When your dog is on the leash they will slowly give you leash reactive warning signs that you are walking them into an outburst. As you get closer these signs become more dramatic until your dog becomes a barking and lunging mess. Discover what to look out for and how you can work with your dog to create an alternative behaviour to reduce leash reactivity.
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The World of Leash Reactivity in Dogs
What does leash reactivity mean?
Leash reactivity in dogs is a term that describes a dog’s behaviour on the leash when there is a stimulus present – reactive. A lot of people have the problem that their dog is brilliant at home but as soon as that leash is on, it’s a different story. Your dog loves to bark, lunge and make a scene at anything and everything.
It can be a very frustrating problem for you and your dog and the best way to overcome it is to understand what is going through your dogs head. You will find that once you understand what your dog requires, it’ll be easier giving them what they need.
My dog Jasper (the inspiration for this blog) is a reactive dog and by understanding why and what rattles his cage, I was able to start dealing with this issue.
Can my dog grow out of leash reactivity?
Yes and no. With age you might find that it becomes easier to deal with as they get older but the best way is to train it out of them. The last thing you want is to waste precious time until your dog just becomes better.
Whether you decide to do it alone or whether you decide to get personal help, dealing with the problem sooner rather than later is very beneficial. Not treating the problem could just make everything worse.
Why does my dog behave better off leash?
Have you noticed how dogs greet each other when they are off leash? They come in from behind and give each other a sniff to see if they can be friends, if not then they can walk away no problem at all. Now think about when walking your dog, how do you encounter dogs? It’s literally a lot more head on and dogs approaching in this matter is in fact very rude and intimidating. So when you’re approaching another owner and their dog and your dog is uncomfortable with it – then they feel trapped.
Causes of Leash Reactivity in Dogs
You can put leash reactive behaviours in 3 categories; over excited, anxious/nervous and aggressive.
Rarely do you really see dog aggressive dogs but if you feel like your dog might be showing signs of aggression then seeking professional help should be your first step.
Over-excited dogs just need a bit of self-control. They see a ball, skateboard, another dog or another trigger and they just want to play or to go and say hi. Being on the leash stops this capability which leads to frustration and an outburst. These kind of dogs need to be taught alternative calmer behaviours and self control to overcome the issue. You can learn how to train a dog sit and stay so they learn to sit and wait for the trigger to pass or for someone to approach etc.
More anxious and nervous dogs actually are just afraid of the trigger. This may be other cars, kids, adults, hats, loud noises etc. Their big display of behaviour is to make the trigger go away and they succeed. A bad habit builds because your dog believes by barking they can make the trigger go away which is in the form of you walking away or the trigger. These dogs need to learn different behaviours just like over-excited dogs. Increasing focus with games is a reduce reactivity, the more your dog focuses on you, the more control you have over him to retreat.
Understanding Your Dogs Triggers
Once you understand what causes leash reactivity, the next step is figuring out your dogs triggers. The best way to do this is to make a note of everything that sets your dog off during your walks. You want to be as specific as possible so you know exactly what causes the problem. One of the most common is dogs but you find your dog may have a problem with the following:
- Other animals
Dogs can tell the slightest differences even with things such as skin colour so make sure you keep a note of everything that triggers your dog. If the problem is people is it because of the skin? Are they wearing a hat? Glasses? Are they loud? Do they have headphones on?
Getting an in depth view of what triggers your dog means that when you spot it you can either prepare for an on-the-go training session or you can use your leash handling skills and avoid the trigger entirely if you don’t think you dog will succeed.
Leash Reactive Warning Signs To Look Out For
One way a dog communicates with us is through body language. They can tell when we’re excited, sad, nervous etc. When on a walk with a dog, you want them to focus on you during the walk. You want to be the one they look to, they look for you to know what you’re doing on this walk.
You want your dog to trust that you’ll make the right decision but to be able to do this you need to understand what your dog is saying to you. As you get closer to a trigger your dog will display leash reactive warning signs, small at first but increasing even into bite zone.
Below are a few examples of leash reactive warning signs:
Your dog knows that they can’t really be in control of which direction they go, they’ve been taught to walk by your side. So how do they let you know they don’t like something? One way is through growling. This is closer to the bite end of the reactivity scale but at this point avoiding the trigger is key!
