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Living with a reactive dog can be quite challenging. Every time you take your dog out for exercise or a potty break, you have to be on high alert for other dogs, people, or whatever else it is that upsets your pooch.
The parallel walk method is a simple way to introduce a reactive dog to another dog. We call the other dog a “neutral dog” because we try to select a dog that will neither react with too much excitement or any other strong emotion or behavior.
Parallel walks are primarily used to introduce two dogs when one dog is reactive or less-than-social. This is not a standalone training technique for reactive dogs. In the video below, we were introducing Gracie and Barley so that Barley and I could sleep on Gracie’s family’s couch for a few days.
Parallel walks can be part of the training plan for any reactive dog, but they’re just part of the picture. Be sure to work on other basic reactive dog training exercises before attempting this challenge.
Selecting the Neutral Dog
Ideally, the helper dog should be friendly and patient with other dogs. We don’t want a dog that will be overly stressed or excited by the situation. Even if we’re careful with the parallel walk, there’s a good chance that the reactive dog may bark. If your dog is going to be upset by that, try to find another neutral dog.
Of course, we don’t always have endless dogs to chose from as our neutral dog. This method can work to introduce two reactive dogs if we’re very careful and slow. Try doing lots of “dog park TV” with the reactive dog(s) to help them prepare for a parallel walk.
Barley, my border collie shown in the video below, is a great neutral dog. That’s because he is friendly but not overly playful or excited with other dogs. He readily focuses on me, treats, and toys instead of staring at the other dog. All of this helps reduce pressure for the reactive dog.
Choosing the Right Place for Your Parallel Walk
If at all possible, your parallel walk should take place in neutral territory. Most reactive dogs are more stressed out by meeting other dogs close to home. They’re hypervigilant and extra on-guard when they’re in “their space.” It’s worth it to drive across town to find a quiet boulevard or park that both dogs are new to.
We want a large area with plenty of space so that the reactive dog doesn’t have to get too close to the neutral dog too quickly. Soccer fields, parks, and wide roads all work well.
Bring the Right Gear
I like to have a longer-than-normal leash for parallel walks, if that’s safe. I have happily used 6-foot, 10-foot, 15-foot, and even longer leashes for parallel walks.
That said, it is VERY important that the gear gives you proper control over the dog.
If you aren’t comfortable managing a long line, stick to a 6-foot leash.
A back-clip harness is my favorite tool for parallel walks. That’s because they’re most comfortable for the dog. However, some handlers will feel more comfortable using front-clip harnesses, head collars, or martingale collars to maintain control of their reactive dog.
The goal of a parallel walk is to completely avoid any lunging, but I understand wanting to use the tools that make you feel safe.
I do recommend avoiding the use of any tool that makes your dog uncomfortable, either by design of the tool (such as choke, pinch, or prong collars) or due to your dog’s personality (such as a dog who’s not comfortable with a head halter yet). The last thing we need is to make your dog more uncomfortable during this process!
As with any training situation, be sure to bring a variety of treats. I like making a kibble and hot dog and cheese “trail mix” so that I have a few options to keep the dog engaged and excited about training.
How to Do a Parallel Walk
Start out with you and one dog on one side of the park or street and another handler and their dog on the other side. The distance between them should be far enough that the reactive dog is able to notice the neutral dog without barking and lunging.
If the reactive dog is already stressed out, barking, pulling, or hypervigilant at this phase, do some pattern games to help them calm down. Move the neutral dog further away.
If there’s no distance at which the reactive dog can perceive the neutral dog without barking, it’s time to go back to the drawing board on basic reactive dog training before attempting a parallel walk. Don’t rush it and blow your chance!
Now, start walking both dogs in the same direction while maintaining distance between them (hence the name parallel walk). In many cases, the reactive dog will be less stressed out if they’re slightly behind the neutral dog. Having the reactive dog in front often causes the reactive dog to look over their shoulder a lot, so put the neutral dog just a bit in front. This reduces social pressure for the reactive dog.
Whenever either dog checks in with the handler (especially if they look away from the other dog), reward them with praise and some treats. If you notice the dogs sniffing, shaking off, or displaying relaxed body language, reward that as well!
If one or both dogs is staring down the other dog, puts their hackles up, stops accepting treats, or shows any other signs of stress, move the dogs further apart.
Keep moving! Walking is important to help diffuse tension.
Over time as the dogs remain relaxed, start to move the dogs closer together. I think of parallel walks in 3 phases, which I sketched out below. Forgive me, I’m not an artist.
Watch the video at the beginning of the post to see how we handle moving the dogs closer together and manage the actual greeting between the two dogs. It’s much easier to show than tell!
What questions do you have about parallel walks? Do you need more information? Let us know below and we’ll help out!
Kayla founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who’s worked with hundreds of private clients, thousands of shelter dogs, and dozens of working detection dogs. Kayla’s dog and cat behavior advice has been featured in NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and Pet MD. She’s an avid adventurer who is currently doing #vanlife on the Pan-American Highway with her two border collies and a cat. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams. You can get 1:1 advice with a Journey Dog Training team member here.