Trigger Stacking In Reactive Dogs – Could You Unknowingly Be Part of The Problem?


Trigger stacking in reactive dogs is a very common term when talking about reactivity issues. It can affect the most calm of dogs and turn them into a barking and lunging mess if we don’t recognise the signs our dogs are subtly giving us. If not managed correctly, trigger stacking in reactive dogs can lead to a reaction over the smallest of things or in the worst case scenario a bite. Continue reading and find out more about how trigger stacking and long term stress can be an issue for your dog.


trigger stacking in reactive dogs

Trigger Stacking in Reactive Dogs

Trigger stacking is the accumulation of stress in the body, whether it be dog, animal or human. Think of stress and trigger stacking like a volcano, on one hand some volcanos can disperse of the build up of gasses before it becomes a problem. Other volcanos struggle to get rid of the pressure and build-up of gasses that they accumulate and instead can’t cope but to explode, violently most of the time, expelling lava, rock and loud noises!

Many things can be considered as triggers to dogs, from other dogs to skateboards, to screaming kids and men in hats etc. A trigger is anything that causes stress and fear within your dog.

With leash reactivity in dogs, when encountering a trigger your dog doesn’t like, they have 3 options when on leash; fight, flight and accept. Most dogs want to run away at this point but we put them in situations where they end up having to try to fight or just accept the situation and the fact they can’t escape (can be very dangerous).

How trigger stacking works

Various things out in the environment can be considered a trigger for your dog. Imagine a scale from 1-10, 1 being the calmest side of behaviour and 10 being erratic and uncontrollable, with that in mind, here’s an example of trigger stacking in reactive dogs…

  • Your dog starts off calmly at 1 in the morning, you play around in the house before heading out the door for you morning walk
  • As you leave the house a cyclist whizzes past you ringing the bell which startles your dog – they go from a 1 to a 3 on the scale.
  • On your walk you there is a dog on the other side of the street, you manage to keep the attention of your dog but they are now a 5 on the scale.
  • Returning from the walk a group of small children run past screaming and shouting which puts your dog up to a a 7 on the scale.
  • You return home where they get the chance to relax down to a 5 on the scale.
  • The next day you go out and your dog is at a 5 on the scale and because of this they pull on the leash and  are a bit more alert of their surroundings, looking for an invisible threat. They are now closer to threshold and could have a bad reaction even to something they never would before.

Even going on a short walk with an unaware owner can leave a dog a lot more stressed out when they return from a walk, compared to when they left a walk in the first place.


A short video to visually explain the concept

Stress In Dogs

Stress in short bursts is good for dogs, it is used for survival and it also helps towards learning (to a minimal degree). In longer periods, stress and fear can be detrimental to a dogs health and mental wellbeing.

Cortisol, along with other hormones including adrenaline, are released in situations of high arousal. This is a survival instinct where the dog is preparing for fight or flight (run away), a series of changes occur in the body such as heightened senses, increased blood pressure and sugar, increased blood flow, and more.

It can take up to 72 hours for a dogs body to eliminate stress! That’s 3 days to get back to a calm base level, could you imagine being incredibly stressed for this amount of time?! You’d be a mess right?!

Reactivity and Prolonged Stress in Dogs

Have you ever wondered why one day you may have a good walk but the next your dog seems agitated and seems to be on alert? A dog that goes up and down the scale like a yo-yo will give inconsistent walks every time. If not properly addressed you can experience a number of issues when taking a stressed dog for a walk or walking an already stressed dog which can include:

  • Hypervigilance

This is a heightened state of mind, the body goes into high alert and is anticipating danger. You may notice your dog repeatedly scanning the environment, pulling ahead as if on guard, sniffing, staring into the distance or at people and maybe even stopping. The body is in fight or flight mode here, expecting an unseen danger, which for reactive dogs can be problematic.
 

  • Ignore you and won’t listen

I used to think Jasper ignored me when we were out and he was in a stressed state however I realised that in this state he was taking in all the environment, assessing whether anything approaching was a threat, trying to make sense of everything important and ignore what didn’t matter. If I can’t get his focus and engagement in this state then there is no way I’m going to even get him to sit.
 

  • Inability to learn

The higher up the scale a dog goes, the harder it is for a dog to learn. With cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones flowing through the body (plus the increased focus on the trigger), a dog is less likely to listen to commands especially if it goes over threshold.
 

  • Quicker to react

Dogs that are already stressed are quicker to react, those that are already expecting an issue won’t take the time to stop and think when one arises. Dogs that are more stressed are also more likely to react to things they may normally not react to, due to the underlying stress.

How To Prevent Trigger Stacking in Reactive Dogs

It’s easy to be unaware of trigger stacking in reactive dogs or dogs in general, until it is too late. Below are 5 different things you can do to prevent trigger stacking in reactive dogs…

  1. Know what triggers your dog
    The first thing I recommend to do is to find out exactly what triggers your dog, you want to be as specific as possible. For example, if your dog is reactive to other dogs does it matter the size, gender or the colour?  If your dog is reactive to people is it gender, skin colour or things like hats? If you can identify everything that triggers your dog then when you are out you know exactly what to avoid. Write these down for further reference!
     
  2. Improve leash skills
    One way to avoid trigger stacking is to be able to get out of sticky situations before your dog has the chance to react. By developing solid leash skills and maneuvers, you can work with your dog to move to a safer location.
     
  3. Practice engagement skills
    Engagement skills such as teaching your dog to focus or teaching them targeting can be great for when you have to pass triggers. Having strong engagement skills will help reduce leash reactivity and make these experiences less stressful for the dog.
     
  4. Understand your dogs body language
    Dogs speak a lot through body language, whether it is to other dogs or to their humans, a lot is communicated through body language including leash reactive warning signs. Many people don’t realise that our dogs give us signals as we take them for a walk, we notice them pulling on the leash or stopping to sniff but we don’t notice the change of the ear position or tail position or how tense the body has just become.
     
  5. Take your time!
    The final thing is to take your time! You want this process to be as stress free as possible for you and your dog, you don’t want to drag them into situations that neither of you are prepared for, it’ll be detrimental for progress and your dog will doubt your leadership skills

helping a reactive dog find calm
Discover the importance of teaching focus and engagement on walks

Reducing Stress in Your Dog

As I’ve said before, prolonged stress can create big problems for reactive dogs if not managed or controlled properly. As the guardian for our dogs, it is up to us to keep an eye out for stressful experiences and work on reducing them. Below are 5 methods you should consider to destress your reactive dog.

  1. Reduce/Eliminate Stress
    Now that you know what triggers your dog, you want to avoid experiences that will have a chance of exposing your dog to stress. Options for this include going a different route for your walks or going somewhere a bit more quiet if you have the option to drive somewhere, even cutting out dog parks can be ideal if your dog is currently having issues with reactivity.
     
  2. Physical Contact
    Physical contact can be very calming for dogs.  Meaningful touching such as massaging and TTouch are great examples of using physical contact to calm dogs. Making time during the day to massage and destress your dog can be very beneficial for overall behaviour. When on walks, after a stressful situation, putting your dog in a tuck or safe zone while you calm them can help soothe them.
     
  3. Enrichment
    By allowing a dog to use their natural skills you can help enrichment and making them feel more calm. Sniffing for example can be very calming for a dog, hiding treats around the house, the garden or even in the grass off the path and asking your dog to find them can help them reduce stress. For example, the ability to use the nose for finding treats, toys and even keys can be very rewarding and highly satisfying for dogs, it can also provide a lot of mental stimulation. You can wrap treats in a towel or you can be more creative and put said towel in cardboard box and let your dog work out the best way to get to those treats. Get creative, stuff a cardboard box with paper and more pieces of card and add a few treats to find.
     
