4 min read

Are you running with a dog that overreacts to distractions such as other dogs, people, cars, etc.? If so, I bet it's causing frustration and stealing joy from your running routine. Running with a reactive dog is more than just frustrating--it's dangerous! 


A dog that barks, lunges, or jumps during a run is a serious safety concern to both the owner and other trail users. Unfortunately, this is the most common problem I see while running with my dog. I've seen dog owners get tripped, pulled, or even worse, lose control and let go of the leash due to their dog’s misbehavior.


Huskey dog pulling on leash


I've trained two dogs to run with me with very different results between the two. My rescue pup, Tater, quickly learned to remain calm and ignore most distractions. Occasionally, she reacts to a small ground animal (if it's close), but overall, 90 percent of our runs are without issue. Hooray! 


On the other hand, my cattle dog, Bailey, struggles tremendously with distractions. Although I've worked with my dogs to stay calm and resist distractions, I still see some signs of anxiety when we're passing another dog that's aggressively barking or lunging at us--and I don't blame her! Because of this, I usually look ahead and try to identify any problematic dogs and put more distance between us or change routes if necessary. This is an excellent offensive practice, but the better solution is to help pet parents find ways to overcome these issues altogether. So what can you do?


Help your reactive dog become a relaxed running partner with a simple training game.

One of the best tools a trainer gave me was a training game called "Engage-Disengage." The game has two levels and is easy to accomplish with a little bit of patience. It helps decrease your dog's stress around the trigger and teaches her the coping skill of self-interruption to help her remain calm around triggers such as other dogs, people, bikes, skateboards, doorbells, etc. It's a positive reinforcement method to lessen your dog's anxiety and help her choose a safer behavior. 


Every dog is different, so the time to master this game will vary. Patience and realistic expectations are key. My cattle dog will probably always have some anxiety in certain situations (seeing deer is especially challenging for her). Still, this game has helped her become an excellent running partner as it’s reduced her stress response to common distractions. 


legs of female running with a dog


Bailey knows this game well, but we practice it regularly to keep her skills fresh. Usually, we practice during our warm-up runs to get her focused, but I also mix in a few slow walks in a park that is loaded with distractions like geese or squirrels. I always have a few treats in my pocket in case we encounter a particularly challenging distraction that requires additional training.


How to Play the Engage Disengage Game with Your Dog

The example below requires a leash, clicker, and high-value treats. Although, I personally no longer use a clicker when playing this game. Instead, I use the word "Yes" as a verbal marker. It marks the critical moment like a clicker, but I don't have to carry around additional items. Of course, it's your preference to use a clicker or a verbal marker.


Level 1: Engage

  1. First, start at a safe distance from the trigger where your dog is not reacting. Be quiet and wait for your dog to notice the trigger on his own.
  2. Wait for the exact moment your dog looks at the trigger and CLICK. 
  3. Then, when your dog turns his head toward you after hearing the click, give him a treat. If your dog reacts or does not look back at you after hearing the click, you're too close to the trigger. Move further away to reset at a more manageable distance. 

Complete at least 3-5 repetitions in a row at the same distance before moving to Level 2. Remember, a successful repetition is when your dog turns back to you immediately after hearing the click.


Level 2: Disengage

  1. Let your dog notice the trigger, but this time, wait 1-5 seconds to see if your dog will "disengage" and look away from the trigger on his own. If your dog fixates on the trigger for longer than five seconds, go back to Level 1 for more practice.
  2. Wait for the exact moment your dog disengages by looking away from the trigger and CLICK.
  3. After the click, give him a treat. If your dog reacts or is not looking back at you after the click, move further away from the trigger to reset at a more manageable distance.

Complete at least 3-5 repetitions in a row before moving closer to the trigger. In Level 2, a successful repetition is when your dog disengages with the trigger comfortably on his own. Play the game for up to five minutes, and then take a break

You can download and print an easy-to-follow illustration from ChoosePositiveDogTraining.com.

You can also find good video examples of the Engage-Disengage technique on YouTube such as this one from the Charleston Animal Society.


tan dog sitting at male runners feet looking up


I'm confident this training game will make the process of learning how to run with your dog a lot safer, easier, and far more enjoyable for both parties. I want you to get all the benefits of running with your favorite four-legged friend by having a relaxed and happy dog!


If this game has helped your dog, I'd love to hear about your experience, so please leave a comment below. 

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