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!
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!!
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.
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!
- PetMD on Counter Conditioning in Dogs – https://www.petmd.com/dog/training/these-dog-training-tips-can-help-your-pup-overcome-leash-reactivity
- VCAHospital Counter Conditing break down – https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/introduction-to-desensitization-and-counterconditioning