Note: Some details, such as names and breeds, may have been changed for identity protection. 


Hi Chad,

We brought our dog, Maggie, to Home Depot tonight. Maggie was calm when she entered. She was calm when she passed by people not noticing her. When one guy started to talk to her she started to bark and lunge. I corrected her but she didn’t stop. We apologized and walked away.

Next a super cool and very calm guy that Maggie has met many times before came up and Maggie did the same to him. The guy actually still wanted to approach and Maggie jumped on him, and barked at him, it was awful. I pulled her off and Maggie would not calm down so I pulled the plug on the visit and headed for the door. On the way Maggie lunged and barked at a woman and a small child. It was like she felt like he was being surrounded by wolves and went on total defense.

I feel like crying and my husband’s heart is broken too.

She goes to the training class on Tuesday and I feel like I should arrive with her in a muzzle.

But I’m afraid because I think she’s already insecure. I don’t want to make it worse for her but I can’t have her bite anyone and I’m out of my league now on this. Before we went to Depot she had a nice long walk too so she wasn’t all amped up.

Please let me know your thoughts.




I’m sorry to hear you had such a bad time. It’s ok though, you just need to get a better strategy going. I would focus on mastering walking past people and dogs on the street or walking path or wherever you have enough room to move away first. Have that down with massive confidence before attempting an enclosed space like Home Depot.

Please realize that this is not the end of the world, it is simply a training and socialization setback. Take a breath, relax and get your emotions under control. Seriously, that really needs to be step #1. In fact, I wrote an article called The Three C’s of Dog Training that covers the concepts of controlling the dog, controlling the environment and controlling your emotions. I would highly recommend that article. 

Adjusting Criteria Wisely

The main thing we need to address for this sort of situation is the concept of wisely adjusting criteria during the dog training and behavior modification process. 

The Home Depot was clearly way too much stimulation for Maggie at this point. Her level of socialization and training are not up to par yet, so you were simply not ready for it. In other words, the criteria was raised too quickly. 

Here’s a metaphor that might be helpful. 

Imagine someone showing up to my Advanced Obedience Class with a reactive dog that had never taken my Basic Obedience Class. What do you think will happen? You’re not sure? Ok, here’s what will happen: They will not have a good time. They will be frustrated and embarrassed. They will probably leave in the middle of class without even saying goodbye and there’s a good chance they will never come back. I know this because it has happened and it was due to raising criteria too quickly. 

That same person, had they done a private lesson with me first, then gone through the Basic Obedience Class, then the Intermediate Obedience Class and then come to the Advanced Obedience Class would be smiling the whole time and would feel proud of themselves and their dog. That would be an example of raising criteria wisely. Make sense?

We need to set goals that are achievable and then raise our criteria by gradually making it more challenging. This is not just dog training, this is the way success works in life. Successfully accomplishing a goal builds confidence. Of course, the goal has to be challenging enough to feel a sense of accomplishment when completed, otherwise, it’s just going through the motions. But, attempting things that are way out of reach, such as taking the dog to Home Depot, will create a lack of confidence and a bunch of negative emotions, which will only lead to poor outcomes. 

Going Back to Home Depot

First of all, let’s keep in mind the fact that dogs don’t need to go to Home Depot. If the dog doesn’t enjoy it, if it’s stressful for them, if they don’t like strangers, it’s best to just leave them at home or in the car. That said, if the goal is to bring the dog in the store with you, let’s think in terms of wisely raising our criteria as we plan to revisit The Home Depot at some point in the future. 

What Should We Do First? 

The first thing I would do is analyze what it was about Home Depot that was too much for the dog. I wasn’t there but, judging by the email, let’s assume the whole experience was a little too much and being approached by strangers was the big trigger. So, the dog needs smaller doses of exposure to new people and new environments. 

Group Class: 

Let’s start by waiting to see how the group class goes, which our questioner said was starting next Tuesday. Most group classes last 5-8 weeks, so it would be wise to finish that (assuming the trainer is good) before considering another outing to somewhere like Home Depot. All the people and other dogs at class should provide plenty of stimulation for the dog to adapt to. The people there will all be dog lovers, so they will be more understanding and supportive than the general public and the trainer will be there to help you out. Again, this hinges on the trainer being qualified to handle reactive dogs but, by the end of the class, you will have a better sense of where you are in the process. 

Private Lessons: 

If the group class is too much for your dog at this point, you may need to hire a qualified trainer in your area who offers private lessons for reactive dogs. 

Socialization with Strangers: 

You will want to have a high level of control over your dog before working in close proximity to strangers. The best way to start is at the group class and/or with friends who are willing to help you out. Start by just being around people and not allowing them to interact with your dog. Go for a walk with them or just hang out and talk to people who have promised to ignore the dog, until you recommend otherwise. Once the dog seems comfortable, the next step might be to have people toss treats to the dog. Tossing the treat, not hand feeding the treat, allows the people to stay at a distance so the dog isn’t provoked into lunging and barking. 

Hand feeding, making direct eye contact, talking to the dog, approaching the dog, touching the dog…these things should all be avoided at first. These are the “criteria” that should be raised wisely. Systematically raising the criteria, that’s the key. 

Pet Stores: 

Pet stores are a good step towards Home Depot because, much like the group classes, they are filled with dog lovers who will be more understanding than the general public. This comes after achieving success at group class and with friends. 

Home Depot: 

Ok, back to the ultimate goal of conquering The Home Depot. Start with walking around the parking lot, then back and forth outside the front of the store, then hanging outside around the doors where people are coming in and out. Being outside should be much easier for the dog and allows plenty of room for you to adjust your distance from people. (see: The Four D’s of Dog Training) All of this should be happening, with no reactivity at all, before considering going inside the store. When going inside the store, start by going in only a little bit and then coming right back out. In other words, don’t start going down the isles where you can get trapped in a tight space with people all around. You always want to maintain an easy exit strategy in case your dog starts to feel overwhelmed. 

Note: Preferably, all of this would be done with the help of a qualified trainer who does private lessons. 


Dogs do not need to go to Home Depot. It’s nice but it’s not necessary. That being said, it is vitally important to train and socialize your dog to the best of your abilities and in a way that is safe and sensible. In other words, be wise about how and when you raise your dog training and socialization criteria and maybe, just maybe, a trip to Home Depot will be in your dog’s future. 

The Home Depot is not a good starting point for rehabilitating a reactive or unsocialized dog, especially if you are not a highly skilled dog handler. It would be wise to start with smaller, easier short term goals. The Home Depot can be your long term goal but, at the same time, don’t be upset if your dog turns out to simply not be Home Depot material. The next time you’re there, take a look around, most of the other people in the store don’t have their dogs with them and that’s ok. It’s not about Home Depot, it’s about making an effort to bring out the best in your dog, one step at a time. 

Happy Training!

Chad Culp – Certified Dog Trainer, Canine Behavior Consultant, Owner of Thriving Canine. 

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