How to Train a Leash-Reactive Dog

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It's scary, and it may even be embarrassing, and it takes the fun out of walking your dog; but, first things first: reactivity in dogs is not the same thing as aggression, although the two are often confused. Aggression is the number one reason that dog owners seek trainers, counseling, and dog behavior experts. On the other hand, reactivity in dogs means more or less what it implies; dogs with reactivity overreact to certain things, often other dogs, or situations. Their alarm systems are fixed on high alert, and they're quick to startle at an abrupt noise or when an unfamiliar dog appears.

Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D., CAAB, a noted applied animal behaviorist, likens the conditioned responses of a reactive dog to the veteran soldier with PTSD who throws himself to the ground whenever he hears a loud noise. Reactivity is based in fear.

The collection of reactivity triggers can encompass ordinary things dogs encounter in their everyday lives: men with beards, cats, people on skateboards, small children, or people wearing hats. Further, being on a leash can make reactive dogs feel trapped because they are either afraid of dogs they haven't met, or conversely, frustrated at not being able to greet another dog.

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In reality, they are trying to make the threat disappear or increase the distance between them and the threat.

Whether it's genetics, a lack of proper socialization, or a combination of the two that causes reactivity, the bottom line is that fear and frustration are the driving forces that create a reactive dog. If an owner fails to properly train a reactive dog, reactivity can boil over into aggression. That's why it's important to know how to train your reactive dog. Here, we'll break down how to train a dog who is reactive on a leash, which is a common scenario.

Training tips for the reactive dog on a leash

You can't lump all dogs together and come up with one method that works best in training reactive dogs. But one of the methods that McConnell has found works best when dealing with the reactive dog walking on a leash — one of the most common and difficult to deal with manifestations of reactivity — is to teach the dog to turn and look away before the problem behavior begins. This proactive approach requires impeccable timing, of course, but for dogs who are afraid of other dogs, this looking away and moving away tends to be the best reinforcement. Keep in mind that dogs typically greet one another from the side, not head-on as is the case when you're walking down the road toward another dog. The hard, head-on stare in dog parlance means a fight will ensue. Here's a step-by-step for this simple behavior modification method that you can practice with a friend, and her dog that is not reactive:

  1. Teach the command, "watch me," if your dog doesn't already know it. This tool and a pocketful of treats are prerequisites. To teach "look at me" or "watch me" work in a low-distraction environment, such as your living room and as training progresses, work in busier areas until this lesson is completely ingrained. This exercise is designed to get your dog's attention in any and every situation, in any place. It must be bomb-proof before venturing out for your walks in public with a reactive dog. Have patience, this exercise is multi-stage and takes time, but truly worth it.
  2. When you're ready for the walk, begin quite a distance away from any dogs. Start in an area where few dogs will be encountered. As training progresses, consider working close to a kennel club or otherwise where you know an obedience class is in progress and arrive just as class is getting out; this presumes that all the dogs will at least be leashed, if not well-behaved. Wait until your dog notices the other dogs, then immediately get his attention and reward with whichever tool works best; treats, clicker, or even the word "click." But his favorite treats most likely beat out all other rewards. Make sure you do this before your dog reacts. In essence, you are teaching your dog to associate the presence of other dogs with a reward, ergo positive reinforcement. When your dog looks up at you for more treats, move in a little closer to the other dogs and repeat the exercise. You will immediately know if your timing was off and you're moving forward too quickly for your dog if he barks, lunges, and generally goes into reactivity. Also, you have to keep a close eye on the other dogs since one of the dogs may have gotten closer than the others, even if accompanied by her person.
  3. Nevertheless, don't stress, tighten up on the leash or jerk his head — in other words, don't ever act harshly or punish your dog. It will wipe out all the progress you've made so far. Simply say to your dog, "let's go" and move away from the other dogs.
  4. It's vital that you manage your dog's environment during this training exercise in public, for his and everyone's safety. Stay well back from the other dogs and, for now, discourage any greeting from the other dogs and their people and adamantly don't allow others to invade your dog's space. Every single slip-up or negative experience will erase the work you have done so far and set back your dog's progress to date.
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What to do if a reactive dog approaches you or vice versa

If you're walking down the road with your dog and a person walking a clearly reactive dog is approaching you, keep your distance and don't attempt to greet the dog. Chances are, the owner is trying to train through the behavior and giving the pair sufficient space helps them both tremendously.

Another tip from the Animal Humane Society addresses what to do if you're walking your reactive dog down the street and all of a sudden, out of the blue, another dog with a handler is approaching head-on. Simply go around her in an arc, keeping your dog's attention. If the other dog happens also to be reactive and starts to lunge and bark, keep your dog's attention and reward more often, almost in tune with the other dog's barking. When the other dog has moved away and out of sight, cut off the treats. This approach entrenches for your dog the association of other dogs with delicious treats.

On the other hand, a tense situation you may face with your reactive dog walking, for instance, in a leash-enforced park, is when a dog on the loose runs over to your dog. The obvious choice is to avoid that particular park in the future. But in the meantime, you'll need to do your best to steer clear of a potential fight between the dogs when your dog reacts badly, or the other dog means business. In the best case scenario, the dog on the loose is just trying to be friendly, and you may be able to stop him in his tracks by forcefully throwing a handful of treats in his face, says McConnell. This will not, however, deter a truly aggressive dog. Therefore, an altercation is always a possibility and the downside to walking your reactive, or even a non-reactive dog in public. Stick with familiar places you can feel safe in.