Leash Reactive Dogs
Frequent dog walkers know leash reactive dogs even if they’ve never had a name for them: as soon as the harness or leash goes on, they go on red alert. From the squirrel in the yard twenty meters away to the mailman about to pass them on the sidewalk, leash reactive dogs will try to be confrontational with anything that moves. While the cause for leash reactivity are many and varied, the result of a leash reactive dog is often avoidance on the part of the owner, which leads to continued reactivity on the part of the dog. If your dog turns into a tornado once the lead is on, read up on some causes for leash reactivity as well as the best ways to address these behaviors.
Where Does Leash Reactivity Come From:
Nearly all dog owners and trainers can trace the beginnings of leash reactivity with an event, whether it happened once or several times. Whether the dog was once attacked by passing dog or person, they were involved in a car accident, or have had another bad experience while on a leash, a single memory can color a lifetime of events. For whatever reason, your dog has decided that the leash comes paired with negative experiences. This can also be seen by owner-led leash reactivity, where you perceive a threat to your dog so tighten up the leash. The dog is uncomfortable with the tightened collar so begins to view this stimulus as a threat. Finally, a third cause for leash reactivity may be poor socialization, either on the leash or in general, leading the dog to view time spent with a leash as a constant source of threats.
Once they pair their collar and leash with something bad happening, this can set their alarm bells on constant alert. The reactivity can cause all new experiences on a walk as possible threats. The end effect will always be inappropriate aggression, avoidance, or general unhappiness on the part of the pet and owner.
Patience and Understanding for A Better Relationship:
For people who have never had a phobia, count yourself lucky and unusual. For the average American, 10% of the population have phobias that rule some part of their life1. A leash reactive dog is essentially a dog with a phobia, complete with combined emotional and physical reaction to the object they fear. What this means for pet owners struggling with an overly reactive dog is that understanding the reaction as a disorder is key.
Since the 1980’s many pet owners have been advised to force the dog to interact what they are afraid of, a technique known as flooding2. Forcing a dog to stand next to the object they are afraid of until they stop reacting to it was believed to stop the behavior. While not only a cruel practice for a dog who panics at the site of an approaching person, this can also foster a sense of distrust between dog and trainer. After all, how would you feel about a person who decides to cure your arachnophobia by shoving a tarantula down your shirt? Patience and slow exposure is important when training a reactive dog out of their habits, and one just as effective as antiquated methods like flooding.
Overcoming Through Gradual Changes:
Results from retraining a leash reactive dog will not happen overnight, but they will probably happen quicker than you expect. Depending on the praise given, as higher value rewards in counter-conditioning will cause a faster change in behavior, these changes in habits can sometimes take as little as a week to see progress. Even after your dog can calmly walk by an item that once terrified them, they will still need constant positive reinforcement to maintain some behaviors. If an object is naturally unnerving, such as a fellow dog that is known to be aggressive, they may need lifelong reinforcement. For some behaviors, such as a fear of manhole covers, these can be counter-conditioned in as little as a week.
Start with small changes and work towards larger reactions, a gentle start that will ease the dog in to reconsidering their reactions. If your dog finds highly distracting environments more challenging, try to start introducing new items while on walks in ‘safe’ neighborhoods, places where your dog feels more at ease. If you notice your dog becoming too stimulated, or when they are so riled up that they are no longer listening for cues or treats, it is time to back off and start in a calmer state of mind. Slow progression is the key.
Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning:
As always when training, it is important to use the techniques of desensitization and counter-conditioning when trying to train out an undesired behavior. These training methods reinforce good habits while maintaining a positive relationship with the trainer. In desensitization, you will get the dog so used to seeing a stimulus, which can be anything from their leash and harness to another dog, so that when encountering it in the real world the dog no longer have a negative reaction. In counter-conditioning, you will be pairing a previously disliked stimulus, such as a strange dog, with a positive stimulus, making the dog associate something positive with a once hated thing.
As always with counter-conditioning, the first step is identifying the items the dog is afraid of when out for a walk. If it is simply the leash that gets the dog excited, try getting the leash and collar out and on the dog at odd times of the day without following through to the walk. Eventually they will stop having an excited reaction to the appearance of their leash. If it is a particular stimulus while out walking, start with the least reactive first. For example, if a dog is completely fine until they come across a leaf blowing across the path, which causes them to jump and cower, this would be an excellent step to start with. Using a high-value treat, try giving them a treat whenever you see a leaf blow around. Once the dog actually sees it, they will be focused on the treat instead of the leaf. When continuing to give treats every time a leaf can be seen blowing across paths, the dog stops pairing the leaf with a scary unknown menace and instead have pleasant memories when they came across a leaf.
This is a very small example, the same process can be used when a dog has a fear of other dogs when on a leash. From before the other dog is spotted till you are able to pass them, high-value treats should be given so that the dog’s focus is on you and not on the big scary dog coming straight for them. While evasive moving, such as moving to the far side of where the dog will pass them, can be allowed early on in the retraining process, once most of the emotional reaction to the dog is eliminated it is time to stop them from evasive moving as well.
While it can be extremely frustrating to have a dog that reacts to everything while on a nice relaxing walk, it can be a behavior pattern easy to change. No matter if it is due to poor socialization, bad experiences on past works, or an unknown factor, don’t despair with an overly dramatic dog. With some good treats, praise and a lot of patience, your dog can make a turnaround to the calm, peaceful walking dog you know they can be.
By Lauren Pescarus
1 Fritscher, L. (n.d.). Do You Know How Many People Have Phobias in the U.S.? Retrieved March 28, 2018, from https://www.verywellmind.com/prevalence-of-phobias-in-the-united-states-2671912
2 Flooding Therapy in Dog Training. (n.d.). Retrieved March 29, 2018, from http://www.training-your-dog-and-you.com/Flooding_Therapy.html