  4. Calm Walks
    You want to make walks as calm as possible. This means you want to avoid any triggers that may approach and you don’t want to arouse your dog with running or playing fetch. Take this time to enjoy walking with your dog and build confidence with a bit of obedience or getting them to put paws up on a log. Keep stress levels down on these walks to help bring your dog back to a calm base level.

    (Find my 4 top tips for calm dog walking here)
     
  5. Taking time off
    Sometimes the best thing to do is take some time off. If it takes 3 days for the body to eliminate stress, don’t walk your dog for 3 days. By avoiding any stimulation from the external environment your dog will easily be able to destress and restart. This rehabilitation period is used for exercising your dog mentally, building confidence and relationship and also for strengthening skills for when you get back outside.
     

exercise a reactive dog
Other ways you can exercise your dog that doesn’t involve just going for walks.

Be Patient, Be Better!

You must be patient with your dog especially when stress is the issue, an uncontrollable outburst from you will just show you can be unpredictable and add unneeded stress to the situation. Keep an eye out for trigger stacking in reactive dogs, learn the body language of both a relaxed and stressed dog, keep an eye out for bad situations and avoid where necessary, if you ignore the signs your dog is giving you then they will take matter into their own hands (or paws).

Understanding more about your dog and reactivity in general can fast track you and your dog to success! Check out the rest of my blog, starting from the beginners guide to leash reactivity in dogs which is a great starting point for those looking to understand more about managing this issue.


I found a lot of useful and more in-depth information on trigger stacking reactive dogs here – How we Set Our Dogs To Fail

My Top 4 Tips For Calm Dog Walking

My Top 4 Tips For Calm Dog Walking

Do you struggle for calm dog walking? Do you yearn for your dog to walk by your side and not get distracted? You’re in the right place! Continue reading to discover my top 4 tips for calm dog walking…


calm dog walking

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The Importance of Calm Dog Walking

Why are leash manners so important? Why do people train their dog to walk politely by their side? It’s a nicer walk! Right?

The reason many of you are here is to help figure out how to teach leash manners to your dog because maybe at the moment it isn’t that fun of a walk. It’s a rare occassion where you hear an owner say they’ve never had to deal with the pulling and barking and constantly being distracted.

I had to deal with Jasper and his leash pulling until I decided I had enough of it. Being a rescue and a reactive dog teaching loose leash skills is vital for a more pleasurable walk.

The process of teaching calm dog walking is in fact relatively simple, the only thing is you need to be consistent which is where a lot of people fall down. Teaching a dog takes time and even longer to teach a puppy something. The bonus side of leash training for dogs however is that you walk your dog at least once a day. This means that at least once a day you can practice these skills even for just 5 minutes.

Primarily you will want to understand why your dog behaves like it does in the first place while on a walk…


Why Your Dog Has “Leash Issues”

The main reason a majority of you will be experiencing this problem is purely because your dog doesn’t know how to act on the leash yet.

  • You might have had them as a puppy and it didn’t really matter but now they’re bigger its a become a problem
  • Maybe you got them as a rescue and they had a lack of training and exercise before you
  • They may lack self-control and want to interact with everyone
  • They are constantly getting distracted by people, dogs…leaves in the wind
  • Maybe they smell something more interesting than you in the grass

Next time you are  walking your dog, walk at a slightly slower pace than normal. What does your dog zone out at? Does he pull on the leash in certain spots? Does he get excited at people or dogs passing by?

When your dog wants something they will try and get it unless you’ve taught them not to. Squirrels, kids running around, skateboards, different smells etc.

The aim of the game is to teach your dog self-control so that you reward them for calm walking with sniffing a tree or running the block. It’s all about team work!


Leash Reactivity In Dogs

Some of you may find that your dog is actually leash reactive. This is a behavioural condition in which a dog will react to a certain stimulus/trigger – another dog, kids, men, trucks, bikes etc. The reaction can range anywhere from a death stare, stiff posture, barking, lunging and even biting! (Find out more about the leash reactive warning signs and triggers)

It is a common issue which many people deal with. If you feel this might be something that affects your dog then check out the beginners guide to leash reactivity in dogs for everything you need to know to get start to overcome this problem. There’s a lot of information on this blog to help you as well!


beginners guide leash reactivity in dogs

A great video of teaching self-control before you even start your walk!

My Top 4 Tips For Calm Dog Walking

1 – Use The Right Equipment

First thing you need to do is make sure you’re using the right equipment. This may sound simple but a lot of owners don’t know they are making mistakes.

Correct Leash

Retractable leashes will encourage your dog to pull. When they pull they get the reward of wanting to go where they want and even if you stop the leash, they end up in front and pulling. There have been cases of people even getting burns from getting tangled in these.

A long line on the other hand gives you more control, you can hold it in both hands and give and take freedom when needed. You can have them on a short leash, loose leash and even train from distance and allow socialisation.


Correct Harnesses

A harness is the next piece of equipment you should be looking for. Harnesses are becoming more of a chosen option due to comfort. The strain from the leash isn’t localised just around the neck but instead through the body. Some harnesses allow you to connect to the front (chest area) to help reduce leash pulling. Some also come with handle/s that you can grab when needed.

Tactical harnesses come with velcro to attach small bags and essentials!


High Value Treats

High value treats should be next on your list of equipment. If you are wanting to teach your dog how to walk politely then you need to give them incentive. The world is a distracting place for them, why should they pay attention to you? By giving them incentive to focus on you and marking this behaviour you will improve your walks tenfold!


Treat Bag

Other accessories include things like a treat bag that allows you to quickly dispense treats to your dog whilst carrying your essentials. You’ll be surprised how much easier and quicker your dog learns when you can mark the exact behaviour.


Clicker

For those with younger dogs the use of a clicker can be very effective with marking behaviour you want. This applies to walking calmly too. When your dog walks calmly or ignores someone walking past then you mark and reward.


2 – Start Inside The House

My next tip is to start inside the house. The routine of going for a walk starts as soon as you either mention the walk or touch the leash.  Before you even leave the door you need to prepare your dog for calm dog walking. To prepare your dog you need to make sure they are in a calm state of mind where they are focused (or slightly less excited).

When inside the house constantly touch the leash and your shoes or make your keys jingle. You want to keep your dog on their toes. If they get excited every time you touch your things, simply put them down and do something for a few minutes. Continue doing this until your dog is in a calmer state of mind before you leave the door.

You want to make sure that your dog shows self-control. The biggest hurdle will be the front door. There’s no blaming them either, a whole world of potential to go and explore. This is why teaching them self-control at  the start of the walk is essential. If they get to run out of the door and carry that excitement through the walk you’re going to have to keep up!

Get your dog to sit by the door and slowly open it. You are looking for calm behaviour, if your dog gets up or moves towards the outdoors, close the door. Repeat this until you can fully open the door.

3 – Teach Self-Control Through Alternative Behaviour

Having taught self-control and calmness inside the house, it is time to teach it outside. As mentioned before, the reason dogs behave badly on the leash is because they haven’t been trained properly.

During your walk you want to teach them alternative behaviour to the problem issues that you are having. For example if they are constantly pulling then you need to teach an alternative. You need to teach that pulling means you stop (or turn back) and the alternative you teach is a loose leash means you can keep moving.

For dogs that bark at triggers then this is a bit harder but it is possible to teach alternatives. Teaching them to sit down or to look at you or targeting or to follow you. There are many different behaviours that you can teach and the principle for teaching them is very basic.

Mark The Behaviours You want, Correct Those You Don’t

When your dog displays behaviour you don’t want, mark it with a no. Correct the behaviour e.g. If your dog gets excited at something and pulls – make them sit. Mark the correct behaviour with a yes/clicker and treat. Repeat this constantly making sure to praise and reward your dog.

