Leash Reactivity - The Elephant in the Room

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!

Door Manners

A common problem behavior we see are dogs constantly alerting to sounds outside of the house. While nuisance barking is often caused by boredom, dogs who over-alert or who are hyper sensitive to noises outside and may bark at any little thing, are generally a bit unsure or nervous about what those noises may bring.

Doorbells or a knock at the door often cause an even more exaggerated response given the noise normally ends with a physical event. Whether it's someone going to the door or even more nerve-wracking for some dogs, someone coming in the door. Doorbells and knocks become cues for fearful dogs that a stressful event may be coming, so it's no wonder it's a difficult behavior to curb. 

During our board and train program, one of the first things we do is begin to change that association. We take a brand new doorbell 'tone' and condition a new response. Some dogs may go to their crate, others to a mat to lay down, depending on what the dog is capable of and what's in the best interest of the household. In the video below you'll see Yoshi on his second session working with his new doorbell that will accompany him home when his training is complete. He does have a bite history and more than likely will always need to be managed around strangers, however, reducing his anxiety inside the home and when strangers enter, is key to helping him realize new people aren't so bad.  We'll post more videos as he progresses!

Truffles Update

Truffles originally came to us for an extensive board & train program. She had a bit of a rough start to life and is trying her hardest to catch up on her social skills. Originally she had issues over reacting, nipping, charging and barking at people, dogs, kids, anything that moved really. Walking in public was nearly impossible, let alone loose leash walking or obedience from a distance. Fortunately, she has some very dedicated owners who are putting in the work and willing to give her the time and practice she needs to come around. Here are some clips of her progress this past week:

What are you feeding your dogs?

One of the questions my clients always ask me is, “What are you feeding your dogs?”

I always hesitate a little. Not because I don't want to answer but because it’s not a short or easily answered question. Mostly, they expect to hear me say some brand name and formula. In short, I try to provide them with the information necessary to do the research themselves and discover what they are comfortable with feeding. I usually start with explaining to them what dog kibble is and how we ended up feeding our dogs processed food.

In 1860 the pet food industry was born when a young electrician from Cincinnati named James Spratt , witnessed dogs devouring the leftover “ship’s biscuits” at a boat dock and he got an idea he could make cheap biscuits for dogs and sell them to the ever growing dog owner population. His intent wasn't quality, it was simply an entrepreneur doing what they do best, business.

In 1931 Nabisco bought into these dog biscuits and we ended up with the Milkbone biscuits we’ve all seen today. At the time, Nabisco employed a sales team nationwide and soon enough our local stores started carrying them. For the first time dog biscuits became a part of regular grocery shopping.

Then in the ‘50’s The Ralston Purina Company used their factory, that at the time was producing Chex Cereal, to begin production on the first food processed for dogs. Once it went into mass production it was named “Dog Chow” and we began seeing it everywhere.

In 1958, The Pet Food Institute was established to provide education about pet food and treat safety, nutrition, and health to pet lovers (Still exist today and but all board members are pet food companies). They began a 50 million dollar campaign to get people to stop feeding their dogs anything but packaged dog food. They funded "reports" that appeared in magazines, detailing the benefits of processed dog food, and even produced a radio spot about "the dangers of table scraps."

As of 2015 statistics the pet food industry is raking in over 23 Billion dollars annually. Gee, with that kind of success, what could possibly be motivating them to continue selling kibble?

So, what do I recommend to clients that want to purchase a premade dog food vs. feeding a home cooked or raw diet? A good quality dehydrated formula.

My go to dehydrated food is The Honest Kitchen.  THK is human grade, organic, non-GMO, it’s prepared in a human grade facility with all locally sourced food and all the ingredients are excellent quality. The food is not over cooked, over processed nor does it have chemicals.

What’s on the label? Let’s look at THK Marvel formula:

  • All USDA Organic food

  • AAFCO Approved

  • FDA Approved

  • Cage-free turkey

  • Parsnip

  • Navy bean

  • Organic coconut

  • Pumpkin

  • Parsley

  • Tricalcium phosphate

  • Choline chloride

  • Zinc amino acid chelate

  • Vitamin D3 supplement

  • Vitamin E supplement

  • Potassium iodide

  • Potassium chloride

  • Iron amino acid chelate

  • Copper amino acid chelate

  • Sodium selenite

  • Thiamine mononitrate


What's NOT in Honest Kitchen: (That can be found in even the best kibble)


  • Rendered products - Rendering is a process that converts waste animal tissue into stable materials

