Today I wanted to address an issue that we hear about a lot here at Ruff Beginnings Rehab; Leash Reactivity. Several clients have talked about how their dogs are fabulous with other dogs off-leash, such as at the dog park, but on-leash the behavior leaves much to be desired. From simple issues like pulling and barking, to what may seem like full-on leash aggression. There are quick ways to work with your dog on this, based on the tools used and your comfort level as the owner of your pooch. But first, let’s take a look at what Leash Reactivity is in the mind of your dog.
When dogs meet in a natural environment(I.E. not on leash or in an urban environment), they meet in a C-shape curve or side by side to be able to sniff each other’s rear ends in
greeting. They don’t go up to each other, face-to-face and stare. This is considered extremely rude and offensive in regards to dog etiquette. With dogs being on the leash during walks, they
can’t engage in this behavior. When a dog does see another dog from a distance, across the street, usually on a walk, it is normal for him to look over and see who it is. He can’t interact with
the dog normally (such as smelling to get to know him, etc.). On leash, he can only SEE the other dog. The other dog may look at you and your dog too. This can create some tension between the two
dogs from a distance. Couple that with the frustration of not being able to go where he wants or greet who he wants, and it can lead to pulling and barking and some other bad behaviors. This can
also happen with squirrels, people on bikes or skateboards, or any other number of triggers. What matters though, is how you react to it.
So now that we have some background let’s address the behavior of the walk. When we train dogs, everything becomes very structured, because every element(The walk, the crate, the door dashing, the aggression, etc.) are like pieces to a bigger puzzle. They all impact one another. When it comes to the walk, if I asked you to describe the walk from beginning to end, most often I hear from you guys that the walk begins when you leave the house. To your pooch, however, the walk begins the moment you go to pick up the leash. So if you have a dog that becomes SUPER EXCITED when you pick up the leash, plan ahead and follow our comprehensive tricks to desensitize your dog to the leash.
Pick up the leash at random points during the day, hold it for a few moments, then set it down and walk away. Ignore your dog.
When your dog has settled down, and stopped acting like an idiot whenever you even go near the leash, then we can move to the next phase. Simply pick up the leash, and take it with you into another room where you will be. Do whatever you need to do, whether it’s writing an e-mail, washing the dishes, watching tv, and once you’re done, pick up the leash and return it to where it normally lives.
Once your dog is comfortable with that, carry it around with you. Go touch the front door, leave for just a few beats and come right back inside. What we’re doing is teaching your dog that you touching the leash doesn’t mean it’s time for a walk. You’re going to repeat all of this, except instead of picking up the leash and setting it down, you’ll put the leash on your dog, and then take it off right away. Put the leash on your dog, go do a task, then take the leash off. Etc.
The reason this is so important is because the state of mind your dog starts at the beginning of the walk will dictate the behavior during the walk. How can you expect to control your dog’s pulling, barking, lunging, whatever, if you don’t have that calm state of mind to begin with?
So now we’ve got a dog who doesn’t pay much attention to the leash. Next, you’ll need to do some threshold training. We have an amazing video with Bethany showing how to pattern your dog with the front door, front gate, car door, whatever it may be. Here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDXVi27A0w8
Great! So now that we’ve gotten through the basics, and we have your dog in a calm state of mind, let’s get to the meat and potatoes of the problems during the walk. I want to start out by touching upon the importance of having a tool around your dog’s neck. We prefer prong collars because of their ethical design and even distribution of pressure around the neck. Guys, you’re gonna need that head control during the walks. The more bratty your dog, the more I want to stress to you having proper head control, especially if lunging, nipping, and biting are issues.
Usually when your dog gets to the point of physically lunging after something or someone, it can seem almost out of nowhere. Some dogs we’ve worked with have given little to no visible signs before they lunge. As their owner, keep an eye out for any of their possible triggers. Other dogs? Squirrels? Some guy zipping by on a bicycle? Whatever it may be, you need to be calm and cool first and foremost. Make sure you have a dog that’s walking properly at your side, and not pulling ahead of you. You’re gonna need to do some conversational leash training for that. Here’s another handy link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qw5EsUKhEkU
Now, once you come across those triggers, the way to curb and/or prevent this behavior is to reinforce a different behavior. You can’t un-learn a behavior, so instead, we’re gonna condition the dog to focus on something else instead of the dog over there. This can be a “sit” and “watch me” or you can also have your dog perform a down-stay and a look at you at the same time. If your dog isn’t paying you any attention, you could be over their threshold, and may need to just get out of dodge. Once they stop focusing on the trigger, you have a point at which you can begin working your dog with the listed commands. Continuing to walk with your dog and having him look at you while passing the trigger, even at a distance, is also very successful at keeping your dog from locking into a stare-down with another dog. Timing is key; don't even let your dog stare at the other dog, or the squirrel, or the bike, whatever it may be, at all. This eliminates the frustration before it can even begin. If you wait until he's already frustrated, lunging and pulling forward, he may not even hear you say, "look" or "watch me" at that point, and trying to use treats to redirect his attention becomes a very bad idea, because your dog can redirect that excitement towards the treat, and fingers can get bit in the process. If the object that triggers your dog’s bad behavior is coming closer towards you, move away from it, either across the street or further away, giving respective distance to stay beneath your dog’s threshold. Once it passes, resume your walk as usual.
If you find you’re still having trouble with this, be sure to check out our videos on proper leash etiquette, and leash reactivity for some more visual demonstrations and timing queues. As always, never hesitate to contact us, or a dog training professional to help you with any further questions you may have.