If you want your dog to focus on you more, then every time they look at you and check-in, mark and reward. This teaches your dog to look to you for guidance, to remember that good things come from giving you their attention. You can call their name or make kissy noises to get the attention of your dog and reward them. Practice this in slightly busy areas to increase attention.

The first 5 minutes are the most excitable for your dog. With the proper leash training for dogs you can learn how to calm your dog in these 5 minutes so you can enjoy the rest of your walk!


leash training for dogs

4 – Let Them Be A Dog

Having a reward system is very important to improving the connection with your dog. When the two of you discover that you want to work together, great things happen!

You are already rewarding when correcting behaviour but a crucial point I want to talk about are designated break spots.

These are spots you have during the walk where you basically let your dog be a dog. Whether it be a toilet break, a little run around, the chance to sniff, chasing squirrels. You can’t expect your dog to walk nicely all along if there is no light at the end of the tunnel right?

If you find your dog struggles reaching these designated spots then break it down. Have breaks when you reach the end of the street calmly (making sure you reward too).  Let them sniff around or give them a quick praise and treat.


Common Questions

How do I stop pulling on the leash?// How do I stop my dog getting excited around people on walks?// How do I stop my dog pulling before the designated break spot?

Teach an alternative behaviour! Find the behaviour you don’t want and correct and reward with what you do. All these issues can be solved by teach an alternative.

Why is my dog so distracted?

Dogs are simple creatures and their attention is limited. If you are in an area with distractions and smells, then getting your dogs attention will be harder than normal. Start training to get your dogs attention in quiet places before busier spots.

How do I teach my dog to walk on the leash?

There are many maneuvers and techniques that you can learn to help you with leash training for dogs. Starting and stopping, changing pace and direction and working in busier areas. These are all examples of how to improve your walks!


Enjoy Calmer Walks

A walk should be something in harmony. Where you enjoy spending time together. It shouldn’t be all business from A to B as quick as possible. You should enjoy it. This is why breaks are important, this will be what your dog looks forward to on the walk, not the exercise! I hope these 4 tips will help you achieve the calm dog walking you are seeking!

You Aren’t Alone!

Don’t forget to leave a comment whether to ask a question, give your own tips, give feedback etc and check out the leash aggression training blog for more information and resources on dealing with leash reactivity in dogs. The worlds a better place when people help each other!

Resources

8 Tips For Success Using Counter Conditioning In Dogs With Leash Reactivity

8 Tips For Success Using Counter Conditioning In Dogs With Leash Reactivity

Counter conditioning in dogs has been used far and wide by many to help their reactive dogs. Learn how to change your dogs emotional response to triggers!


counter conditioning in dogs 8 tips

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The Unpleasant Issue of Leash Reactivity in Dogs

What is Leash Reactivity?

Going for a walk is one of the greatest ways to burn time, energy and spend some quality time with your dog. IF you have a reactive dog however, things can be a bit more complicated than that. What would normally be a lovely walk enjoying the fresh air becomes a walk filled with anxiety, frustration and embarrassment. You rush your dog as quick as possible to get back to the safety of home.

Leash reactive dogs are no less lovely than any other dog, the only issue is they have problems with introducing themselves. In the presence of a trigger they will bark and lunge and growl and bare teeth – all your favourite things to cause embarrassment.

It is a very common issue that many dogs struggle with and many even end up developing. When dogs get older or injured or just want more space this is how they get the message across.

Common Causes of Leash Reactivity

There can be many different causes for this problem.

Fear/Anxiety

Yes! The reason your dog is lunging and barking is because they want to create some distance between them and the approaching trigger. They see the trigger as something scary and revert to trying to scare it away. This starts the bad habit because your dog starts to think that by barking and lunging the trigger will go away. In a way they are right, this behaviour becomes a default and harder and harder to deal with if not careful.

Socialisation problems

You may have got your puppy elsewhere or from a kennel. You may have raised them from a puppy…regardless the situation socialisation is a big factor in reactivity. During a dog’s life they should be desensitized to certain things such as kids, other dogs, other people etc. This helps create positive associations with these and shows them there’s nothing to be weary of.

Bad experience

A bad experience with a trigger can very well change how a dog feels to certain things. If a dog has had an accident with a skateboard then they can start to display signs of fear. An accident with other dogs could cause them to become reactive to other dogs.

Aggression

When talking about leash reactivity in dogs, the lesser are considered aggressive. Aggression can look the same as reactivity although the underlying emotion is different. If you do struggle with an aggressive dog then the best way to manage this issue is through a professional. Aggressive dogs can cause safety issues if not controlled properly.

Excitement

Being over aroused through excitement can be a cause for this behaviour. When seeing a trigger such as another person or a dog gets the dog frustrated. Being on leash restricts the dog from their actions which leads to frustration, which leads to an outburst.

Aversive association

I avoid using aversive methods for the reason that it isn’t consistent.  If your dog only reacts to some dogs he’s going to start thinking getting even more frustrated when he sees a dog. Your dog may even start to associate seeing a dog with pain making the issue more complex.

Dogs that need space

Many dogs end up needing some space at some point in their lives. Maybe they are old or have become injured…or just don’t want to play. A lot of dogs are happy to just walk and spend time with their “human”. When approached these dogs may display leash reactive warning signs telling others to keep away.


leash reactive warning signs of dogs

Solutions to Reduce Leash Reactivity

To make progress with this issue, the best way forward is to create a leash reactive dog training plan. This will include high value treats, a ton of patience and a few different approaches to dealing with this issue.

Many have found success with counter conditioning in dogs. A method of trying to change the root emotional response of the dog toward the trigger. Allowing your dog to figure out the trigger really isn’t that bad!


Take a look at how this technique can be used with skateboards

Getting Started With Counter Conditioning in Dogs

Your basic goal here is to change how you dog feels about the trigger, changing the emotional response. You want to show there’s nothing to be afraid of or you want to show them they don’t need to act in that fashion. A great way to help make this positive change is through counter conditioning and exposure to the trigger. This exposure is also known as desensitization and when paired with counter conditioning is very powerful.

How exactly does counter conditioning in dogs work?

Let’s say that your dog isn’t a fan of skateboards. Whenever they see a skateboard go past they go crazy!

So how would you change the perception?

The goal would be to pair the sight and sound of the skateboard with something positive – normally a treat. This starts to create a positive and calming attitude towards the trigger.

Sounds easy right? This can work with many triggers such as cars, other dogs, livestock, squirrels, kids, men etc.

3 Easy Steps To Counter Conditioning in Dogs

Find Your Reactivity Distance

You want to find out the reactivity distance – the distance a dog can notice a trigger however wont react. This is essential because you can keep your dog ina calm state of mind. Here they find out that everything is fine.

When you find this distance may it be 5ft or 50ft, add another 10ft onto it. This becomes your buffer zone, somewhere to return to safely to avoid an outburst.

Create Positive Association With The Trigger

Create positive associations by rewarding your dog in the presence of a trigger. You want a high rate of reinforcement that helps break up the focus on the trigger. A high rate of reinforcement helps due to when a dog sees the trigger they start to learn that they hit the jackpot with treats. For this to be effective you must only reward them when they are looking at the trigger. Once the trigger is out of sight the rewards stop!

 Dog = jackpot of treats

Dogs  = maybe not that bad

Slowly Decrease The Distance to Trigger

Once you and your dog are comfortable at a certain distance start to bring it in. Over time you should be making some good progress as your dog starts to learn differently.

DON’T rush your dog! Just because you have made progress one day doesn’t mean you are ready to move to the next step. Take your time, see how comfortable your dog is and see how comfortable you are as well! If you are uncomfortable when decreasing your distance then your dog will feel this too!


