Leash reactivity is by far the most common dog behavior problem we're called in to help with.
If you've ever struggled with your dog's barking and lunging on walks, you know the immense frustration this behavior causes.
Because we've found leash reactivity to be an epidemic problem that's frequently misdiagnosed and misunderstood, we've created a comprehensive guide for determining:
- Whether or not your dog has leash reactivity
- Understanding leash reactivity's causes
- Providing a framework for resolving the problem
Determining If You Have a Leash Reactive Dog
So, you think you might have a leash reactive dog?
It's important to understand that reactivity doesn't necessarily translate to aggression. At its core, reactivity means a "responsiveness to stimulus."
In your dog's case, that stimulus might be a person, a dog, a car – you name it.
Your dog's "responsiveness" is less than ideal for those of us on the other end of the leash.
You likely have a leash reactive dog if:
- Your dog whines or barks at people, dogs, cars, etc on leash.
- Your dog lunges or excessively strains at the leash when seeing a stimulus.
- Your dog redirects onto the leash or onto you by biting, nipping, or shaking.
- Your dog engages in similar behaviors behind a window, fence, or gate.
Determining the Cause of Your Dog's Leash Reactivity
There are three primary causes of leash reactivity in dogs.
In puppyhood, we allow our pups to say hello to anyone and everyone they pass on the street. This is incredibly reinforcing for most friendly and social pups. Then as they age, we take those greetings away, and your pup is left with unmet expectations, leaving you with a frustrated, reactive dog that desperately wants to say hello.If given the opportunity, these reactive dogs would happily greet the person or other dog once they reached out, although their greeting may be less than polite.
These dogs are typically highly social and do well with other dogs or people off-leash.
- Fear or insecurity.
On the flip side of frustrated dogs are our fearful, insecure dogs. These dogs may have been poorly socialized or had a scary experience with another dog. Typically, this scary experience involves an inability to escape.
A leash takes away your dog's ability to choose "flight" – which most dogs will happily take when given the opportunity. So when an off-leash dog attacks your on-leash dog, this can cause an immediate desire to use barking, lunging, and other intimidating body language signals to deter other dogs from doing the same.These dogs are typically shy or on guard when meeting other dogs off-leash, although they may eventually warm up to new dogs.
- Desire to seek out conflict.
It is exceedingly rare that we see cases like this, but there are highly confident dogs with a "let me at 'em" attitude towards other dogs that is not rooted in fear or insecurity. They may redirect onto their leash or their owner by nipping or even biting.These dogs will generally pick a fight the moment they meet another dog on or off leash, and we recommend immediately consulting a qualified professional to ensure safety for you and your dog.
Preventing Leash Reactivity
As with most difficult things in life, prevention is easier than the cure. Here are a few tips to prevent leash reactivity in your dog or puppy:
- Do not let your dog meet other dogs while on leash – ever. Trust us 🙂
- Require that your dog sit next to you when meeting new people on leash, and use food rewards to reward appropriate behaviors. You want to be more interesting to your dog than anything else!
- Avoid retractable leashes – nothing good comes from having a dog walking several feet in front of you.
- Avoid corrective collars; we work with many dogs that develop reactivity due to receiving corrections in the presence of other dogs, causing a negative association towards other dogs.
Stopping Leash Reactivity
To truly stop leash reactivity for good, you've got to address the underlying cause. Punishing away the symptoms (lunging, barking, etc) is a bandaid at best. See the video below for a visual demonstration!
Regardless of the cause of your dog's reactivity, they must learn better coping skills in the presence of a trigger, and must develop the impulse control to choose those coping skills instead of reactive behaviors.
Understanding Our Recommended Protocol:
We like to teach a reactive dog to notice a trigger, and voluntarily look at its handler instead. Engage, and then disengage without reacting. To put it simply, we are teaching your dog a more appropriate response!
Step 1: Practice Indoors
- To do this, you must first teach your dog a marker word. You may also use a clicker, but we have found a verbal marker to be easier and very effective.
- We like the word "Yes."
- First, we need to teach your dog that the word "yes" is relevant to them, and predicts good things. With your dog on leash, practice having a helper lift up a toy or other item near your dog. As soon as your dog looks at the toy, say "Yes" and reward your dog.
- For your reward, you should be using high-value food such as string cheese, hot dogs, or shredded chicken.
- Once you're feeling comfortable with your timing, it's time to take this into the real world.
Step 2: Take the Training Outdoors
- When you see a trigger approaching, add distance. Ideally, you're seeing the trigger before your dog does. Keep in mind – you likely need more distance than you think!
- When your dog does notice the trigger, you simply say "yes!", your dog should turn back to you, and you will reward. At no point should there be any barking, lunging, or other reactive behaviors.
- If your dog ignores you or does begin to bark or lunge, you are simply too close to the trigger. Move further away and try again.
- After doing this with enough frequency, your dog should be able to see the trigger and look back at you, all on his own. You will then mark "Yes" and reward.
- We recommend doing this in a stationary position for a few weeks before passing in motion.
- Over time, your dog will need less and less distance from their trigger, and many owners see complete resolution of their dog's reactivity.
Need More Help?
Need professional guidance on your leash reactivity issues?
We offer a comprehensive online leash reactivity course that will walk you and your dog through our leash reactivity protocol, including mentoring by one of our expert trainers. The course is open enrollment (so you can join anytime!) and can be completed at your own pace.
You can find details and enroll here.
A Few More Links to Check Out:
- This is great link to read over. The graphic does a great job of describing the process we're going through.
- See one of our clients working through this with one of our trainers.