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!
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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!
What Motivates Your Dog?
Motivation can be split down into 3 different categories; play, praise and treats
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.
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!
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:
- Dried liver
Anything that is going to drive your dog insane.
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.
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!
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.
- Call Jaspers name
- With the treat between my middle finger and my thumb, I lift my hand up to point at my eyes
- Jaspers attention follows the treat, once he locks with my eyes (even for just a second), reward and praise
- Repeat and increase duration before treating
- 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!
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
- With your dog on a leash, walk in a straight line as you normally would.
- Stop and turn 180 degrees without saying anything
- If your dog follows then praise and reward
- 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
- Get your dog into a sit position by your side
- Step in front of your dog, if they move then correct them back into the sit position
- If they stay wait a couple of seconds
- 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.
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!
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!
- From Crazy to Calm, creating a reactivity plan – Dr Jens Dog Blog – http://www.drjensdogblog.com/from-crazy-to-calm-a-training-plan-for-leash-reactivity/
- Engage and Disengage game for reactivity – https://www.clickertraining.com/reducing-leash-reactivity-the-engage-disengage-game
- Care for reactive dogs – http://careforreactivedogs.com/start-here/