Does your dog bark when it sees another dog? Lunge when a bike goes by? Growl at the jogger coming toward them on the trail? Leash reactivity is one of the most common issues I’m contacted about as a trainer, and it can be difficult to fix. But there are a few simple options that can help you and your dog have less stressful and more successful walks.
There is a lot of confusion over the difference between “reactivity” and “aggression.” Some people just prefer the term “reactive” as it sounds less scary than “aggressive.” For the purpose of this blog post, I’m using the term how I would with my clients, with the main difference being that a dog who is being “reactive” is giving a warning or for another reason having an impulsive reaction when a trigger appears, where a dog who is being “aggressive” is acting with the intention to do harm.
This does not mean that a reactive dog won’t do harm – reactive behavior can very quickly escalate to aggressive behavior. But when I use either term, this is the general definition I’m applying. If your dog is acting in an aggressive way, I highly recommend contacting a qualified professional right away.
It can be helpful (though not always necessary) to know why your dog is reacting – some dogs react out of fear, some are following an instinct to chase or protect, and some are just frustrated that they are restricted by the leash. No matter what the reason behind your dog’s reactivity, it is important to set up a training plan that works for both of you and keep track of any reactions to help measure progress.
There are a lot of methods out there for dealing with reactivity, so while they are all based in the same general principles, if one doesn’t seem to be working after a decent period of time it can be a good idea to try out another one. If you are really struggling, the behavior is getting worse or even just not getting better, I strongly encourage you to hire a dog trainer with experience with reactivity or, in more extreme cases, to contact a vet behaviorist.
One of the more straightforward methods for dealing with reactivity is using counter-conditioning and desensitization. This basically involves changing your dog’s reaction to a trigger, such as another dog or a person, by giving them lots of things that create a positive association when the trigger appears. For example: your dog sees another dog, and you start giving them pieces of hot dog or chicken. You always want to work at a distance where your dog is unlikely to have a reaction and slowly build up to more difficult scenarios over time as your dog is improving. This website has more detail on this method and how to use it properly: http://careforreactivedogs.com/
Another method is teaching an alternative behavior. This is a great tool, and the one I use most often, but there are some things to keep in mind. You want to choose a behavior that is simple and reinforce it heavily in other situations first. You also do not want to choose a behavior that leaves the dog feeling trapped, as this can escalate the situation. I most commonly see this with “sit” – many people think of it as a calm behavior that can be a good alternative to lunging or barking, but when your take away your dog’s “flight” option by making them be still, it is more likely that they will choose “fight.” I prefer behaviors you can do as you continue to move, such as looking back at you or a hand touch.
Remember that it is really important to practice the alternative behavior you choose with a high rate of reinforcement (no store-bought treats – pull out the big guns here and give your dog something incredible they wouldn’t usually get, like meat or cheese). You also want to practice first in low distraction environments until you dog has it down. Think about it this way: You may know how to do basic math, but if someone asks you to add 3 and 5 while you’re being charged by a bear, answering that simple questions becomes significantly harder. So why would you ask your dog to do something they don’t know that well and aren’t excited about in a situation where they feel threatened or overwhelmed?
These two methods are usually where I start in most cases. They are simple, and they tend to be effective. If you find yourself in a situation that is too much for your dog to handle, and suspect they may be about to react (or they do react), the best option is to get out of there ASAP. Walk away, cross the street or even run away if you need to! (I make it a game with my dog – WOOO, RUNNING AWAY IS AWESOME!) It is key to not let your dog practice reacting, so try to set him or her up for success when you are taking them out and don’t put them in a situation that is too much for them to handle.
The methods I’ve listed here are by no means the only options to deal with reactivity. BAT, CAT, Look at That, Click to Calm – there are a number of interesting and potentially useful methods out there. However, the two methods I mentioned are a great place to start, and some of the simplest options to try. The last thing you want to do is punish your dog when they react, especially when they are reacting out of fear – you are just creating more negative associations with the trigger if you pop their leash or yell, and while it may stop them in the moment they are more likely to have a stronger response in the future. Instead of punishing your dog for reacting to something, set them up for success and give them the tools to be calmer, better behaved and less stressed.
Sarah is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge and Skills Assessed. She lives in the Texas Hill Country near Austin with her two dogs, Percy, a cattle dog mix, and Clara, a lab/German Shepherd.