It’s nerve-wracking when you can’t be sure if taking your dog out for a little exercise is going to result in a strained arm and a stress headache. Leash reactive dogs can be a handful. Their outbursts can make it embarrassing and downright dangerous just to walk around the block.
Preventing leash reactivity before it sets in is the ideal solution. We know this isn’t always possible. Don’t worry. There is a solution, and you definitely aren’t alone in dealing with a leash reactive dog.
We’re here to help you learn more about leash reactivity. We’ll cover what it is, what causes it, and how to work with your dog to stop it. Keep reading to find out how to make your daily walk something you look forward to… instead of a constant struggle.
What Is Leash Reactivity?
You’re out on a walk, enjoying the breeze, a short distance away is a man in a hat. Your dog goes wild. Pulling and lunging. Or they do the opposite. Whining and cowering. This only happens when you’re out walking and your dog sees a man in a hat.
This is leash reactivity. An overreaction to a stimulus that causes a fear response in your dog. Most dogs have specific triggers. It could be cars, bicycles, other dogs, or people.
There are three issues that may be causing leash reactivity.
Protectiveness/aggression- You might have a dog that feels the need to protect you from any stranger, human or canine, who might cross your path. This may be due to poor socialization, causing them to see others as a threat to you.
More rarely, you might have a dog that is, for lack of a better term, a bully. If this is the case, he may actually go after another dog unprovoked. This may be due to an abusive past or poor socialization.
Frustration- Your dog just wants to say hello to the other dogs, but you’re not letting him! Dogs reacting out of frustration usually love other people and dogs in social settings and only have a seemingly negative reaction when they’re on a leash.
Fear- Your dog may have had a negative experience with another dog, cars, etc. and now has anxiety associated with whatever their trigger is. Or they may not have been socialized with other dogs or people and aren’t certain how to act.
How To Handle Leash Reactivity
Leash reactivity needs to be dealt with to make life easier for you and your dog. You can’t stay inside forever. Once you have noticed that your dog seems to be leash reactive, it’s time to come up with a plan.
Let's start with what not to do.
Do not use a prong collar, choke collar, or any other punitive methods- These will only cause your dog to create more negative associations. They are not dealing with the issue that is causing the reactivity. Think of it this way, if you were afraid of crossing the street because you’d been hit by a car, would being poked, choked, or yelled at make you less afraid?
Do not use a retractable leash! If your dog is lunging, the flimsy “lock” on the leash won’t last long and may put your dog in danger. They are also notorious for causing severe injuries due to dogs and getting tangled in them. Cuts, burns, scarring, and even amputations have been caused by retractable leashes.
Now for what you should do.
Go back to the basics- Go back to working on basic loose leash walking. Try to walk your dog at a time when you can avoid her triggers and other distractions. Use positive reinforcement with your dog for walking without pulling until they are constantly on a loose leash.
Use a 5 or 6-foot standard leash- These give you greater control of your dog if she suddenly lunges, and you don't risk losing a finger.
Bring treats on walks- You want your dog to focus on you and not the things that make her freak out. When you spot her trigger, wait for her to notice then reward her before she can react. Try to stay as far away from the trigger as possible. You are slowly building positive associations and working on getting your dog to focus on you.
Work on proximity slowly- You don’t want to avoid your dog’s stimuli forever. As they get more comfortable, slowly decrease the distance. If they start showing signs of reactivity again, back off. As with everything in training, slow and steady is best.
Don’t bite off more than your dog can chew- Maybe you’d love to have a brewery dog or a dog that you can take to restaurants or cafes. We totally get it. But keep in mind that working through leash reactivity is a process. It takes time. Taking your dog to an environment like that before they’re ready can be detrimental to their training. Slow and steady!
Socialize your dog off-leash- If you aren’t dealing with the challenges of an aggressive dog, make sure she is getting proper socialization with other people and dogs. Leash reactivity is often caused by poor socialization. Dogs need time to be dogs and they can only do this through socialization. If your dog knows how to respond to other dogs, you will see fewer fear or frustration behaviors when you’re out for a walk.
This applies to small dogs too! Since we can pick up small dogs, their training can be neglected in certain areas. But small dogs can be reactive too! Their behavior needs to be addressed beyond just picking them up and removing them from the situation or you’ll have a tiny terror on your hands!
When all else fails, or before it fails, call a trainer! Dog Friendly Living can help you identify the cause of your dog’s leash reactivity and get you started on the right foot for successful training. If you can't meet in person, we’d love to set up a virtual appointment with you! Check out all the services we offer here.