Leash reactivity is a common issue among dogs and is one of the most frustrating problem behaviours pet parents come across. But it can get better!
WHY ARE DOGS REACTIVE ON A LEASH?
Most dogs are reactive because they are afraid or uncomfortable in the presence of another dog and want them to go away or create more distance between them and the “scary” intruder by growling, barking, lunging, baring teeth or snapping.
Some dogs are not scared but simply over-aroused or over-excited by seeing another furry friend and the leash limits their ability to greet the other pup – causing frustration.
Either way, we can teach our dogs to offer a more acceptable behaviour rather than barking and pulling towards other canines. This will not only make walks less stressful, but can also reduce the risk of injury to owner and dog.
PREVIOUS NEGATIVE EXPERIENCES
If you know or suspect that your pooch had a bad experience in the past with other dogs (especially during the first few months of their lives), then the reaction is more likely to be rooted in fear rather than frustration. In this case you will need to work on changing your dog’s emotional response when seeing other dogs and also learn some management options yourself to keep your pup safe and don’t let them go overboard.
The idea is to keep your four-legged friend under threshold (within acceptable arousal level) so they are able to learn. A professional reward-based trainer can teach new coping skills for both owner and dog to make walks more enjoyable for all parties involved.
CAN LEASH REACTIVITY GET BETTER?
Yes, but don’t expect a 100% “cure”. Dogs can have better and worse days too and a lot will depend on you and the environment too, which we don’t always have control of (e.g. random off-leash dog rushing up to your dog even if they shouldn’t be off leash).
Desensitising dogs to calmly accept the presence of others (reducing their fear response or frustration) and teaching them appropriate alternative behaviours can take a while – weeks, even months depending on how long the problem behaviour has been displayed. Your management and training skills as well as your dog’s individual progress will also influence the overall success of the behaviour modification program.
The outcome depends on several factors:
- how long your dog practiced reactivity – it will take longer to retrain a more acceptable behaviour (not reacting) if they’ve practiced the unwanted behaviour (barking, lunging) for a long time
- commitment from the owner and setting your dog up for success – no walk should commence without taking a treat bag with exceptionally high value treats
- successful management of the environment – it is okay to tell other pet owners that your dog is reactive and you don’t want them to come any closer so please speak up for the benefit of your furry friend
- “look” has to happen 100% reliably at home before you can practice it outside on a walk with increasing distractions
USEFUL PRACTICAL EXERCISES
“Look” is a simple but very useful exercise while working on leash reactivity as it teaches dogs to focus on their owners instead of other dogs. The aim is to teach your pooch to look at you on cue instead of eyeballing the other dog and getting into a barking frenzy.
MORE ADVANCED TRAINING
The Engage-Disengage Game can be very helpful when training leash reactive dogs. For more info, please see the article written by Alice Tong (Certified Professional Dog Trainer) here.
Same game, same author, bit more theory about the underlying emotions on the Karen Pryor Clicker Training website.
If you need help with your reactive dog, get in touch with a professional trainer who uses positive reinforcement. Remember, the more they practice unwanted behaviours, the longer and harder it will be to change the way they act – or react…
Written by Bea Labady