What is a Leash-Reactive Dog?
A leash-reactive dog is one who Reacts In a Big Way to various things (triggers) while on leash. A trigger is anything that causes a dog to react: other dogs, people, strollers, bikes, etc. A trigger can be stressful or exciting to the dog.
Why Is Leash Reactivity a Problem?
Because it indicates the dog is fearful, stressed, or frustrated.
Because it makes walks less fun, more stressful, or even impossible for people
What Causes Leash Reactivity?
Fear or Stress : A dog is fearful or stressed by triggers
Frustration: A dog is frustrated when he can't reach & interact with something
What Leash Reactivity Looks Like
Reactive behavior varies from dog to dog. It can be include one or more of these:
Pulling on Leash • Lunging • Barking
Growling • Snarling • Snapping • Biting
What Starts a Reaction?
When a dog sees a trigger from far away
When a dog hears a trigger
When a trigger gets too close to the dog
When a dog gets surprised by a trigger
During a greeting that a dog initially handled well
Beyond Disobedience: Your Dog Can’t Help It
If a dog walks calmly on leash, but then acts out when seeing a trigger, it can really seem like the dog should know better, and is deliberately ignoring requests to walk nicely. But the reality is, your dog just can’t help it. They are acting on impulse, and their brain is fully occupied dealing with the trigger. Here’s an example that might help us understand what our dog is experiencing.
Let’s say you don’t much like spiders. Every time you saw one, you reacted by shouting Spider! and jumping back.
And then, I yelled at you and pinched you on the arm.
Would you stop being afraid?
Would you learn how to cope better?
Would you like me less?
But what if I empathized with you, gave you $100, and taught you how to gradually get closer to a spider without fear? I'd be your new Best Friend!
Beyond Distractions : Learning to Cope
Our dogs need help learning to cope with these triggers. In order to learn, they must be allowed to notice and react to triggers. We need to address our dog’s emotions to make real progress with reactivity. Back to our Spider example: If I distracted you so you didn’t notice spiders, you wouldn’t have a bad reaction. But the next time you actually noticed a spider, you’d still shout and jump back. You haven’t had a chance to learn to cope with seeing the spider.
So, How Do We Help Our Reactive Dogs?
Learning by Association: Trigger Predicts Payoff
A dog can learn to feel better when seeing a trigger. If every time your dog sees a trigger, something GREAT happens to them, they can actually look forward to seeing a trigger. With practice, your dog can see a trigger, feel good, and look to you for their reward.
“When I see another dog, I get a yummy treat. I love seeing other dogs!”
Your dog must see the trigger FIRST, before you offer them food. Otherwise they will never learn to anticipate the payoff, and will not learn to like seeing triggers.
Feed your dog even if they are reacting. At this stage, treat lunging, barking, etc, as symptoms of your dog’s stress, not as disobedience.
If your dog is too stressed to take food, the trigger is too close. Move further away from the trigger.
Learning Better Skills
A dog can learn to make better choices about what to do when seeing a trigger. Instead of acting out, they can learn to focus on you and ignore their triggers. This is usually done after practicing Learning by Association (above) for a period of time.
“When I see another dog, I can look at my person, boop their hand, or sit quietly. After I do my skill, I get rewarded!”
Practice skills with your dog without distractions, before trying to use them during a reaction
Have several skills in your toolbox: Sit/Down, Hand Target, and Eye Contact
Keep in mind the closeness and intensity of the trigger. It’s much harder to deal with a dog 5 feet away than one 10 feet away. An excited young dog is way more intense than a senior dog quietly walking by.
Embarrassment, Judgement, and Public Relations
So many of us with reactive dogs feel embarrassed by their behavior, or judged by others while out on walks. It can be stressful, ruin your walk, and make you dread, or even stop walking your dog.
Let others know what you’re working on! Write down and practice things to say while you’re out on your walk. Here are some helpful ideas:
Stop! (put up your hand) My dog is afraid!
Give me a second and we’ll get out of your way.
My dog’s in training.
My dog does NOT want to meet!
I’m helping my dog learn to like other dogs.
I'm letting my dog know other dogs are awesome!
Having a reactive dog can be frustrating and heartbreaking. There is help! Join Doggy Geek's Drama Free Dog Walking Class to work on your dog’s skills in a supportive, group environment. We work outside where dog-walking actually happens in your daily life. In class, we can control the sights, sounds, closeness, and intensity of triggers to maximize your dog’s success.
Not ready for a group class or prefer one-on-one training? Remote/Distance Consulting is available. Check out our Private Training Options
Not local to the Boulder/Denver, Colorado area? Here are some resources to help you find a qualified local trainer: