You look at the clock. It’s time to walk your dog. As you grab the leash, the poop bags and your keys, you feel a familiar anxiety that occurs each time you step outside. You may fear that your neighbors will say, “Uh oh, there she comes with that crazy dog.” You may feel like your neighborhood has become one massive, unpredictable trigger for your dog. Once put on leash, your typically calm and sociable dog begins barking, lunging, growling and whining at typical neighborhood noises and distractions.
Does this sound familiar? If so, take a deep breath and keep reading. Leash reactivity is a common and normal behavior for dogs. While cases vary in severity, and it is always advisable to consult a professional, force-free dog trainer if you have a leash reactive dog, rest assured that there are techniques you can use on your daily walks to manage and improve your dog’s leash manners (and your peace of mind).
What’s going to be surprising about the next few paragraphs is what the training entails. Why? Because it appears counterintuitive. As a society, we tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to “aggressive” behaviors in dogs. Many people wrongly think we need to punish their dogs for growling, lunging and baring their teeth. It’s not difficult to understand how this myth came to be, but in reality, you need to do the exact opposite.
When your dog is doing all those embarrassing, blustery behaviors on leash, it’s because she is upset. She is uncomfortable being constrained by a leash and encountering dogs, men, bicycles, etc. The blustery behaviors are the symptoms of the overarching problem. To solve leash reactivity, we need to change your dog’s emotion. Read on to learn how.
– Keep your dog calm and focused on you throughout the walk
– Create positive associations with your dog’s typical triggers (instead of “uh oh, here it comes,” we want “yippee! here it comes!”)
– As much as possible, avoid situations that are likely to put your dog over his comfort threshold
Step 1: Identify your dog’s triggers
– What makes your dog lunge, bark, growl or whine on leash? Common triggers include: other dogs (sometimes specific dogs, other times all dogs), people, people wearing heavy coats/hats/hoodies, men, skateboards, bicycles, and children.
Step 2: Motivation
– To keep your dog’s attention, you’ll need some highly tasty, highly valuable treats. Test out various options to find which ones your dog loves the most. Reserve the most valuable treats to use only on walks – this will make them more salient. Also try mixing up the types of treats you use during the walk to keep things interesting.
– Some dogs love tug toys just as much or more than treats. If you have a dog that is toy motivated, you can also use this in addition to food.
Step 3: Equipment
– Make sure your dog is fitted with a no-pull harness (and has been trained to wear one).
– If your dog has a history of aggression toward dogs and strangers, be sure to train your dog to wear a basket muzzle for safety purposes. (Mutt About Town recommends Baskerville brand muzzles. For more information about muzzles and muzzle training, go to The Muzzle Up! Project at http://muzzleupproject.com).
– Don’t forget a treat pouch! You’ll need a way to easily access and deliver treats on the walk.
– Use a regular nylon or cotton leash (no flexi-leads). As much as possible, try to keep the leash loose, as a tight leash can cause an increase in reactivity in dogs.
– While walking your dog, keep a keen eye on the environment. Scan the sidewalk and surrounding area for potential triggers. Avoid areas where your dog could get “cornered” with an oncoming trigger.
– Once your dog notices a trigger (a dog in a yard, a stranger across the street, etc.), immediately start “happy talking” to your dog and delivering treats. Make sure the treats come after your dog notices the trigger. We want the trigger to predict the treats, so that your dog learns that the things he fears actually lead to good things.
– If your dog is too upset to take treats (i.e., if the trigger is too strong or too close), commence the happy talking and turn to create some distance between you and the trigger. Once your dog has some distance, proceed with the treats.
– If you notice a situation nearby that your dog will not handle well, turn and go the other way. The goal of the walk is to keep your dog as calm as possible. One of the best tools you have in addition to supplying treats is increasing distance between your dog and the things that upset him.
– Reinforce calm behavior! If you see your dog do typical walking behaviors (sniffing, loose and relaxed body language, “shaking it off” after stressful situations, or making eye contact with you), immediately reward him. To maintain calm, periodically ask your dog to do a simple behavior like “sit” or “touch,” and follow up with a treat. This helps your dog stay focused on you, and the reward for the behavior builds positive associations with the walk and surrounding environment.
– Do not punish the reactive behavior (barking, lunging, growling, etc). Your dog is doing these behaviors because he is uncomfortable and upset. If you punish these behaviors, we’re only working on the symptoms of leash reactivity. The root of the problem is the emotion. By supplying happy talk and treats when your dog encounters things that are scary to him, you are gradually changing the emotion. You will not increase the barking, growling and lunging by doing this. Why? Because once your dog no longer fears his triggers, he will no longer do the reactive behaviors. Remember: You cannot reward fear.
– Maureen Backman, MS