranger. In the initial stages of training, if you’re concerned the dog may bite, muzzle the dog prior to practicing. Use a stranger who’s familiar to the dog to reduce the likelihood of the dog going over threshold.

Step 1: Start with the dog on leash and the “stranger” standing a few feet in front of the dog.

Step 2: Have the stranger present their hand before saying the cue phrase “Say Hi!”

Step 3: When the dog touches the hand, click and encourage the dog to come back to you for the treat. You may need to move backwards to encourage the dog to come to you. PRAISE LAVISHLY!

Step 4: Repeat several times.

Step 5: When the dog fully understands the game, start having the stranger stand further away and repeat.

Step 6: End the session after 10-15 minutes.

Make sure to practice with the same person multiple times over several days. Have the person stand and sit down to generalize the behavior. Practice with new people only after the dog is successful with the same person in a variety of circumstances. Do not change environments until the dog can perform the behavior with multiple people.

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