You may find that your pooch goes into a sniffing craze where you fully lose their focus. This means something has caught their smell, whether it be food, places where other dogs have urinated and also it could be because there isn’t a dog too far. Dogs see a lot more through scent but this can also cause issues.
Jasper loves to sniff things out, so much so that it is used as a reward on walks. I have him walk with me and have assigned break points where he can just be a dog. I find these important as when you are walking you want your dog focused on you. Not to a competitive heeling point but you want them to know this is the business part of the walk, they need to get to point B nicely and they can have a reward.
- Body language
The main indicator for me that makes me focus is Jasper’s body language. When he spots a dog, cat, hears the jingle of collars, skateboards and other stimulating factors his body language becomes up tight. He walks slightly faster, his ears and tail go on edge, his head goes on a swivel – this is the point just before breaking. Be careful when working near this threshold as you could cause an outburst with your dog, DON’T SET THEM TO FAIL!
- Barking and Lunging
This is the upper side of the reactivity chart and pushing the bite zone. These behaviours are last resorts for getting space from the other dog. You have avoided all the other signs so now they need a bigger action to get their desired reaction. This point is over the threshold and you will find that you can’t control your dog, at this point there is nothing you can do but ride it out.
What Do I Do If My Dog Goes Over Threshold?
If you find that you and your dog experiences an outburst and goes over-threshold then do not make it worse! A lot of people end up yanking the leash and shouting at their dog and doing all sorts to stop this behaviour. Introducing this kind of reaction to your dogs reaction can only make things worse.
If your dog is about to tip over the threshold and is stood stiff and completely focused on the other dog. What do you think yanking on the leash is going to do? You want to break the focus naturally otherwise you could get a bigger reaction from your dog or it could be redirected at you.
Breaking the focus naturally will include calling your dog (make sure you call them cheerily and make a lot of fuss about it) or finding their motivation. They could be motivated by food or by a toy or even by moving away from the trigger if they are afraid.
If your dog is already a barking and lunging mess then just ride it out. There is nothing you can do that will stop this behaviour and anything you could do could possibly make it worse. Take a second to reset with your dog and increase the distance to the trigger next time and try again.
As mentioned, a lot of frustration and time and effort goes into leash reactive dog training.
How To Stop Leash Reactivity In Dogs?
First you need to know that this is going to take a lot of time and effort and frustration and you are going to need a boat load of treats.
The end goal is to desensitize your dog to these triggers, to show that the other dogs are in fact harmless and they don’t have to deal with them if they don’t want to. Just as long as they trust you enough to work past them. It will take some time to get to a good point but the keyword for this is distance.
- When you see a dog approaching or if you notice your dog giving off leash reactive warning signs that something is stimulating them then calmly you want to find out what that trigger is.
- Once you have found this trigger you need to figure out the distance where you can get your dog to focus on you. Regardless whether its 5ft or 50ft, add some distance and make that your safe zone.
- When you hit this sweet spot where they listen to you, calmly feed them treats and let them notice the other dog and how they’re nothing to worry about but once they’re gone stop feeding them treats.
- Repeatedly do this with all dogs until you can start reducing the distance
- If you are struggling to get your dogs attention an exercise to go through is calling your dogs name while you walk and you want them to respond by looking you in the eye. Make sure to treat and build this connection as you will struggle to get your dog to focus on you
- You can even practice doing quick movements such as quickly turning 180 degrees with your dog or teaching your dog to back up keeping a barrier between you and their trigger!
Understand That Every Dog is Different!
There are numerous ways that you can go to reduce leash reactivity. Every dog is different and every dog is reacting for different reasons. They won’t all get better via the same methods.
This is just some of the information I’ve come across to helping Jasper with his leash reactivity. You can find a lot more in my beginners guide to leash reactivity in dogs and also on my blog for a variety of methods, techniques, knowledge and so forth!
If you have any comments or questions then pop them down below!
- https://www.growlsnarlsnap.com/single-post/2016/08/28/REACTIVITY-ON-LEASH-AGGRESSION – Great post about on-leash reactivity and about working with thresholds.
- https://www.animalhumanesociety.org/behavior/managing-leash-reactive-dog – tips for managing a reactive dog when on walks