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How to Fix Leash Reactivity in Dogs

What is Leash Reactivity? 


In general, leash reactivity is when a dog reacts in an unwanted way to something while on a leash. An example would be barking and lunging when they see another dog or a person approach. A leash reactive dog often will not react the same way to a stimulus when they are not on a leash. If your dog is reacting to things in an unwanted way when they are on leash or off leash they are probably reactive, and we have lots of resources you can read about that too. But leash reactivity is really common, and there are lots of ways you can address it and work on it to set your dog up for success. 


*Note: if your dog is struggling with reactivity, it's a great idea to work with a certified, positive reinforcement trainer or behavior consultant! In the Austin area? Set up a private training with our team!


Why Do Dogs React on Leash? 

There are many reasons dogs react on leash but some common reasons include:

  • Fear (one of the most common). They feel like they need to defend themselves. 

  • Frustration: Dog could want to socialize with the other dogs they see and it’s frustrating because they can’t get to them

  • Resource Guarding

  • Fight or Flight: Dog can’t get away because you’re taking away the flight option

  • Overstimulation

  • Predatory Drive: Can sometimes be the case, for instance if the dog sees a squirrel. 

  • Excitement

  • Defense: Goes along with fear and anxiety


Management: How to Manage a Leash Reactive Dog


Make sure you have the right equipment to keep your dog and others safe. 


This might include: 


  • Collar: A Martingale collar will tighten slightly if the dog tries to wiggle away- we do NOT recommend these as a training tool, but they can be a backup safety measure if your dog may try to escape

  • Harness: You want a harness with a front and back clip which can give you more options and control. 

  • A 4-6 foot fixed leash rather than a retractable one

  • A muzzle: Muzzles can be an option for dogs with a bite history. You can visit our muzzles series to see how to use one and introduce your dog to one. 


Whatever tools you’re using, you also want to keep a safe distance from any stimulus where your dog can be comfortably listening and learning. 


Training for Leash Reactivity 

Creating Positive Associations


In general, you want to change negative associations to positive associations by using classical counterconditioning and desensitization. 


With counterconditioning, you teach your dog that an unpleasant stimulus means something wonderful. If they’re nervous of people and a person walks into sight, they get chicken. When the person leaves, the chicken stops. 


And with desensitization, you slowly expose your dog to a stimulus over time. You don’t want to throw your dog in the deep end when they don’t know how to swim. Start at a level where they can handle it. You want to target the underlying feelings your dog has instead of just changing their behavior. 


Things to do on walks with a reactive dog

  • Keep your leash relaxed, avoid tightening

  • Carry treats on walks

  • Watch your dog’s body language (learn what your dog does before they react)

  • Don’t force interactions

  • Avoid triggering situations (Try to avoid being surprised or having the trigger come into range where it’s hard to control the situation


Things to avoid with a reactive dog


In general the methods below can work in the moment but long term can create a larger or more serious problem in the long run. 


  • Choke collars

  • Prong collars

  • Electronic/shock collars

  • Leash corrections

  • Yelling


Training Methods and Tools


Emergency U Turns

For any leash reactive dog you should practice leaving a situation so that it’s not a struggle when you need to get away from something. An emergency U turn is exactly what it sounds like: 


Step 1: Make a U turn around your dog to change direction

Step 2: Reward your dog as you walk away


Use food your dog really likes so that the dog is happy to leave with you. 


Engage/Disengage

This game helps the dog learn that whenever a trigger appears, they’ll receive a treat. This can turn into an automatic behavior the more you do it.

Stage 1: Engage (Using a clicker + treats) 


  • Start at a distance from the trigger where your dog is not reacting. Allow the dog to notice the trigger on their own.

  • When your dog “engages” by looking at the trigger, click. 

  • When your dog turns his head toward you (“disengage”) after hearing the click, feed the dog a treat. 

  • If your dog reacts, move further away from the trigger and start over.

Stage 2: Disengage (Using a clicker + treats) 


  • Let your dog notice the trigger, but wait a few seconds to see if your dog will look away from the trigger on their own. If your dog is fixating on the trigger, go back to Stage 1.

  • When your dog looks away from the trigger (“disengages”), click. 

  • After you’ve clicked and given the dog a treat, if your dog reacts or is not turning back to you, move further away from the trigger to reset. 


Redirection


Redirection looks a lot like engage/disengage but with this method you use a word like “Here” to redirect your dog to you and a special treat rather than at a trigger. 


Start off by just pairing the word “Here” with food to teach your dog that the word is awesome and everytime you say it they get a treat.  


Treat Party


This can be good for dogs who get overwhelmed and can also act as a distraction. How it works is you give them a cue like “scatter” so they know to look, and then you pair the cue with food scattered on the ground. 


Try this at random times first and then as needed when triggers are passing by when you’re out walking. 


Early Warning Signs of Reactivity


Things to look out for to know your dog might be ready to react:

  • Tense body language

  • Staring

  • Raised fur

  • Stillness

  • Avoidance

  • Yawning 

  • Lip licking

  • Signs of stress, fear, or overarousal


Keys for Success with Reactive Dogs


Management 

You want to prevent your dog from having problems. Set them up in success. Don’t put them in situations where they’re going to have an issue. You dont want your dog to be able to practice unwanted or undesirable behaviors


Distance

As much as possible, you want to give your dog distance from triggers to be successful. The more they’re able to have distance, the more comfortable they are and the better they can behave. Don’t do more than your dog is ready for. 


Repetition


We learn and our dogs learn by doing things repeatedly. This will be a key to long term success. 


Reinforcement


Make sure your dog is getting rewarded for their good behavior. Most dogs are food motivated, some are toy-motivated, find what is a good reinforcer for your dog and use something high-value for them when you’re training. If they’re food motivated, meat and cheese or anything stinky are often very motivating for them. Professional trainers generally give lots of reinforcement, don’t worry about giving too much reinforcement–especially in the beginning. If you give lots of reinforcement it will help your dog learn faster what good behavior is. 


Working with reactive dogs can be tough! Get some Pro Tips on working with reactive dogshttps://www.everydogaustin.org/post/training-a-reactive-dog-a-survival-guide


*Note: if your dog is struggling with reactivity, it's a great idea to work with a certified, positive reinforcement trainer or behavior consultant! In the Austin area? Set up a private training with our team!


This blog was based on a webinar we held with  trainer Sarah Bond (CDBC, CPDT-KA). You can find the full video here.  



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