Check out this video of how you can use counter conditioning in dogs to help with reactivity problems.

Think of Your Goals

By using this technique there 3 goals that are trying to be achieved

  • Teaching the trigger isn’t scary
  • Showing that good things happen when the trigger is present
  • Showing that they can look to you for guidance

You also need to think about the goals that you have in mind. Are you wanting your dog to just be able to ignore dogs that you pass or do you want them to interact with them etc. Knowing your goals helps you make a lot more progress because you know exactly what you want to achieve.

For example, for Jasper I just want him to ignore other dogs on walks. The only dogs he really interacts with are ones he’s close with (his pack as to say). I want to be able to walk cross a dog on the sidewalk without having to cross the road or hide behind a car. By doing this I know what my target distance is going to be and I can work towards that.

Have the Right Equipment

Equipment is a big factor when it comes down to leash aggression. Having a reactive dog can be problematic especially if they are larger in size. Knowing what equipment to use can be very helpful. For example, if you use a retractable leash you are going to cause more trouble for your dog. Your dog learns that pulling is fine and if you have a larger dog, it is harder to stop once they have built up momentum. They may be an easier option but retractable leashes are in fact quite lazy.

When it comes to aversive and punishment causing equipment I recommend avoiding these. Using punishment especially with fear and anxious dogs can cause deeper problems. You could even mask up the issue even though it is there. You may think you are making progress and then your dog randomly snaps as you walk past another dog. Aversion can make the dog see the trigger as a cause to the pain which can create a negative reinforcement.


products fro leash reactive dog training

Read more about what equipment is ESSENTIAL for leash reactive dog training


8 Ways To Achieve Success with Counter Conditioning in Dogs

High value motivation

Finding your dogs motivation is ESSENTIAL to reduce leash reactivity. Whether it be a value treat or their favourite toy or praise. You want to use something that your dog will find focusing on you for. Without anything of high value your dog will become fixed on the trigger, working themselves up to an out urst.


reduce leash reactivity with motivation

Find out more about finding the right motivation to reduce leash reactivity.


Rate of Reinforcement

Along with the treat being one that is high of value, you will also want to reward often. By rewarding often you keep the dog below threshold. Breaking up the focus between you and the trigger helps the dog realise maybe things aren’t as bad. Don’t reward too little, you can ease off the treats later!

Distance

Understanding the “reactivity distance” is important when working on how your dog feels to triggers. You will notice that the amount of focus the dog has on you depends on far away the trigger is. The closer you approach a trigger, the less focus you will get from your dog. Knowing the distance that causes an issue is crucial in coming up with a training plan. Knowing the distance helps you work under the threshold and create positive associations.

Understand your dogs triggers

So what is your dog reactive to? Dogs you say…big or small? Does colour matter? Does breed matter? Knowing what triggers your dog exactly can help you not only make progress but also helps you know what to keep an eye out for.

Slow and Steady

Go at your dogs pace! As mentioned this could be due to fear or aggression based issues. Work on it slowly and don’t progress too fast. Pushing your dog could cause them to snap and this could hinder progress as they fall into bad habits again. Ensure you keep a journal of your progress so you can keep track of how you are doing.

Keep Session Short

It is hard to change such an emotional response. Even if you are making progress keep sessions short. These sessions will be very arousing for your dog with excitement, fear and cortisol. Take it easy, keep it short and end on a high note if possible!

Have Days Off!

Stress will stay in a dog’s system for a while so encountering dogs constantly on walks can be a big problem. An option is to take a day off in the week to exercise your dog from home. Find a way to stimulate then mentally such as find it or start a game of tug etc.

Let your dog enjoy not having to worry about other dogs and try again the next day! Go at your dogs pace!!

Consistency

You need to make sure you keep these sessions consistent. Practicing often will help create a stronger positive association. HOWEVER, if you feel you are not making progress in one area, make it easier for your dog. If there is a dog at the end of the street that sets off your dog, go the long way round. Keep it fair on your dog and always set your dog up for success!


Don’t Put All Your Eggs In One Basket

Yes this is a great way to combat the issue of reactivity. However you may find that it doesn’t work for all dogs, or it will work only to a certain distance.

There are many other methods out there that help with different aspects. For example, Grisha Stewart and Behaviour Adjustment Training teaches your dog how to make the right choices on their own. They figure everything out while you act more as a backseat driver. This technique empowers your dog and can help eventually to make polite introductions.


beginners guide leash reactivity in dogs

Check out the beginners guide to leash reactivity in dogs for more information on the various way how you can help your dog with this issue


Final Thoughts – Patience is Key with Counter Conditioning in Dogs!

It is a hard thing to change the emotional response in a dog. However if you have the time, patience and follow the tips above you can work through this issue with your dog.

It will take some time and you might find you have more outbursts to begin with however, keep at it. Don’t avoid taking your dog out (unless they seem to be struggling with reactivity, have a day of exercising the from indoors)  The last thing you want is having a reactive dog that lacks in exercise, that is just a recipe for disaster!

You Aren’t Alone!

Don’t forget to leave a comment whether to ask a question, give your own tips, give feedback etc and check out the leash aggression training blog for more information and resources on dealing with leash reactivity in dogs. The worlds a better place when people help each other!

Resources

Why Finding Your Dogs Motivation is Essential to Reduce Leash Reactivity!

Why Finding Your Dogs Motivation is Essential to Reduce Leash Reactivity!


When looking to reduce leash reactivity there are many techniques but none are going to work if you can’t find the right motivation for your dog. Discover the importance of motivation and 3 techniques you can start using today!


reduce leash reactivity

This page contains affiliate links which means I receive a commission on anything you decide to buy. I only recommend products that I either have used and/or trust.


Dealing With Your Dog and Reactivity

It’s a hard life dealing with a leash reactivity in dogs. Everything is all fun and games apart from those 5 seconds where they go into overdrive mode. You can be having the time of your lives but then something just switches. Your dog spots something that turns them into a snarling and lunging mess. Making a big scene where it isn’t necessary while you stand there apologetically praying for it to stop. Sound familiar?

Anyone who currently has or previously had a dog like this knows the issue. It is a common problem (even though it may feel like you are alone).

What Causes The Issue?

There can be many underlying reasons if you find your dog having this problem.

  • It is common mainly in dogs/puppies that haven’t been socialised properly. They could be a rescue dog that for no fault of your own didn’t get socialised enough. You may have got them from someone who didn’t socialise them properly or you may not have even had time yourself.
  • Anxiety and fear are a common factor for reactivity. They react in this way because they want what is scaring them to go away. Maybe due to previous experiences or their history they may just be afraid of other dogs.
  • Excited dogs with little self-control might find themselves barking and lunging at triggers mainly due to the fact they just want to say hi and play.
  • A recent injury may have made your dog just need some extra personal space. When a dog needs personal space they will bark and lunge to make sure they get it.
  • Age is also a factor. Older dogs may prefer having their space and to plod along, a younger dog running at them is not what they’ll want.
  • Rude introductions where another dog is off leash or just coming straight at your dog can cause a lot of problems.

If you want to make progress when looking to reduce leash reactivity you want to make sure you understand why your dog behaves like that. Are they scared or excited? Are they old or maybe even just aggressive? Once you know it will change your perspective on the issue your dog is actually facing.


Change How Your Dog Feels About Triggers

Your goal is simply to change how your dog is going to react to triggers. The best way to do this is through desensatisation and counter-conditioning. You are wanting to associate the trigger with a reward. By doing this constantly over time you can change their emotional response to the trigger.

You can’t use any reward though, you need to find the right reward to motivate your dog. Especially in moments of reactivity you want a reward so good that you manage to keep their attention!


leash reactive warning signs of dogs

What Motivates Your Dog?

