What does a leash-reactive dog look like?
A dog that struggles with leash-reactivity often lunges and/or barks at other dogs while walking on a leash. He may rear up like a horse or begin to anxiously whine at the mere sight of another dog at a distance. His hackles may be raised. Leash-reactive dogs may be fearful of interacting with other canines, hoping their abrasive behavior will scare them away. Others may love greeting and playing with dogs so much that their overwhelming desire for a visit quickly boils over with frustration. The kicker? The same dog almost always gets along well with other dogs as long as s/he is not on leash!
So what gives? Why does being on-leash take my dog from mild to wild?
First, it will help to understand how dogs greet each other when they are unrestrained by a leash (at a dog park, for example). A socialized dog that uses good dog manners with other canines will approach others at a slight arc, with a relaxed gait/walk, soft eyes and without any stiffness in their tail wag or body. A friendly, appropriate meet and greet occurs when both dogs circle and briefly sniff each others’ faces, then backsides before deciding whether or not to move on or engage in play.
Ever notice what happens when a dog forgoes ‘dog manners’ during a greet? They often run a straight line to another dog, barging in their face, holding their head next to (or above) the other dog’s head. Their body/tail wag is stiff, eyes/expression hard and body weight mostly leaning into their front paws. These behaviors at the very least provoke minor squabbles, but more often than not, set the stage for a fight. (If you recognize these types of behaviors in your dog, they should not be attending off-leash dog parks.)
Now, imagine your dog is about to meet another during a walk. On a sidewalk, dogs have little choice but to approach each other head-on while making prolonged, direct eye contact–two gestures that have a simple translation in a dog’s world: This is a threat. All the while, a perfect storm is brewing: both dogs are likely to have tension running through their leashes, resulting in the tightening of their collars, which creates even more stress and tension! To make matters worse, if a dog is wearing a chain or prong collar, the increasing sensation of pain is only exacerbated as the collar tightens, creating a memorable association of pain/punishment with the presence of another dog. Many people try to diffuse the situation by pulling back or jerking on the leash while telling their dog “It’s OK” or “Be nice, Benji!” But by this stage, it’s too late–the dogs clearly have had enough when they resort to a burst of reactive, aggressive behavior.
Finding Peace On Leash, Finally…
Yes, leash-reactive behavior is not only difficult to deal with, it’s embarrassing and often limits your desire to walk your dog at all (a vicious cycle that will surely keep your dog from better days on leash!) Of course it’s smart to avoid situations in which you know your dog will meet many challenges at once–like walking him during prime-time dog-walking hours, but that doesn’t mean your plan of action should be walking him at 4am, either…
Traffic Ahead? Use a U-Turn!
Rather than deal with a head-on collision with a dog directly approaching, teach your dog to respond to the cue “This way!” to tell her it’s time to go another direction Have a small, tasty treat ready to reward her for following you. Proceed to the next block or cross the street. Be sure to practice this in a quiet, comfortable place (at home) before taking it to the streets!
Build A New, Positive Association (See a Dog? Get Your Favorite Thing!)
My dog, Maggie, used to be reactive to men–and it was worse while she was on-leash. I took Maggie to a coffee shop where we could sit outside and watch people (during moderately busy business hours). Every time a man entered the coffee shop, I gave her a small piece of a delicious treat. Eventually, Maggie started looking around to find a man to look at–she wanted more treats! This same principle can be applied to the presence/visual of dogs and is an extremely effective technique when you use it just prior to your dog’s next meal!
Ask a Friend With a Neutral Dog for Help
A neutral dog is a calm, courteous and friendly dog who doesn’t mind at all it if he doesn’t get to interact with your dog. Ask a friend to walk their neutral dog in and out of your dog’s view while you build a new, positive association. (Consider learning how to do this successfully in one of our available training programs).
Gentle Leaders & Easy Walk Harnesses – Think ‘Training Wheels’ for Better Walks!
Not every dog will accept wearing a head halter, however some do fantastic wearing one (e.g. the “Gentle Leader” by Premier), especially if they are introduced to one slowly (without force) and with reinforcement (plenty of high value treats!) One training tool that helps many dogs is a no-pull harness, especially the “Easy Walk Harness” by Premier. If you can start working with your dog without tension on-leash or pain around their neck, you will notice that a more calm, comfortable dog is less likely to react while on leash.
I hope to have provided you with better insight into your dog’s behavior as well as ideas to begin training with your leash-reactive dog. As a reminder, these suggestions are intended to be a starting off point for you and your dog, but usually are not means to the end of your dog’s reactivity issues. Please contact Austin Dog Zone for any questions you may have about these training techniques and for further assistance in such training endeavors–we are always happy to help!
Written by: Caitlin Lane, CPDT-KA