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It’s happened more times than I can count. I’m walking down the street with a leash reactive pup and all is well. Then, unexpectedly, a door opens and out pops a neighbor with their dog and all hell breaks loose. My canine friend rears up, lunges, barks, and snarls. Then, as suddenly as the storm began, the surprise dog turns around the corner and the barky, lungy craziness stops.
This is leash reactivity, an intense response to a trigger that some dogs have when they’re on leash. This type of barking and lunging at the presence of another dog, person, biker, or skateboarder is the most common kind of reactivity, but the behavior can include other types of over-arousal, including spinning/tail-chasing or urination/defecation.
Leash reactivity can be scary. It can make you not want to walk your dog at all. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Leash reactivity can be improved with the right training tools, and this guide can help you get there.
What causes leash reactivity?
There are a number of factors that can lead to leash reactivity but often the behavior is rooted in one of two things: fear or frustration.
Frustration boils down to the leash. When a leash prevents your dog from saying hello to a pup he’s interested in or chasing a skateboarder down the street, he throws a tantrum the only way he knows how: with barking and lunging.
The behavior should sound familiar. We also throw fits when we don’t get our way, especially when we’re young. Think about how frustrated you get when you’re stuck in traffic. Yelling and screaming may not make the traffic go away but sometimes it just feels better to let it out.
Fear, in many ways, also boils down to the leash. When an animal is frightened, the primal center of their brain sends signals to either fight the threat or run away from it. But when a dog is on leash, they can’t run away—the leash is a barrier to their safety. So what are they likely to do instead? Make a big, lunging, barking display to try to deter whatever dog, human, biker or skateboarder has frightened them.
What equipment works best for a reactive dog?
Pet parents with reactive dogs should never use choke or prong collars, shock collars, or retractable leashes. For a reactive dog—and, frankly, for any dog—these collars and leashes are dangerous and likely to make the problem worse. Instead, you’ll want to walk your dog with a harness and a regular 5-6 foot nylon or leather leash.
The best body harness for a reactive dog is one that clips at the chest instead of at the spine. It’s much easier to direct a dog away from a trigger from their front than from their back. They have far more strength and leverage when their harness connects at their back.
Head halters like the Gentle Leader or Halti are also good options for working with a reactive dog. These harnesses slide over a dog’s nose and clip behind their ears the same way a halter fits on a horse and require less strength for more control. Head halters don’t cause your dog any pain or prevent them from holding a ball or drinking water but because most dogs don’t like wearing things on their faces, you’ll have to desensitize your pup to this harness before using it.
What’s your dog’s trigger?
We have the best shot at helping a dog to overcome leash reactivity if we begin counter-conditioning and desensitizing them to their trigger(s). In order to use this technique we must first figure out the answers to two questions:
- What is the trigger(s)?
- How far away is the trigger when my dog reacts?
For every dog, there will be a “threshold” distance which acts as an imaginary line that marks when your dog begins to react. In the beginning, this may be 50 feet, 100 feet, or even a whole block away. When they’re on the “safe” side of the imaginary line, your dog should be able to look at their trigger without a reaction.
Desensitization and counter-conditioning
Once you’ve determined your dog’s threshold, then it’s time to begin decreasing that distance through desensitization and counter-conditioning.
Since you don’t always know whether a trigger might be coming around the corner on the street, it’s best to start in an environment that’s more predictable. Try, for example, choosing a bench in a park that overlooks a dog play area or a spot across the street from a skateboard park. The goal here is to keep your pup in a “safe zone” in order to prevent them from having a reaction.
From your “safe zone” (where your dog is under threshold) you can begin to counter-condition and desensitize them to their trigger(s). To change your dog’s emotional response to the trigger from one of frustration or fear to one of pleasant feelings, you must teach your dog to associate their trigger with something positive.
The easiest “good thing” to make happen on cue? Showering your pup with delicious, amazing treats. It’s crucial to use high-value rewards here—something extra-special your dog doesn’t typically get to eat such as small pieces of chicken, cheese, or hot dog.
Every time your dog sees their trigger, mark the moment with your voice (the word “YES!” is a great marker) or a clicker, then pop a treat in your dog’s mouth. If they turn back to the trigger (or continue to look at it without interruption) continue to mark and reward your pup at a rapid rate. They may look twice and get two food rewards or they may look 20 times and get 20 rewards—the important part is that those treats keep coming as long as the trigger is visible. Once the trigger has moved out of your dog’s sight, stop delivering treats. Repeat this for every dog/human/skateboard that comes into your dog’s sight.
