Life can be frustrating when walking a reactive dog, frustrating and embarrassing. One minute you’re having a lovely walk with your dog enjoying the scenery, and the next you are yanking the leash of your dog as they lunge and bark at another dog across the road. Yes it can be embarrassing and frustrating and it can cause you to take precautions such as walking your dog later when no one is around but it doesn’t have to be like that. Changing a dog’s perspective on things that trigger them can be a long and tough process but it can be done!
Whether you are already working on the issue with your dog or if you are looking for a starting point, here are 5 tips that really helped me and Jasper when it came to leash reactivity in dogs.
If you haven’t already, check out part one for my 3 mistakes to avoid when walking a reactive dog
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Figure out the triggers and reactivity distance
The first step in my opinion when it comes to overcoming leash reactivity in dogs is to figure out exactly what the triggers are. You want to map them out and figure out the level of intensity. If your dog has a trigger of kids you might find that he can walk past quiet kids without a problem, but when you throw in a crying kid, or one running then chances of a reaction become greater (running children can trigger the predatory instinct in dogs).
Once you have a scale of your dogs triggers you can start figuring out the reactivity distance. Going back to the example of kids, if you see a kid walking calmly you know that you shouldn’t have much of a problem when it comes to distance, some dogs may even be able to walk past calmly. When you see a screaming kid or one running you need to figure out how “close” you can have your dog to the trigger without them reacting.
When you are armed with both the triggers and the reactivity distance, you can start to figure out the sweet spot where you can start helping your dog overcome and desensitize to their triggers.
Avoid other dogs when not working on desensitization
I recommend having certain days where you work on desensitising your dog (for me my day offs worked the best as I had time for set backs on walks). On these days you will want to work with your dog on decreasing that reactivity distance without a reaction. Areas such as car parks and outside a dog park are great starting spots if you want to desensitise against dogs.
Whatever the trigger, find out where you can create controlled real life situation. If there is a dog park near you then stand at some distance away (even a few streets down if you have to), what you are trying to do is catch the trickles of dogs heading to and from the park. Find a safe place to stand and work with your dog to avoid a reaction, when you are confident move closer (you can use the actual dog park for this example, stand outside and work with your dog towards the goal of that fence). Create a positive association and reward when the behaviour is acceptable, this will help change the mindset.
(You can read more on counter conditioning in dogs below…)
When you aren’t working on leash reactivity problems I recommend avoiding dogs altogether if you can (unless they are at a good distance). The reason for this is that when your dog reacts, their body fills with cortisol and this can take up to 72 hours to leave the system, meaning your dog can be on edge for the next few days. You may pass a dog and for the rest of the walk your dog will be on high alert. Swap your route up to avoid the dog park or skate park or school and just have a nice stroll with your dog.
If you do happen to come into contact with an trigger (sometimes we don’t see them or we see them last minute) then doing some leash training for dogs will help when you need to make swift maneuvers to get out of dodge such as a U-turn, creating space from the trigger.
If you haven’t got one already, I recommend getting yourself a treat bag that you can wrap over your shoulder or on your waist when walking a reactive dog. This will allow for quicker delivery of treats to your dog letting them know exactly what they are doing right. Avoid stumbling round your pockets for a treat as your dog slowly forgets why you are rewarding them.
Keep your cool when walking a reactive dog
When it comes to leash reactivity, a lot of owners lose the “leader status” from their dog, this is because they yank the leash and shout and command things that the dog doesn’t really understand. A leader is meant to lead by example, not trying to force it upon people. Unfortunately this is where many owners go wrong, they can’t keep their cool and not only does the dog sense this but they also become more agitated expecting a reaction for you if something goes wrong! So now here you both are walking on thin ice, trying not to set each other off but instead working each other up even more.
When walking a reactive dog just breathe, you are in control of the situation, at the start of the road you would just drag your dog past the trigger and shout and yank the leash….now you want to create distance and create a positive association with that trigger and if you can’t, move away. You can learn some leash skills to help you make a quick getaway and keep your dog engaged and focused on you at the same time.
If you do find yourself to really be struggling then chances are you will need the help of a professional. Dogs don’t really grow from this issue without the help of someone teaching them what behaviour is acceptable and what isn’t when it comes to triggers and you don’t want to end up with a dog that becomes a burden not only to you, but to those around you too.
I started my journey early on this year and I am still working through some kinks that are there but I assure you, once you know what you’re doing, the penny will drop!
Give the correct exercise
Exercise is crucial when it comes to any behavioural problem. Dogs have stores of energy to use which come in useful when they have a fight or flight experience, unfortunately that isn’t useful for us. An unexercised dog can lead to problems such as digging, chewing, barking, nipping heels, whining and even reactivity problems. When they encounter a trigger they have all this stored energy that they can tap into and push them into action.
If you struggle walking a reactive dog, how on earth do you exercise a reactive dog? I’ve talked to a few owners who end up walking the graveyard shift when no one is around but dogs need both mental and physical stimulation to ensure that their basic needs are met.
Some great ways to burn energy I recommend are stair running (sending your dog up and down the stairs for a treat), obedience work, using a stuffed Kong for mental stimulation, tug of war, scent work (can easily be done indoors) etc. These are great for burning reserves of energy after a walk or even using them before a walk to burn some energy and create calm dog walking.
I mix a lot of obedience and tug of war into our morning and evening walks, not to mention playing around in the day leading to a calmer dog that is easier to control on walks.
Understand body language when walking a reactive dog (or any dog in general)
The final tip to walking a reactive dog is to understand the body language that your dog gives when you are walking. Small things such as a twitch in the ear or the slight stiffening or a tail can let you know how your dog is feeling. If you are walking down the street and your dog hears a skateboard, the ears might prick up and they might start to tense and stiffen, all signs of a coming reaction. If you don’t react quickly and break this chain of thought then it will result in an outburst.
You need to be able to pick up on these signals, take the time to watch your dog as your walk, what makes him happy, distracted, curious, nervous etc. Watch the body language because this can be very effective when you are trying to figure out how a situation is going, if you want to pass by another dog but your dog isn’t ready for it they’ll give you these small signals to create distance before they do it themselves.
Understanding body language can also help figure out what your dog is thinking. Is the tail wagging? Then you have no problem…..if the tail is straight up and stiff, something isn’t right!
Watch your dog and learn a bit more about body language and leash reactive warning signs.