    • Euthanized Pets

    • Spoiled grocery meats

    • Slaughterhouse waste (organs, heads, hooves, beaks, feet)

    • Bread and cereal rejects (cobs, stalks, mill sweepings)

    • Dying, diseased and disabled farm animals

    • Road kill (deer, skunks, and raccoons)

    • Contaminated grain middlings

    • Distiller fermentation waste

    • Spoiled supermarket food

    • Euthanized cats and dogs

    • Restaurant grease

    • Dead zoo animals

    • Toxic Waste


  • Genetically Modified Ingredients

  • Corn

  • Soy

  • Preservatives

  • Synthetic Vitamins

  • Animal Digest

  • Meat and Bone Meal

  • By-Products

  • Hormones

  • Antibiotics


So in summary, I will always recommend a product that is AAFCO approved, FDA approved, USDA Organic, non-gmo certified, locally sourced, processed in a human grade processing plant, free of by-products, free of chemicals, free of preservatives, no corn, no soy, no wheat, no hormones and no antibiotics.


#dogfood #TheHonestKitchen #SacramentoDogTrainer #AnimalMindsBehavior&Training


Ask A Trainer...

Over the coming weeks we will be answering some of the questions we've received over the years. Please remember that the answers are provided based on the details given. We cannot provide outlined or foolproof answers without having met the animal or worked with it. All answers are suggestions only and are followed/implemented at the owners own risk. 

"We got this dog from a friend and I believe he is 4 months old..he is a german shepherd and seams to look like me might of been hit alot...he won't move on the leash and always has tail between his legs...he won't look at me always has his head down and never wags his tail always seams scared and every noise he hears he trys to run and hide... I just don't know what to do...."

Situations like this are a tough one. Without knowing the past of the dog, I always encourage people to simply work with what you have. Train the animal in front of you. Not the unknown story behind it. We may never know if the pup was abused and there are many pups who may appear that way but unfortunately, it's also entirely possible that it is a genetic issue as well. Or a lack of socialization or neglect. There are so many what-if's that often times it's best just to progress with what you can actually see and that is 'behavior'. What is the puppy doing? What can you tangibly and repeatedly see affecting the animal and it's responses? Take note of those things (for future reference) and contact a trainer that can help you begin to build confidence in your own skills as well as the puppies.  The sooner you get to working on things like this, the better. 

"My 12 year old hound-rotty mix has started chasing (more of a limping hobble) and nipping at dogs's rears at the dog park. She will also growl and bark while wagging her tail, and she won't leave other dogs alone until she has had a chance to smell them and then yell at them. Most of the dogs there will ignore her but some don't know how to react. Can you explain what this behavior is?"

It is likely a mix of several things. Hounds love to follow their nose and often bark/are vocal towards anything that causes excitement or a reason to "alert". Not all breeds are quite as vocal as most hounds and this can certainly cause confusion for dogs who aren't sure what is so exciting. The nipping could be a way to demand a response from the confused/neutral/ignoring dog. Either way, it is a behavior I would encourage you to interrupt as it could understandably lead to miscommunication and if she's baying at the wrong dog, an aggressive response. It's important to make sure any of our dogs, when playing with others, play with well matched groups. If a dog doesn't seem to respond well to yours, that's totally normal and its time to move on.

Children and dogs

Children and dogs, it's a touchy subject. One that most all in the dog world feel very conflicted about. I remember as a child my animals, dogs included, were by far my best friends. I had several breeds that were "known" to potentially be bad matches with children. Some might say I got lucky or that I just had really good dogs, and perhaps that was it but what I also had was good parenting. A mother and father that could read their animals well and teach their child how to be appropriate.

Now, we see tons of pictures these days of dogs clearly expressing stress or discomfort when a child is riding them or being inappropriate in some way. In the picture below, that I received from a client, you see an adolescent Mastiff with a toddler curled up taking their nap together. I'm sure some would say it may be inappropriate. It struck me that so often all I see now are the bad pictures and that perhaps, people are hesitant to post pictures with their children and their dogs these days.

It also was a reminder that there is ALWAYS gray area. There are those animals out there that seem to have that something special with a kid. This is one of those pictures. I've seen them together and that little girl is "his person". As someone who has cringed at as many youtube videos and meme's as I'm sure everyone else has, along with fellow trainers who are constantly gritting their teeth when watching clients dogs and children interact... the other side of the hill still exists. Know your dog.

Good parents still exist, children loving dogs are still around, and everything should be interpreted on a case by case basis. A picture or a video clip doesn't tell the whole story. This story with this picture is of a little girl and her dog that is every bit the dog he appears to be in the picture