Leash-Reactive Dogs

How many people have been walking their normally well-behaved dog on a leash, had their dog overreact to something, and then felt the need to explain or apologize for their dog's behavior? For the vast majority of dog owners, walking your dog is something you do every single day at least once. Even most people who have the luxury of having a yard to let their dog use will still try to give their dog at least one daily walk. For some people, walking your dog on a leash can be an incredibly stressful experience for dog and owner alike. Sometimes other dogs are the problem - they bark and start squabbles and pull, but sometimes your dog is the problem. A number of dogs exhibit some level of leash reactiveness - they may bark and lunge or try to pull out of their harness or collar. Some dogs are uncomfortable around strangers or certain kinds of people (i.e. men, people wearing hats, people with sunglasses on, children, people with mobility issues or who make irregular bodily movements). Some dogs fear other dogs, bicycles, wheelchairs, obese people or people with a different skin color than the owner of the dog. Having a leash reactive dog can be frustrating and embarrassing, as well as potentially dangerous (especially if you lose hold of your dog, or you encounter another leash reactive dog on a walk).

As a parent of a leash reactive dog, it is very important to pay attention to your dog's behavior when on walks to try and uncover what the individual triggers might be that spark the negative reaction. This is something one can continuously do, and you can keep track of any changes or improvements in your dog's leash reactivity over time. It is also very important to pay attention to your own behavior and emotional reactions when your dog "misbehaves". Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly sending our dogs messages through our own body language and tone, as well as through how we maneuver them using leashes. If you tense your body, you put tension into the leash and your dog can sense this. Try to reduce your own anxiety by taking deep breaths, and if necessary, try to remove yourself from the anxiety-inducing stimulus as calmly and quickly as possible. Keep the leash loose and show your dog you are calm and relaxed - yawning is one way you can do this. 

Many dogs respond to food as a motivational tool. If your dog seems to ever respond or react to an offering of a treat, using treats to distract and positively reinforce a reactive dog can make all the difference. Treats that your dog considers "high value", such as small pieces of chicken or cheese, will have a stronger pull for your dog than using their ordinary kibble food. Reward your dog before they can start reacting to a triggering stimuli before they can spot it, and continue to distract them with treats until the triggering stimulus has passed. 

Another trick you can use if to make your dog do "u-turns". Sometimes you just can't get away from a triggering stimuli right away. In these cases, get your dog to turn around, and if they do not respond to your turning them, try and use the treats to get them to do so. Practicing u-turns when you're not around triggers can help your dog to understand that they should be focused on you. 
Finally, you can make the choice as a pet owner to walk your dog at quieter times - times at which sidewalks or parks may be less crowded and have less pedestrian, bicycle, or vehicular traffic. Unfortunately, the solution of avoiding triggers cannot work for everyone as some peoples' schedules force them to walk at high-traffic times. 

In summary, having a leash-reactive dog is not something you just have to accept. There are solutions, and pretty simple solutions at that.

  • Keep Calm.
  • Use Treats as Distractions.
  • Redirect your Dog to Focus on You.
  • Use "U-turns".  
  • Reduce Triggers by Walking at Slow-Traffic Times. 

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