Motivation can be split down into 3 different categories; play, praise and treats

Play

All dogs love to play but some are driven by the concept of a game of tug or fetch like nothing else! You can get your hands on a tennis ball, squeaky balls or a tug toy with no problem from places like Amazon.

A lot of toys are pretty easy to take out with you on general walks, they easily fit into your pocket or bag. If you can keep them somewhere that is easy to access then you get your hands on the chosen item when a trigger appears.

You want to get your hands on toys that you only take on walks however. This makes it that much more special for when you actually reward your dog with it.



Praise/Attention

Some dogs are simply motivated by praise. They don’t need anything else to keep them going (although most the times it is always appreciated).

You will need to make sure that you give your dog plenty of praise though if you are thinking to go down this road. Without treats or play it may be harder to get their attention especially when there is a more interesting trigger in the distance.

For example if you have a dog that can’t control itself when meeting people, teaching self-control and getting the dog to sit patiently before getting the reward of attention can really help!

Walking Away From The Trigger

If you have a dog that is nervous and anxious then you don’t want to force them to interact with triggers. Instead the reward for them would be moving away and creating distance.

Keep enough distance between you and the other trigger, enough for your dog to notice and then move away before reaching threshold.

Repeatedly walking away from triggers doesn’t hinder your progress. As long as your dog sees the trigger and you work on distance over time this method will help you dog understand that you have the situation under control, they don’t have to deal with a dog if they don’t want to. Be the leader!

Treats

Many people resort to treats when it comes to rewarding their dog. It’s a no brainer, dogs love treats! Jasper would sell his soul (and mine) for the box of treats on the top shelf.

If you decide to use treats you need to make sure that you are using those of a high-value. In these kind of situations using ordinary kibble is not going to help you out, that won’t grab your dogs attention. You want to bring out the big guns for this:

  • Chicken
  • Cheese
  • Dried liver
  • Sausages
  • Carrots

Anything that is going to drive your dog insane.



products for leash reactivity

The Importance of High-Value Motivation

Making sure that you provide a high value reward for your dog will ensure success when it comes to leash reactive dog training.

You need to make sure what you have is a high value to what your dog is used to and is also something they don’t get often. If you keep giving your dog the same low value treat over and over then it won’t be long until they get bored. When they get bored, you lose their focus.

So ensure that you have the best value treats that will keep your dog drooling just from the smell of them. Or get them excited to play just from the look of them! It may cost you a bit more but the value is worth it!

Associate Trigger With Good Thing

When you encounter a trigger then chances are your dog is afraid of it. To reduce leash reactivity you are wanting to make them associate that trigger with a reward.

Constantly reinforcing a form of reward when your dog spots another dog can help change their emotional response. When they see this trigger they now get a high value reward of some sort and slowly change happens.


Watch how they are showing how to associate a trigger with a reward. Very strong results!

Reinforce Good Behavior

If your dog does anything that you like/want them to keep doing, reward them for it. If you want a repeat behaviour you need to give them a reason to repeat it. This is why you treat overload when it comes to desensatisation. You reward a lot for them staying calm and not barking.

Just like lunging and barking is a bad habit that over time got stronger, you can make a better habit by training your dog this way with treats.

Help Your Dogs Confidence

You can help boost your dogs confidence by having the right motivation. When you want to reduce leash reactivity your dog has a habit of barking and lunging at their triggers. They may pull when they see another dog. This is because this is all they know to do.

As explained above you want to teach them good habits and you want to reinforce them. This also helps with confidence. Your dog won’t have to deal with you pulling the leash and shouting if they are doing the behaviours you want.

This becomes a lovely cycle where you work with your dog to reduce leash reactivity. At the same time you improve their confidence and your walks in general.


3 Ways To Start To Reduce Leash Reactivity Today!

Increasing focus

With your dog, when they display leash reactive warning signs and slowly get towards their threshold it is hard to get their focus back. In my eyes dogs can only concentrate so much on everything, that’s why their heads are always on a swivel, because there’s so much to take in.

Focus is being able to get your dog to both focus and to listen to you even when there are distractions around.

When a dog starts moving up the threshold of reactivity because of a stimuli – you lose their focus as they transfer it to the distraction. At this point you want to be able to get their attention so you can either walk away from the situation calmly, get them to sit down or go into a down position, you want their focus back so you can get out the situation without an outburst.

Teaching look at me/focus

I increased Jaspers focus simply by teaching him to “look at me” (which I referred to as focus).

I started somewhere with no distractions which was our living room.

  1. Call Jaspers name
  2. With the treat between my middle finger and my thumb, I lift my hand up to point at my eyes
  3. Jaspers attention follows the treat, once he locks with my eyes (even for just a second), reward and praise
  4. Repeat and increase duration before treating
  5. Slowly start taking the treats away and keep the hand signal.

Teaching to focus with distractions

The easiest way to teach this is when on walks and this also increases the focus they have when they are on the leash.

  • While walking I’ll call Jaspers name or I’ll say focus
  • If he looks at me in the eye (even if it’s for a split second) then I’ll throw a treat in front of him (this makes sure we keep moving, I don’t want him to focus and then stop).
  • Anytime Jasper looks at me when I ask him to (and even when I don’t),I’ll praise and reward. You want them to know good things happen when they fully focus!

Teaching focus is very important as it helps builds the fundamentals of your dog looking at your for guidance and permission.

For reactive dog owners, by building this focus you will find it easier to get your dogs attention (depending how close to the threshold they are). If you have your dogs attention even for a split second you can teach one of the following techniques to use at this point!


leash training for dogs

Training to turn

This is another technique you can start off straight away. By ‘turn’, I simply mean being able to turn 180 degrees and walk the other direction. Now this might sound simple but try doing this with a reactive dog!!!

Pulling your dog away when they are on the threshold of reacting is very dangerous, pulling it too hard or aggressively could push them over the edge causing lunging and barking. You want to be calm, be able to give the leash a slight tug that’ll break your dog out of reactivity for a second to give you focus to turn.

Teaching the turn with no distractions

  1. With your dog on a leash, walk in a straight line as you normally would.
  2. Stop and turn 180 degrees without saying anything
  3. If your dog follows then praise and reward
  4. If your dog doesn’t and you get to the end of the leash, give a slight tug and when they turn and follow give them praise and a reward and continue.

After a few sessions of this your dog should seem more aware that they are following you, there should be more focus.

To increase this focus add distractions to this method.

Teaching to turn with distractions

The next step to teaching your dog this is out on walks. Instead of just turning around sometimes make it more interesting, make your dog want to focus on you during walks:

  • Cross the road multiple times
  • Walk slower
  • Walk faster
  • Take lefts and right even when you don’t need to

The above alone will keep your dog on their toes and wanting to know what’s coming next.

When I taught Jasper this it became a godsend because once we used it in a few situations he learned that if he doesn’t react at the situation and we leave calmly then that’s a win. Of course at times it was harder than most but once he got the hang of it things got easier!

Training to sit

The last one to teach your dog is the sit and stay when it comes to reactivity.

This works by aiming to get your dog to sit and be patient instead of reacting in a way that involves barking.

Your dog should already have a basic sit command but you want to take it up a notch, when you tell them to sit then you want them sat until you have released them!

Training enough on this means that instead of your dog barking and lunging that they sit down, wait for you to guide them and deal with the situation (see how everything’s linking together here?).

Teaching the extended sit

  1. Get your dog into a sit position by your side
  2. Step in front of your dog, if they move then correct them back into the sit position
  3. If they stay wait a couple of seconds
  4. Praise and reward and return to starting position

You want to continue this and slowly increase the distance from your dog and also the duration of the sit.


train a dog sit and stay

Common Mistakes When Trying To Reduce Leash Reactivity

Try to avoid making some of these mistakes as you try to reduce leash reactivity or you could hinder the progress you and your dog are making!

