How to Train a Leash Reactive Dog
Managing leash reactive dogs can be very challenging and can cause you to become more stressed and anxious which in-turn will lead to even more stress and anxiety in your dog. Leash reactivity is one of the top five reasons people seek out assistance from professional dog trainers.
Today we are talking about leash reactivity. I’d say this is the number one reason people call me. It doesn’t matter if you bought your pup from a breeder or adopted your pup or if you adopted an older dog leash reactivity is the result of an unwanted behavior being misread by you and then inadvertently being reinforced until you have lost all control of the dog. You and the dog no longer enjoy outings or walks because of the amount of stress that has developed due to the reactivity.
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Here are some behaviors to watch out for:
- When off-leash and in their own environment, dogs naturally greet from the side (in an arc) and sniff each other’s genital area. They don’t approach head-on and make hard eye contact unless a fight is about to start. Greetings typically last only a few seconds.
- When our dogs meet on leash, they are typically forced to approach head-on and are often unable to turn their bodies. Their forced body language, and our own, tell our dogs that we want to fight with one another. Most dogs don’t want to fight, so they display a number of behaviors designed to prevent it. These distance-increasing behaviors includes barking, lunging, or growling — anything to make the threat go away. In these situations Stormy immediately goes into high defense drive and wants to drive everything that is moving that he cannot CONTROL back away from him. Remember from our first classes what we did to help him react appropriately. I had you walk and keep him moving, in some cases away from the object/person/dog and then turn back and move towards it. All the while dealing with him stalling by laying down and refusing to comply with moving around. When he was at Camp, this took the longest to correct! Getting him to actually walk to the end of my street without stalling especially when we walked past the sled dogs took me literally 5 days before he finally understood they couldn’t get to him and he finally developed trust with me, “protecting” him from harm.
- If the dog owners decide to visit, or let the dogs say hi, the problems may get worse. On-leash, both dogs feel trapped, unable to get away from each other. Often, owners have their dogs on tight leashes, thinking this will help if anything happens. Unfortunately, a tight leash tells your dog you’re stressed, making your pup more stressed in return. As a result, both dogs may start barking, switching from their flight instinct, to fight.
- Many owners don’t recognize rude behavior in their dogs, thinking they’re just overly friendly. They may let their dog charge up to another one, get in their face, or jump on them. This is extremely rude behavior among dogs and is sometimes the result of a lack of socialization past the puppy stage. Adult dogs, while patient with puppy antics, will usually start to discipline puppies once they reach 5-6 months. The discipline isn’t violent and usually takes the form of a bark or growl. If a puppy never experiences these corrections, he may continue this inappropriate behavior in adulthood. When an adult dog inappropriately greets another one, the other dog will react with a loud bark or growl. It can be embarrassing and it may be assumed that the reaction means your canine companion is aggressive, while the dog’s inappropriate behavior was the issue in the first place.
- Many people correct their dog for any perceived display of aggression. Some may force them to sit or lie down in an approaching dog’s path thinking this will help correct the behavior. This can be dangerous for several reasons. First, this teaches your dog that other dogs, and potentially other people, cause punishment. Remember any punishment — yelling, jerking the leash, grabbing your dog, or saying no — increases their anxiety level. Second, correcting a dog for growling or barking may prevent them from growling or barking in the future. Growling and barking are warning signs that the dog may bite. If your dog is afraid to bark or growl, it may mean they’ll bite without warning when they’re stressed or uncomfortable. Third, correcting a dog who is highly aroused or stressed may cause them to redirect their aggression to the handler. This is why I teach my clients to redirect by using commands that are positive and elicit a positive response from the dog. So if we say leave it (negative) it must be replaced with look or sit/stay or even relax (positive) and when the dog complies we give an immediate Good Boy or Good (command) followed by saying the dogs name.
Here are some steps to help your dog feel better on-leash
We practiced these steps in our private classes before Camp.
- Practice getting your pup’s attention before you go out. Say their name and reward them for looking at you. Start in a low-distraction environment, like your living room. Gradually move to busier areas as you’re able to get your dog’s attention regardless of what’s going on around you. This will teach your dog to look at you regardless of the environment.
- When you’re out on your walk, as you see another dog approaching, wait until your dog notices them. When they do, get their attention and reward. Don’t wait for them to react! This will teach your dog to associate the presence of others with something wonderful. When they look up at you for more, go closer and repeat.
- If they bark or lunge at the dog, you went too far, too fast. Or you just didn’t realize a dog was nearby. Simply add more distance and repeat. Don’t punish your dog for barking or you’ll undo the work you’ve done.
- Manage your dog’s environment for everyone’s safety. Keep them at a comfortable distance from other dogs. Don’t allow others to greet (at this time) or let them invade your dog’s space. Every negative experience will set your progress back, so it’s best to avoid them if possible. If you live in an area with lots of dogs, consider taking your friend somewhere less canines are present.
- If you find yourself approaching another dog head-on, simply go around them in an arc, keeping your dog’s attention as suggested above. If the other dog starts to lunge and bark, keep your pup’s attention and reward more often. As soon as the other dog is gone, so are the treats. This will reinforce the idea that other canine companions mean good things, like treats!
Attending a growl class or even a well-constructed group class with an experienced dog trainer that can recognize stress and anxiety and then teach you how to properly react is a key component when desensitizing a dog with leash reactivity. if you would like to schedule a free discovery session with one of our trainers please reach out.