Why is it essential to helping a reactive dog find calm? Discover how you can improve your current walks with this simple trick that will shape your dog to look at you for guidance and support instead of resorting to their usual behaviour.
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 Leash Reactivity In Dogs
Reactivity is just that, a reaction, normally to an external stimuli. Dogs have around 300 million receptors in their nose making them 40 times more powerful than ours!
We picture our dogs walking by our side and slightly behind, ignoring the world around us, whilst we enjoy the walk with them. This is a big challenge you are asking from your dog with the world around them when you’re constantly bumping into triggers that make them pull, lunge and even bark uncontrollably. You can however work WITH your dog to get them to trust you and look to you for guidance on your walks.
Helping A Reactive Dog Find Calm Through Teaching Engagement and Focus
This is for anyone who is struggling with any of the following issues:
- Your dog constantly pulling you around, stopping and dictating where they want to go
- A high alert dog that seems to constantly be looking around and getting themselves stressed out
- A reactive dog that barks and lunges at people, dogs and other stimuli
- A dog that doesn’t engage with you on the walk
- People who feel like their dog is really walking them
Dealing with a reactive dog is a hard and frustrating process, you feel that they’re stubborn and don’t want to listen but the problem is they probably feel the same way too.
Imagine your dog with a personal bubble, when indoors at home, when safe, this bubble probably covers the whole house. As mentioned it’s because they feel safe, they’re used to the environment. When you go outside that bubble instantly gets smaller and now we’re talking about just enough to cover your dog (bubble size in proportion to your dogs confidence). When outside the slightest thing like leaves blowing past could put a dog on edge.
As mentioned the bubble gets smaller when you and your dog venture out for walks and the leash just makes it worse! Yes it is a means to take control of your dog but it restricts your dog and that is a major cause of frustration. They are now outside in this scary and distracting world and they have no where to go but with you, in situations they’d normally run, you walk toward the trigger (and if you are reading this then chances are your dog might not be too confident to let you take the reigns but that doesn’t have to be the case!)
We expect our dogs to know exactly what we mean, perfect English, a complete different language. For example your dog pulls ahead and you jerk the leash and say “No! Heel!” but how much have you trained this command? Does your dog really understand the word? Especially out in distracting areas?
The problem with a communication barrier is it’s frustrating for both you and the dog. On the other hand your dog is communicating what they want, you just aren’t listening. If a dog pulls on the lead it’s because something has got their attention and they want to go to it and they get frustrated because they can’t (because of the leash). So they pull and you pull back and you do this process over and over.
Walks become frustrating very quick when you don’t understand each other, so you make it as quick as possible just to get it over with.
Teaching Your Dog To Look At You For Guidance
What you are trying to achieve is helping a reactive dog find calm. You want to train your dog into trusting you in difficult situations, to look at you and be calm, this is key to success, you want your dog to be engaged with you.
You want to make that bubble of theirs bigger, so that at least it engulfs you. The world might be scary but the best way to show your dog there isn’t anything for them to worry about is if you are there to guide them along the way.
So how do you teaching your dog to be more focused on you to achieve calm dog walking?
Start in the house
The best place to teach anything starts in the house! Then you move into places with a few more distractions. This is how you “proof” behaviour, making sure that regardless of what happens you’ve proofed it from distractions.
For Jasper, I use the phrase “focus”. You can call it what you want from “look at me”, or a simple call of your dogs name.
- Put about 10 treats in your left hand and one in your right
- Get your dog to sit in front of you
- Let them smell your hands (they may muzzle and nudge but be patient and stay still and silent)
- After a while your dog will look at you and at the point you instantly mark and reward with the single treat (bring the treat up to your eyes and slowly lower to your dog to reinforce that you are wanting them to look at you
- Take a treat from your left into your right hand and repeat
Keep doing this in the house and slowly add a bit of length between rewarding and then start rewarding for every other success and then mix it up to keep your dog on their toes.
Do this daily when you have a chance, you don’t have to use treats all the time, you can reward looking at you with a cuddle or a play etc.
Before Your Walk
A lot of people say that if you let a dog out the door first you are letting them be dominant etc. But that’s not the reason I walk out the door first, it’s a matter of safety. I believe dominance is a term that’s thrown around too lightly, if someone broke into your house and you came back and the door was open, who would go in first, you or the dog? The leader right? Interesting….
Being the pack leader isn’t about dominance, it’s about safety and keeping each other safe and providing what’s needed.
When leaving the house, my persona isn’t “I’m in charge, you follow!”, It’s more “follow my lead and everything will be fine”. If you want your dog to look at you for guidance you’ll want to be a guide for them, not a dictator. You want to show them what you want.
Engage your dog from the front door before you leave and it will start your walk off wonderfully!
- Do your normal routine of getting ready to leave so you and your dog are stood at the front ready to go
- Slowly open up the door, if your dog moves or tries to get up close it
- Repeat opening and closing until your dog stays sat once the dog is open.
- Now walk out the door and stand in front of it facing your dog (if they move put them back into a sit)
- Practice the focus method for a few times, slowly increasing duration by a few seconds.
- Let your dog walk out (if they run out take them back to step 4)
At this stage of time, when I leave the house, Jasper will sit and look patiently up at my while I lock the front door. He may get distracted and look at people walking past but he’ll stay sat and focuses until he’s released.