  • Don’t push your dog too fast – Don’t hinder your progress by trying to progress too fast. Take things slow otherwise you will experience more outbursts than not
  • Remain under threshold – keep under threshold to avoid your dog tipping over the line. This means you must take a note of the distance that trigger is.
  • Don’t punish your dog – if your dog has an outburst and you punish them you are not making progress. Punishing your dog could cause a bigger outburst. Punishment can also make your dog make leash reactive warning signs. This means they won’t bark and lunge but may go straight for bit if the trigger still advances.
  • Don’t treat your dog any differently – your dog doesn’t want to embarrass you in front of everyone on purpose. Chances are they probably hate it as much as you do. They aren’t doing this show as some sort of spite. They still love you regardless!

Final Thoughts!

Finding out what motivates and drives you dog is not only essential for reactive dogs but great for teaching a dog anything. If you can find what drives your dog then you will have an upper hand when it comes to getting their attention.


You Aren’t Alone!

Don’t forget to leave a comment whether to ask a question, give your own tips, give feedback etc and check out the leash aggression training blog for more information and resources on dealing with leash reactivity in dogs. The worlds a better place when people help each other!


Resources

The Best Products For Leash Reactive Dog Training

The Best Products For Leash Reactive Dog Training


Leash reactive dog training is a long and daunting process, especially if done with the wrong equipment. Discover which equipment you will need for success and safety with this issue!


products for leash reactive dog training

This page contains affiliate links which means I receive a commission on anything you decide to buy. I only recommend products that I either have used and/or trust.


The Best Products for Leash Reactivity in Dogs

When I started out on this journey of leash reactive dog training with Jasper, I had no idea what I was doing. Jasper is a 2 year old rescue Staff I’ve had for 6 months. His background suggests poor socialization or bad experiences with other dogs but he’s great with people (sound familiar?). At the beginning of this journey I was just equipped with a flexileash and a collar and hoped for the best. Now at this point in time, I don’t leave the house with a few essentials now which I highly recommend!

What is Leash Reactivity in Dogs?

Leash reactivity in dogs can literally be simplified to your dog reacting to a trigger while they are on the leash. You may find that off leash your dog is perfectly normal however once they are limited to their options things start to become a problem.

Reactive dogs aren’t aggressive! A common misconception is that your dog is dangerous and out of control when they just have an underlying problem you need to work through. If you do however feel like your dog might be aggressive then getting professional help is the best way forward.

Your dog can react to these triggers/stimuli in various different way. The most common trigger is another dog so let’s use that as an example.

leash reactivity dog training chart
Below Threshold (Green) – picking up a dogs scent
Threshold (Yellow) – Seeing the trigger
Over Threshold (Red) – Reacting to the trigger

Below Threshold

This is where you want all the training to happen, you have more chance of getting the attention back from your dog if they are under threshold. This means the trigger is at a safe distance for training.

Hitting Threshold

This is where your dog notices the trigger and depending on the distance all depends on the reaction. The jump between sitting on the threshold and getting a reaction all depends on how far your dog can deal with a trigger.

From a distance you might notice that your dogs ears perk up and their tail becomes stiff. As the trigger gets closer your dog might change pace from yours and might even stop moving. This shows the loss in focus. At this point you need to either move away or provide the right motivation to get your dogs focus back on you!

Over-Threshold

If you don’t manage the situation quick enough then you are going to get a reaction. If you don’t get out of dodge or you can’t keep your dog focused then you hit the next section. This is why your dog makes a scene, barking and lunging, where they literally cannot control the internal state.

When your dog is over threshold (whether it be from fear or over excitement) they are less likely to listen to you no matter what high value treat you have. Understanding doesn’t happen here and your dog won’t be able to learn the lesson due to stress and frustration rushing through the body.


leash reactive warning signs

Click here to find out more about leash reactive warning signs and triggers!


Why does Leash Reactivity in Dogs happen?

You can split up reactivity into 3 categories; fear, frustration and those in need of space. Your dog may fall into one of these categories for many reasons…

Fear

When a dog encounters a trigger, the reaction is more of a way of wanting the trigger to go away, nothing aggressive!

A very common factor is an underlying emotional problem. Maybe your dog wasn’t socialized enough or they had bad experiences beforehand. Or you might find that your dog is just scared and wants the other dog to just go away

Bad Past Experiences

You might find that an experience has made your dog look differently at a trigger. Even a rescue whom went through bad experiences in the past can lead to the problem now.

Frustration/Excitement

Believe it or not, your dog might just want to go and say hi. They may believe when they see other dogs its time to play and they try too do just that. The leash restraining them from this builds up all the frustration which is all let out in barking and lunging.

Need Of Space

Sometimes a dog just wants space, we live in a society where many believe that all dogs can and should be friends which is a lovely thought but a damaging one at that. People force dog to dog interactions with some dogs that aren’t just aren’t bothered.

Injury

Unfortunately many of our dogs go through injury and this means that they might just need space. Imagine being a dog hobbling around and another comes charging at you even to say hi. Injured dogs need to have their space so they can heal in peace.

Old Age

This goes back into injury in a way. Elderly dogs like their space, they may not want any interaction with other dogs at all. The reactivity is a lot lower on this scale until a dog is fully invading the personal space.

You can find out more in depth information on the causes of on leash reactivity and how to identify the triggers with the beginners guide to leash reactivity in dogs.


beginners guide to leash reactivity in dogs

Best Products to Manage Leash Reactivity in Dogs

Dog Treat Bag

The best weapon in my arsenal at the moment is Jasper’s dog treat bag. Having a dog treat bag makes life easier for you by literally 20%!

The reason I’m a big believer in having a treat bag when you have a reactive dog is that you can deliver treats a lot quicker. With leash reactive dog training its all about giving the treat at the right moment to make positive associations etc. Having a treat bag allows you to quickly deliver treats to your dog and also keep a lot of equipment to hand e.g. I have a tennis ball inside and a muzzle clipped on the bag for extra safety if needed!


High Value Toy

You will need to find a toy that motivates your dog. You need to find one that they go absolutely crazy for. The goal is to take this with you on walks and when you encounter a situation using the toy as a motivator to either focus on you, turn around or sit and stay quietly while the trigger passes.

I find that toys such as squeaky toys work as they can instantly break the dogs attention with the high sound. Even a tennis ball works well which you can bounce when your dog is pushing threshold to bring them back. I personally go for a tug toy which I keep behind my back (fully equipped) and pull out to regain focus and attention. This is the only time Jasper can play with this tug toy and due to this he has a high drive to get it.


High Value Treats

The treats you use are so important to when it comes to creating a positive association with a trigger. You must have a specific treat that your dog gets when they behave appropriately in the presence of a trigger. If your dog gets kibble for breakfast and dinner and kibble for training, how valuable do you think kibble is going to be as a reward vs the default choice of barking and lunging?

Just because you are giving your dog the option of a treat doesn’t mean they’ll take it, a dog has the choice of choosing their reward. This reward can also be reverting back to their default barking and lunging behaviour…you must make yourself more rewarding than the trigger. Along with creating distance, other high value rewards that have been praised are

  • Boiled chicken
  • Cheese (experiment with different cheeses, I’ve heard some go nuts for manchego!)
  • Dried beef
  • Duck
  • Ham
  • Hot Dogs

Cut these into small pieces to keep your dog engaged by wanting more.


Muzzle

I know people look at muzzles and think they look dangerous or can’t be good for the dog etc. However, a muzzle is the magic wand you need to help your dog.

