It’s everywhere these days. If you go out with your dog, you either see it or maybe even deal with it yourself. The barking, lunging, growling mess of a dog that is at some varying level of over threshold and a mortified owner struggling to keep hold of the leash.
Why is this so common now? The short answer - isolation and lack of information. Every single case of leash reactivity I have dealt with initially stems from misinformed owners and the fact their dogs, for 3/4 of the day, often live within an isolated environment. Where certain rules are expected in this environment (or sometimes not even there) and perhaps.. maybe they go to daycare or some sort of group play. Rules are at least loosely enforced there as well. But the owners struggle with how to reinforce any sort of successful structure on walks and how to deal with the large influx of change and input they, along with their dog, are receiving around them. New people, new dogs, strange smells, exciting sights, all new and approached with an exuberant or perhaps even an anxious or fearful dog.
There are several schools of thought. In the R+ community (Positive Reinforcement), they primarily work under threshold. Threshold being that invisible “line in the sand” if you will, where if you cross it - your dog may escalate and react… but stay under that “line” and your dog may be distracted but still would be able to “hear” you should you call him/her and offer a treat for the better choice. Over time, it is thought that the dog will learn to offer an alternate response (recalling to you, sit, focus on you, etc.) upon seeing whatever it is that bothers them. (This is the super simplified version of the process - bear with me).
The struggle here is that often enough, life happens and staying under threshold and controlling your environment - is not always possible. Many, many clients of mine initially started this way and plateaued when it came to teaching an alternate behavior. Or they did so successfully and then struggled with closing that distance of that invisible threshold line, so seeing a dog 50+ feet away was fine. Their alternate behavior was successful… but how does one get below that 50 feet? What if you want to walk around your neighborhood? Or take your dog out on errands? The answer for many is - you simply can’t do it. You become part of the “Reactive Dog Club” where you walk only at night, or only go to certain parks with enough space, or… in the worst cases… people stop taking their dogs out at all. While the discouraged owners feelings are not wrong - it’s embarrassing and in some cases down right dangerous when dogs act that way - the isolation only serves to make the reactivity worse.
There are several key components to solving this puzzle (several do require professional assistance) but it’s VERY important that dogs understand ALL portions of the answer. Not just “what to do instead”. Alternate behaviors (sit/down/leave it/recalling to you or looking at you) do not solve an underlying lack of social skill in a dog (which may have easily been an early jumping off point for the reactivity in the first place). Nor does working under threshold constantly teach a dog how to think and function when they’re over threshold. When that accidental, uncontrollable moment happens - it’s almost always why owners back down and give up on walking all together. The dog then loses a hugely important outlet and one of the few remaining times we allow our dogs to be dogs.
1) Leash pressure - Your dog needs to understand that a leash is not a tow rope. Nor is it just something that keeps him fastened to you and away from all the things he’d love to investigate. Frustration is easily built this way IF a proper introduction to a leash is not done.
2) Basic Obedience - Practiced and reinforced frequently BEFORE approaching any sort of difficult situation. If your foundation is not in place prior to “shit hitting the fan” it will not have any hope of being there in your moment of need.
3) Correct Equipment - What this is differs per dog and you will want to have a trainer assist you with this. Every dog is different here. There are no quick fixes here and it takes an experienced eye to understand what tools may help you better communicate with your dog
In the video below you’ll see Harper. A 5 year old Australian Shepherd who’s been with us about 3 1/2 weeks now. Harper has been struggling with leash reactivity and it’s led to her redirecting and nipping her owners on several occasions out of frustration. Both dogs and humans have been triggers in the past. Barking dogs in particular.
One huge portion of resolving reactivity is allowing dogs to have many multi-faceted experiences with other dogs. Both on leash and off. This is why we’re huge supporters of e-collars (electric collars) when used appropriately and safely. Harper is able to navigate this situation with these barking dogs on her own 4 feet with only a little verbal assistance from me. This does HUGE things for her confidence. Now, mind you, her foundation is in place, the equipment is right and we’ll post a video later on specifically regarding retraining her response to leash pressure… but for now - we couldn’t be more proud of this girl and her good choices.
Comments and questions welcome!