Leash reactivity is one of the most common behavioral challenges that pet owners face. Holding your dogs back while they’re barking and lunging can be frustrating, frightening, and downright embarrassing! Although it can feel like there’s no hope for enjoying your walks again, the good news is that leash reactivity is entirely treatable.
Let’s talk first about what causes leash reactivity.
Believe it or not, although your dog’s behavior on leash may look and sound intense, many reactive dogs aren’t actually aggressive. And although our treatment for this issue remains essentially the same regardless of the cause, it’s important to really get to the root of this behavior in order to successfully understand and effectively work with each individual dog.
Dogs exhibiting frustration-based reactivity tend to interact well with people and other dogs off-leash, but may bark and lunge at them when on-leash, behind a fence, and/or at windows. Owners often describe these dogs as “desperate” to get to people and other dogs.
If you have a dog that falls into this category, they are typically highly social in many contexts, but may struggle with polite greetings and/or being contained behind a barrier. Even though this type of reactivity is based on “excessive friendliness”, essentially, your dog may still sound and appear aggressive to the untrained eye.
Dogs with insecurity-based reactivity are genuinely uncomfortable in the presence of people and other dogs. Although their on-leash behavior can appear quite threatening, these dogs are actually seeking to avoid conflict. Their barking and lunging is an effort to keep the person or other animal away.
If given the opportunity to greet a dog on-leash, these dogs will typically begin showing avoidance behaviors and may try to escape the situation. If given no way out of the interaction, they may growl, snap, or even bite the person or other dog they were trying to avoid. This is another reason why it’s so critical to avoid on-leash greetings! The leash takes your dog’s option of “flight” away.
The Confident, Reactive Dog
People are often surprised to hear that these cases are the exception and not the rule. Leash reactive dogs can come across as bold and offensive, but the vast majority of them are quite the opposite.
However, there are a small percent of dogs that we would classify as confident, reactive dogs. These dogs are not uncomfortable at all with the sight of a person or other dog. Like the frustrated group, they desperately want to get to them, but the difference is that they are seeking out conflict.
These dogs will cause bodily harm to a person or other dog if given the opportunity. Because of that, they present a liability to their owner and to the general public, and should be conditioned to enjoy wearing a basket muzzle if out on a walk.
You’ll notice that the causes of this reactivity are similar to the causes of insecurity-based reactivity. Individual dogs respond to these same triggers and life events differently!
So, how do we solve leash reactivity?
Now that you’re armed with a better understanding of the most common types and causes of reactivity in dogs, let’s dive into a treatment plan. For our purposes, this plan will reference a dog that is reactive towards other dogs, but this exact same training can be used for reactivity towards bikes, cars, squirrels, people – you name it.
This type of behavior modification can be tedious, and requires great attention to detail in order to be truly effective. We recommend consulting a qualified behavior professional to help you maximize results!
You should not be walking your dog in public until you reach the appropriate step in the training process, unless you feel confident you can avoid all potential triggers initially.
Step One: Create a strong association with a marker word.
- We recommend starting this first step indoors, as it’s critically important that we start with as little distraction and stress on your dog (and you!) as possible.
- With your dog standing in front of you, lift a toy or other interesting object into the air. (You can also have a helper lift the toy – just be sure your dog can see it!)
- As soon as your dog looks at the toy, say the word “yes!” in a bright and clear tone.
- Say “yes” only one time, and follow promptly with a high-value food reward. You are not asking your dog to do anything specific here other than looking at a toy – we are simply pairing this word with something your dog loves.
Step Two: Begin applying this association in a controlled and planned scenario.
- It’s time to practice this in a more realistic scenario, but it’s still important that you are not yet out in the “real world”. (The more your dog practices the barking and lunging behavior, the longer it will take you to see true success.)
- This step can take place in your neighborhood (if quiet) or at a quiet park. Our goal is that your helper dog is the only dog you’ll encounter at first.
- With that said, you have a few options for this step. If you have a friend that has a non-reactive dog, enlist their help! You can also purchase a fake dog like this one to use instead. (Just be sure your dog doesn’t see it beforehand!)
- You should be armed with a treat pouch with lots of those high-value treats we discussed. Have several pieces of food already in your hand.
- With your dog put away, set up your helper dog and handler at a SIGNIFICANT distance away. This is critical to success.
- Bring your dog out so that they can see the other dog. You and your dog will remain stationary, but the helper dog can be walked back and forth at a distance from you. Do not ask your dog to sit or lie down.
- The moment your dog notices the other dog, say “yes.” One of three things will happen:
a. Your dog will look back at you expectantly. Bingo! Reward and praise heavily. They may look back at the other dog several more times – repeat this process each time your dog looks at the other dog.
b. Your dog ignores your word, and is staring at the other dog, but quietly. You are a little bit too close. Quickly and calmly add distance and try again – do not repeat the word “yes.”
c. Your dog starts barking and lunging at the other dog. You are way too close. Quickly and calmly add distance and try again – do not repeat the word “yes”.
- If your dog is doing well with this step, practice a few more times (with breaks in between), but keep each dog exposure short (30-60 seconds or so.) If you overdo it, you may lose your progress.
Step Three: Take Your Training to the Real World
- Once you and your dog feel confident with this process while working in a controlled situation, you may begin seeking out real-life training opportunities. Note that some dogs struggle the most in their own neighborhood, so you may want to consider starting in a more neutral environment.
- The process remains the same as step two – you just have less control over the behavior of the other dogs you encounter.
- What you do have control over, and what will define your success, is:
- Your distance from other dogs
- Your use of high-value food, isolated only for leash training
- Quick timing with your marker word
- Correct timing of your marker word – if your dog is already barking and lunging, you should not be saying “yes” or trying to reward your dog.
- Remember the basic process:
- You see a dog coming. Proactively add distance between your dog and the oncoming dog, and stop as they go by.
- The moment your dog notices the other dog, mark “yes.”
- Your dog should look back at you – reward.
- Repeat for each look.
Step Four: Start allowing your dog additional choice and control
If you’re seeing consistent success with steps two and three, congrats! You’re through the most difficult part of this process. Now you can begin the process of slowly offering your dog more choices, and backing off your level of management.
- Until now, you have been stopped while dogs pass by. Now, you can begin doing this process in motion.
- It’s also time to start trying what we call “the pause.”
- When your dog sees another dog, instead of immediately marking “yes,” pause. Count slowly to three in your head. Let’s see if your dog can do this independently!
- Within those few seconds, your dog should turn back to you automatically! They’ve learned that the appearance of a dog is their cue to look at you. And that is where the magic happens!
- When your dog looks back at you, NOW it’s time to mark “yes” and reward.
- As you work on this step, you may find that your dog stops caring about some other dogs as they pass. This is a great sign that your walks are going to start getting a whole lot easier! If your dog is disinterested and non-reactive in a passing dog, there’s no need to mark or reward those interactions at this point.
- Some dogs will require a lifetime of highly managed walks, but for others, you’ll be able to fully phase out this process over time.
A few final thoughts.
Although we discussed the many possible causes and categories of leash reactivity, it’s so important to understand that your dog’s leash reactivity is not anyone’s fault, and is not an indicator of your success or failure as a dog owner.
Dogs are complex, highly emotional beings, and we cannot fully control every life event or their genetic makeup.
As you go through this training process, remember that there will be successes, backslides, and that truly changing behavior is not fast or easy. Focus on small wins and move at a pace that’s comfortable both for you and your dog, and you’ll be amazed by the changes you’ll see.
Alex Sessa runs Peach On a Leash Dog Training based in Alpharetta, GA