After a couple of weeks with Jasper I got a muzzle. Not for himself but for other dogs. Our biggest issue is people letting their dogs come straight for us, so to make it simpler I got Jasper a muzzle.

A muzzle will relax you so much more knowing your dog can’t do serious damage even if the situation is not his fault. Honestly in my opinion it is one of the best ways to dealing with irresponsible dog owners.

Make sure you give your dog proper muzzle training so they have no negative thoughts about it.

You can check out my review for the Baskerville Ultra Muzzle here!


Training Leash

I recommend getting a leash that is sturdy and comfy for you to hold. I highly DO NOT recommend getting a retractable leash if you have a reactive dog. If you have a retractable leash you will find its a lot harder to actually control your dog. Pulling them back in is just a nightmare! Plus if you have a larger dog and they charge at a trigger it’s not going to be pleasant for either of you!

I suggest one that you can hold in two hands, one around the loop and one for extra stability. For Jasper I have two leashes, one which I use when we are going for a normal walk. Slightly padded loop for me, strong material and reflective. The other is more of our training leash, where we go to dog parks and wander around trying to work on the reactivity.


Collar vs. Harness

This is honestly all down to you and what feels more comfortable and managable for you and your dog.

A collar has the downside of causing a lot of pressure on the neck for dogs who pull and are corrected on the leash. A harness distributes this pressure across the upper body of the dog which maybe gentler on the dog but this will generate more force to pull.

I started off with a harness for Jasper and I stuck to it for a little while, but once we had his leash walking skills on point, I honestly didn’t think he needed it and we haven’t looked back since.

I recommend a “tactical” collar or harness purely because (1) there is a handle of both which you can grab to pull your dog away if needed (2) if you get one with velcro you can get labels that you can use to tell people “nervous”, “in training”, “do not pet” etc.


The Last Thing You Need to Know about Leash Reactive Dog Training

Leash reactive dog training is a long and daunting process. You will get frustrated at times. To do this make sure you learn about keeping your cool with training.

Make sure that you have the best equipment to deal with this problem. Whether you are doing it yourself or with the help of a professional. The last thing you want is to make things more difficult for the both of you.

To read more into this issue then check out the beginners guide to leash reactivity in dogs or head over to the blog.


You Aren’t Alone

Don’t forget to leave a comment whether to ask a question, give your own tips, give feedback etc and check out the leash aggression training blog for more information and resources on dealing with leash reactivity in dogs. The worlds a better place when people help each other!


The Beginners Guide To Leash Reactivity In Dogs

The Beginners Guide To Leash Reactivity In Dogs


Leash reactivity in dogs is a common problem, even though it may not feel like it; you may find your dog barking and lunging uncontrollably for no reason at random people, kids, skateboards, dogs etc. I’m guessing you’ve got a wonderful dog right? However, this dog isn’t that great with some first impressions…sound about right? If you want to help your dog with their reactivity problems then you need to first understand the problem itself and your dog so you can make a solid plan from there!


beginners guide to leash reactivity in dogs

This page contains affiliate links which means I receive a commission on anything you decide to buy. I only recommend products that I either have used and/or trust.


The Importance of Understanding Leash Reactivity In Dogs

A barking and lunging dog is usually thought to be an aggressive dog, wanting to do harm. You may experience glares from other owners and maybe even some sour words about how you have a “bad dog”…you may possibly even believe it, but this is more likely far from true, you just have to understand it from your dogs perspective.


What is Leash Reactivity in Dogs?

Let’s break it down very simple here

Leash – dog leash, dog on the leash

Reactivity – reacting to a certain stimuli

Leash reactivity – Your dog reacting to a certain stimuli/trigger while they are on the leash.

Your dog may be reactive to kids, cars, bikes, dogs, other animals, skateboards, cats , people with hoods, males etc.

Aggression vs Reactivity – What’s The Difference?

Leash aggression and reactivity can be classed as the same – reacting to a certain stimuli while they are on the lead. HOWEVER, not all reactive dogs are actually aggressive and that is why you need to understand this issue.

Aggression in dogs is more wanting to actually cause harm to the trigger, where reactivity is reacting due to fear and excitement.

(If you have a dog you feel is aggressive then getting professional help is the best option to deal with this issue. Aggressive dogs can be dangerous to the public, others and themselves! A trainer will be able to give you a plan for your dog to overcome this).


What Causes Leash Reactivity In Dogs?

The reason it takes so long for dogs to overcome reactivity is because you are trying to change an underlying issue with your dog. I believe you can split reactive dogs in two categories; fear and frustration.

Fear

For those dogs who are afraid of certain triggers, the reason they react isn’t aggressive, but to create distance between the trigger. It’s the fight-or-flight reaction, they can’t run away (because they are on the leash), so when the trigger comes too close, they lunge and bark and growl to make the trigger ‘go away’ and it does and unfortunately, the dog starts learning….”If I start reacting, the trigger will go away” and so this habit strengthens and becomes the default pathway.

Common causes for fear reactivity include poor/late socialisation (especially in rescue dogs) and also bad experiences with other dogs too.

Frustration

The other side of the coin is frustration, they aren’t afraid of the trigger (or want to cause harm), instead frustrated reactivity is when a dog wants to get a trigger but can’t because they are on the leash. They get so excited and aroused at the sight of something that they want to go and interact with it now! Your dog may seem crazy, intent on doing harm, but they just can’t control themselves at that point in time.

Common causes for frustration can be too much socialisation, but how can you have too much? If your dog spends a majority of time at the dog park and playing with other dogs, they will learn that dog = play.

Both of these issues if not properly handled can become out of control and cause frustration and stress for both you and your dog. I do recommend seeking help of a trainer as they can find what works better for your dog and they can also show you what you are doing wrong too.


How to get started with Leash Reactivity in Dogs?

If you are just starting to deal with this issue or you now want to take some action on it then the first thing to think is what do you want to achieve out of this?

Know Your Goals

If you know what you want to achieve then you will be able to see yourself make progress, you can tailor your own leash aggression training plan etc.

Many people with reactive dogs get into situations because they don’t know what goal they are aiming for. If you have a clear goal set in your head, every time you are out you will think “will this situation bring me closer to my goal?”. For example, your dog might have passed 2 dogs this week and you know that is the usual limit, you have a chance to make it a third but you think “will this situation bring me closer to our goal?”

Know What Triggers Set Off Your Dog

This is important! You need to figure out what is going to set your dog off. You might be lucky enough to only have one that causes the drama, however sometimes you’ll find various triggers.

Write them down and then see which one has the strongest reaction. Figure an order of which ones you’d like to work on first. If you have multiple triggers don’t try to juggle them all at once, work on one and then on the others. You don’t want to flood your dog with triggers because this can push them over the threshold!

triggers of leash reactivity in dogs

Make a note of what you think the triggers are, next time you go on a walk check to see what catches your dogs attention.


Warning Signs of Leash Reactivity in Dogs

Believe it or not, your dog gives small signals when their internal state changes. To the untrained owner, hypervigilant behaviour such as walking in front on alert and looking around may seem like a “dominant dog”, but to the trained owner we know the dog is just worried about an imaginary threat and in a high state of stress.

Understanding your dogs body language can let you know how they are feeling inside. Learning about certain head, body and tail positions will let you know whether the dog is happy, afraid or becoming nervous or anxious, these are the warning signs of a leash reactive dog.


leash reactive warning signs of dogs

Reactivity Distance

With the information on your dogs triggers, it is time to figure out what is referred to as ‘Reactivity Distance’ – the distance your dog can stay under threshold, the safety bubble that surrounds your dog.

Under Threshold

This is where you want all the training to happen, you have more chance of getting the attention back from your dog if they are under threshold. This means the trigger is at a safe distance for training.