Once your dog begins looking back at you automatically when they see their trigger, you’re ready to move slightly closer, keeping in mind that if your dog reacts, you have moved too close too quickly.
How long it takes for your dog to begin responding in this way varies for every individual. However, your dog is most likely to improve quickly if you can prevent them from reacting to their trigger not just during training times but anytime you are out on a walk or at the park. The more you can “control” your dog’s over-threshold (i.e. reactive) encounters with the trigger, the more they will feel confident and calm when it’s present.
Training alternate behaviors
While you’re working on counter-conditioning and desensitizing your dog to their trigger(s), you can begin training them to do something besides bark and lunge when a trigger passes by. Ideally, we want a reactive dog to do something incompatible with barking and lunging. For instance, if my dog is watching me, he can’t simultaneously bark and lunge at his trigger.
There are several different behaviors that can be used as incompatible alternate behaviors. The key, however, is that the dog begins the behavior before their trigger moves closer than their current threshold. If your dog has already begun to react, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get them to focus on a different behavior.
Here are some alternate behaviors you can try:
1. “Find it”
This isn’t so much a trained behavior as it is a fun game. The idea behind this one is to draw your dog’s focus away from the direction of their trigger. Begin teaching this when your dog’s trigger is nowhere in sight before progressing to using it in your “safe zone” and, eventually, to when a trigger has moved too close for comfort.
- Say “Find it” in a positive tone of voice.
- Throw (like a bowling ball) a treat onto the sidewalk in front of your dog so they can gobble it up as you’re walking.
- Repeat your “find its” at a rapid pace (“bowl” at least half a dozen treats in a row) until the trigger has completely passed by.
Teach your dog to look at you on cue and hold your gaze. This can be done while your dog is sitting in one position or while walking. As with “Find It,” begin teaching this in a quiet environment with no trigger before moving to a “safe zone” and, eventually, to a place where the trigger may pass your dog’s threshold.
- Ask your dog to “watch” and lift your finger to your nose.
- When they look at you, mark the moment with a “Yes!” or clicker and reward.
- Repeat until your dog can do this quickly and easily before beginning to increase the period of time they look at you. Try the following progression, asking your dog to “Watch” five times at each level: 1 second, 3 seconds, 5 seconds, 8 seconds, 12 seconds, 15 seconds, etc. Say “Yes!” and reward at the end of the count.
Teach your dog to target your outstretched hand with their nose as if a tiny magnet is drawing them to it. Find our guide to teaching touch here.
Ideally, you want your dog to be enough of a touch pro to boop your hand as many times as it takes for their trigger to pass by (generally at least four to six boops). The touch can be done while stationary but is more fun and often more effective at preventing a reaction if done while moving.
Have a plan to get out of dodge
No matter how much you’ve trained, there will still be times when your dog’s trigger catches you both off guard. For these situations, it’s best to have a method of getting your dog away from the trigger as quickly and easily as possible.
Practicing these techniques when the trigger is nowhere to be seen will help you prepare for those nasty surprises.
1. Emergency U-turn
Teaching your dog to stay at your side while you quickly change direction is one of your best defenses against unexpected appearances of your dog’s trigger. In a trigger-free environment:
- Walk forward with your dog then suddenly turn 180 degrees and say “Let’s go!” in a cheerful voice.
- Immediately after turning, reward your dog with a treat as you walk in the opposite direction.
- Repeat until your dog responds to your “Let’s go!” without hesitation.
Use your U-turn whether your dog has begun reacting to the surprise trigger or not. If they haven’t reacted and are able to turn with you, reward them heavily as you walk in the opposite direction. If they did react, it’s okay—you can’t get it right every time. Just continue walking away without a reward.
2. Use a visual barrier
Sometimes the easiest thing to do when you’re surprised by a trigger is to put a visual barrier between it and your pup. If your dog can’t see their trigger, they’re far less likely to react to it, even if they know it’s there. The best barriers are large and solid such as parked cars. Stepping in front of your dog to use your own body as a visual barrier is unlikely to work very well.
Improving reactivity is a process—it won’t happen overnight—but with these tips at your disposal, you have a great shot at making you and your dog more relaxed and confident on walks.