During Your Walk
I find the most stressful part of the walk to be the point right out of the door. However if you get your dog focused on you at the start of the walk then I promise life will be ten times easier!
Add this to the start of your walk and see how helpful it can be.
- Once you’ve left the door, stop and get your dog to sit (mark and reward if success)
- Tell them to focus and once again mark and reward
- Take a few steps and repeat
- Continue until the end of the street
Once you’ve completed this street you will find your dog checks in a lot more, they look at you when walking, make sure you reward this behaviour!!! I’d start with consistent rewards at first and then give them at intervals to keep your dog guessing when the treat is going to come
When You Encounter Another Dog
This method is great for helping reactive a reactive dog find calm, even in the presence or when passing other dogs. You are aiming to catch your dogs attention and keep it as you walk by the other dog.
However, if you and your dog aren’t comfortable with this yet, especially if you haven’t got that much engagement on your walks yet, then avoid other dogs.
Simply teach a U-turn that allows you and your dog to turn and escape easily.
- When you spot a dog in front of you, turn with your dog on the outside (it’s more forced if you turn into your dog)
- Call their name or make a kissy sound as your turn
- As your dog turns greet them with a treat in a heeling position
Teach this in the house and outside because it is a lot harder to get your dog to do a U-turn when they spot another dog. You will need a lot of practice and treats to build up this skill.
The long term goal is to slowly decrease the distance at which you’ll turn from another dog until your dog gets comfortable with closer distances, this is when you start getting the dog to engage with you instead of turning.
After Your Walk
Make notes of your walk!!! That’s the way to truly make progress. You want to write down anything you think necessary; dogs encountered, any outbursts, what went well, what didn’t, what could YOU improve on.
At the end of the day you are the foundation to making improvements for you and your dog. Do you need to hold the leash more loosely, did you get too cocky and try walking past another dog, were you engaging enough to catch your dogs attention, do you need to do more work?
This will make a big difference for you and you can see what works and what doesn’t for your dog.
You can find four more of my tips for calm dog walking here.
7 Key Tips For Helping A Reactive Dog Find Calm
Practice makes perfect!
You want to make sure that you practice practice practice! From inside the home, to low distraction areas and so forth. You want to make sure your dog fully understands what you are asking at that point in time. This isn’t an overnight process, but one that is going to take time and patience. Work on a few bits daily and reward your dog so they have an incentive to work WITH you!
Have days for leash aggression training
Have specific days or sessions where you actually work for leash reactivity. By this i mean you will want to encounter dogs on these days (even if you have to start from a distance). 3 of these short sessions a week will do wonders.
On days you aren’t training, make sure that you try to avoid dogs, this stops you from being caught off guard and it also keeps your dogs stress levels down too!!
Don’t push your dog too far even if you are making progress
Don’t get too cocky and try to make progress quicker than your dog is ready for. You want to listen to the body language and if they get uncomfortable then you turn round and head the other way. This is how you make yourself a leader to your dog, they will learn that you’ve got their back.
Understand your dogs body language
As mentioned, you need to understand your dogs body language. It can help vastly knowing how your dog will react. How is the body posture when your dog spots a dog? Does their tail wag or are they frozen still with fear?
Picking up on body language will help learn what you dog is trying to communicate with you.
The importance of high value treats
DO NOT USE KIBBLE FOR TRAINING!
If you want a dog to learn something and to focus on you, you need to give them an incentive. If you want a dog to walk calmly on leash, why are they going to pay attention to you and kibble when there’s smells everywhere and people and distractions?
You need to bring out the big guns, high value treats that your dog goes crazy for. Something that as soon as they catch a sniff, they’re like putty in your hands.
I normally fry some chicken, cut it into pieces and put them into a treat bag. I also carry standard treats in this treat bag…so when I ask Jasper to do something or if he’s generally behaving, I’ll give him a standard treat BUT when a dog or big distraction comes into the picture, and he listens to what I want, out comes the chicken!!
Timing is everything
This may sound so easy but getting to grips with the timing is tricky! You need to make sure you are rewarding your dog for the right thing. If your dog checks in with you and it take you 10 seconds to get a treat, they’ll forget what you’re rewarding them for, is it for the leash manners or sitting because they’re getting a treat?
This is why you start training at home, so the dog knows what you want from it, but you also know what to expect as well!!!
Get a treat bag!
I honestly recommend that you get yourself a treat bag. One that you either carry over your shoulder or attach to your belt/trousers. The reason behind this is because you can quickly mark and reward the behaviour you want to keep. You want to try and reward the dog within 3 seconds to make sure they know what you are rewarding for.
Even when you have to reward your dog in quick succession it’ll be quicker from a bag than having to dig treats out of your pocket! Plus many have different compartments where you can keep your phone or poo bags and even small toys like a tennis ball etc.
Hopefully you’ll find this practical for helping a reactive dog find calm. I highly recommend this for those struggling with reactive behaviour in dogs. It takes a lot of time and patience but if you are willing to work with your dog through this, you will gain this sense of accomplishment afterwards.
Don’t be afraid to seek professional help, sometimes we need more than a guiding hand. 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.