Above Threshold

Here we get into more of the danger zone, you will find your dog breaking this threshold point if you get too close to the trigger. Sometimes you can’t help something approaching and sometimes there’s no way to go. Or maybe there are too many triggers for your dog and they explode (referred to as trigger stacking). When your dog is over threshold (whether it be from fear or over excitement) they are less likely to listen to you no matter what high value treat you have. Understanding doesn’t happen here and your dog won’t be able to learn the lesson due to stress and frustration rushing through the body.

Staying under the threshold is very important with reactive dogs, you need to know the reactivity distance of a trigger, so that you can train your dog efficiently. You also need to start thinking about variable factors, these are factors that can spark your dog over threshold such as a kid for example. Your dog may be fine with kids up to 10ft away BUT that kid starts running or throwing a loud tantrum, that distance increases and suddenly the kid is in the safety bubble which pushes your dog over threshold.


Tips for Success in Leash Reactivity in Dogs

If you want to be successful in helping reduce leash reactivity then you have to be ready for the journey you are about to go on. Yes it might be frustrating but imagine the feeling of walking past dogs knowing that you managed to get to this point, a feeling of self-achievement! The following 4 are some of my beginners tips for helping you out!

Leash Skills

Having solid leash skills will change your life! You will not only enjoy your walks more, but you also will have a more engaged dog, one that you can get under control and out of a sticky situation quickly.

The thing with improving leash skills is that you increase the dogs focus on you. You let them know you are in control of the walk which takes any pressure off them, they just have to enjoy the walks.

By having leash skills that can create distance also helps your dog trust you more! If you have a dog that is afraid of a trigger, picking up on the body language and creating distance will help your dog know they aren’t alone.

Maneuvers like the U-turn is great for when you find yourself entering the threshold zone, a quick spin and you’re off the other way resetting the distance again.


leash training for dogs

Discover more about leash training for dogs


Equipment

How can you expect to be successful if you don’t have the right equipment?! There are 3 products to help leash reactivity in dogs that I would recommend and I will tell you why I made the swap to each one.

(You can find out more on products for leash reactive dog training here).

  • A Treat Bag

Investing in a treat bag was one of the smartest things I have done. When it comes to leash reactivity, timing of the reward is crucial so your dog learns to create a positive association with their trigger. Even though I did carrry treats, I’d normally just carry them in my pocket and I would fumble around my keys trying to get at them.

With a treat bag you can quickly deliver treats for your dog plus hold all your walking essentials as you go as well. There are many benefits but for me, the ability to quickly reward your dog to reinforce positive behaviours is important!


  • A Training Leash

I used to have a retracable leash for Jasper until I found out how bad it really is for him. If you have a larger dog then a retractable leash will not give you the best control, in fact it can be pretty dangerous. Think about it, if you dog picks up speed and runs then you’ve got to stop them or something is going to happen. Your dog running full pelt and then being stopped will not be any fun for EITHER OF YOU!

I now own a 15 meter long line which is an absolute godsend! I control how much I let out which is great for bigger walks and its great for helping me with Grisha Stewards BAT technique (if you haven’t already check out behavior adjustment training which is a strong method of working with your dogs reactivity and empowering them to make the right choices).


  • A Muzzle

Regardless of what anyone says a muzzle is essential! You don’t have to wear it all the time but I carry one on Jasper’s bag in case I ever need it. Dog muzzles prevent biting and serious injury, you may be able to keep your dog under control but you can’t always account for other peoples dogs!

A muzzle has become a sign of responsibility and honestly it takes the edge off so much! An issue me and Jasper had would be off lead dogs approaching. Nothing has happened but with a muzzle I feel 10 times safer and confident!


products for leash reactivity

Have a plan

You will want to make a plan of attack! You need to be prepared, you can’t just walk your dog and hope for the best! Have a leash reactive dog training plan that lets you know what you are going to be working on every day. This will help keep your mind clear and work towards goals without being frustrated. If you try doing it all in your head you won’t know whether you are making progress or not!

Make sure to check out my blog for a variety of skills to master and methods I’ve found effective and bring them all together into a solid plan!

Distance

The last key to success is to understand the distance that you are working with. Learn what distance your dog is comfortable with but then increase it by 10 metres – this is your safe zone!

Slowly work your way into making this distance smaller but make notes on progress. Is your dog reactive to dogs but getting better with smaller dogs?

Distance is important but if there is nothing you can do and an encounter is imminent then just ignore your dog. If you shout, yank the leash, correct them etc it could lead to bigger explosions next time or even masking the problem. Create distance, wait for them to calm down, gain their attention, reward and move on.


Common Questions/FAQ About Leash Reactivity In Dogs

1 – Can you cure leash reactivity?

Yes! Over time as your dog gets older they will most likely react less to their triggers but they may also get worse. Leash reactivity in dogs can be cured if you are willing to work with your dog. If you just wait and hope things work out you could end up waiting a long time! Take the first step and learn what you need to do to achieve success!

2 – How to stop dog barking and lunging?

The best way to stop reactive behaviours is to give your dog the option of another behaviour to perform. Teaching them a sit and stay or to “watch me” for example. Your dog barks because they don’t know what else to do at that moment, barking and lunging has always worked to remove the trigger. You need to teach them another option that allows them to redirect their usual approach. Master various obedience skills to help reduce reactivity! Check out the video below where teaching a dog to leave it can be very effective!

3 – Does a harness stop dogs from pulling?

A harness won’t stop a dog from pulling unfortunately. If you want to learn how to stop your dog pulling you need to improve your leash skills and the dogs focus on you. By incorporating leash skills such as “heel” and performing maneuvers such as starting and stopping and U-turns you can build this focus so your dog is always anticipating your next move!

4 – Why does my dog growl at other dogs on walks?

Growling is one of the warning signs of leash reactivity in dogs. You need to figure out what distance this comes across and then start working on desensatising your dog or teaching them new behaviours instead of growling. Remember that your dog is most probably anxious, nervous or scared and not to punish them if they have an outburst as it could make things worse!

5 – Should I use aversive methods?

This is quite a big question when it comes to training dogs and honestly I don’t really believe in it. For me using equipment such as prong and shock collars might help in the short run, but in the long term of things it could get messy, I personally don’t use them.

As mentioned these problems your dog has are on an emotional level and they are just expressing their concern to YOU to handle. The problem is at the moment you can’t.

If you start using aversive methods who’s to say you don’t mask up the reactivity warning signs? Who’s to say that now your dog won’t bark but instead just go to bite when they can’t deal with it? Who’s to say they won’t direct their reactivity to you after a strong leash pop? Who’s to say you don’t create a negative association to the trigger?

6 – How do I keep my dog under threshold?

Find a motivator for your dog – whether it be high value treats (no kibble, you need the big guns), play, sniffing around etc. You can’t go out and just expect them to focus on you with all the distractions around. If you work properly with your dog within the threshold you should be able to keep them focused on you!

Try to keep under the threshold as much as possible keeping an eye out for other triggers that might be approaching too.


The Last Thing You Need to Know about Leash Reactivity in Dogs

You should now have a little bit more of an understanding about leash reactivity in dogs. How important it is to know your goals and to have a plan in place. One thing I would like you to take away however is the importance of keeping calm when training your dog!

I know it can be frustrating dealing with a reactive dog, however if you don’t stay calm then it is not going to be fun for either of you. You could even deteriorate the bond between the two of you and make going on walks something they aren’t bothered about.

Once you’re all set and have the best products for leash reactive training, it’s time to begin!


Don’t forget to leave a comment whether to ask a question, give your own tips, give feedback etc and check out the leash aggression training blog for more information and resources on dealing with leash reactivity in dogs. The worlds a better place when people help each other!


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