Managing a leash-reactive dog
If you’ve ever owned or fostered a dog, more than likely you’ve been on more than a few walks where the roles are reversed and your pooch walks you. Lunging, barking, growling, and other behaviors your dog may show on the leash can be frustrating and embarrassing. Nobody enjoys walking their dog when it becomes a constant struggle. Luckily, there are many techniques available to help create an enjoyable walk. Let’s go over just a couple exercises you can practice to help build a relationship between you and your dog and to help you get in control of the leash in a positive manner.
Things you’ll need:
- Zero or low distraction area to work in (indoors)
- I recommend using a 10 ft leash
- High value treats and treat bag
- Front-attachment harness (a harness with the option to clip the leash on the chest) or a head harness like Gentle Leader or Halti
Introducing our training fundamentals
These are the crucial building blocks that will give your dog the tools to be an all-star on the leash. These are exercises that should be worked on daily with your pup if you want to see strong results. I recommend fast paced, 10-20 minute training sessions 1-2 times daily. As with any training, remember to be patient and consistent with your pup!
- Focus on handler (eye contact)
- Sits on cue
You will want to practice these fundamentals in a low distraction area initially. I suggest inside with the leash on. Once your dog is very reliable with these cues and no distractions, we will gradually increase our distractions. Move outside and repeat the fundamentals where there are a low level of distractions such as your backyard or a low traffic area of your street.
Once Sparky knows her cues and has gotten the hang of our training fundamentals, we are ready to begin incorporating these new found skills into our walk. Our goal here is to start to teach a different reaction to the things that normally make her uncomfortable and cause an extreme reaction on the leash.
The most important thing we can do for our dog is to help them manage their experiences and interactions with the world. Now is the time to learn our dogs triggers while on the leash. The things that make our dog uncomfortable or scared.
Common triggers include:
Some signs to look for in your dog that would indicate it is being triggered would be:
- body tension
- perky ears
- stiff or straight tail
- undivided focus on something other than you
These are the signs to look for to catch the behavior before it can escalate to barking, lunging and growling. If any of these occur, you need to get some distance between your dog and the trigger as soon as possible. These are all distance-getting behaviors and indicate you are too close to a trigger.
Now that we know our dogs triggers, we can begin our walk. Let’s say Fluffy sees another person walking a dog. It’s apparent by her stiff body language, whining and pulling that this is a trigger. We need to stop and begin to walk backwards away from the trigger while using our own body language to help make it clear what we are asking all while holding our dogs focus. This is where our fundamentals and practice come in. As we continue to walk backwards we are maintaining eye contact and having Fluffy sit down every few steps. I recommend using treats and a treat bag to aid with the process. If your dog is not taking treats, continue to walk away from the trigger until they seem more responsive.
When the trigger has been forgotten we can continue walking in either direction, but if she is triggered again, we must repeat our leash training exercise and turn around, walk backward while maintaining focus and sitting every few feet.
What to do if a trigger is approaching you
If you are on your walk and are being approached by a trigger, we are going to do the same walking backward and sitting technique with a bit of a twist this time. When we notice our dog engage with the trigger at a comfortable distance before she can show distance getting behaviors such as lunging, barking, and growling we will start walking backward and make a 90 degree turn with the dogs back to where the trigger will pass. Continue to repeat the sit cue while walking backward until the area is clear to continue your walk.
Now that you have your tools and some direction on what to do when your dog is leash reactive, PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE! The more you practice, the better your results will be. It will take a lot of work to get a perfect walker, but it will be so worth it! Remember to use every opportunity you can to practice excellent walking techniques. Consistency and patience are key.
I’d like to leave you with a reminder that Fidos attention span will only last around 15 minutes. Don’t forget to take breaks to avoid frustration on both parts. Happy walking!