Answering your questions: leash reactivity

Sometimes when I am walking my dog on leash, he lunges and barks. What can I do about this?

This is what is known as leash reactivity, which is also called “leash aggression” by some. I prefer the term reactivity because it is a more accurate description in most cases.

The first step in addressing the issue is determining what the dog is actually trying to convey through these reactions. Is he showing signs of fear, or is it frustration at wanting to meet another person or dog? Working with a qualified professional who can read these signs is important, and the treatment plan to modify the behavior will depend on the cause of the dog’s reactive behaviors.

Managing the behavior can be done by trying to avoid any situations where the dog will react. Keep your eyes peeled for those situations that can cause a reaction in your dog. Since these reactions are stressful, it’s important to avoid them so your dog can be more successful in learning alternate behaviors for the reactivity. Teach behaviors such as hand targeting, sit and focus so you can move your dog out of the path of what will cause a reaction and have him do these behaviors instead.

If you come upon your dog’s “trigger” (the object that is causing him to react on-leash) suddenly, do what’s called an “emergency U-turn”: Get your dog to essentially chase you by first getting his attention and then running away from the situation. Essentially you’re making it into a game. Practice this at home first. Put him on a leash and bait your hand with a smelly treat. Take a few steps, then say “This way!” as you get him to follow your baited hand backward. Once he’s followed you back, treat him. Practice this technique and build on his ability to follow you while using the treat less and praising more. You can also try doing a play bow to him to entice him to follow you.

It is extremely important to not add to the stress or fear by pulling on the leash or punishing the dog. This will only make the problem worse. Likewise, while we do not dislike tools such as head collars, some tools can be misused and can lead to injury if not properly used, so it’s important to work with a professional to use the tools that are best for your dog. In most cases, we prefer front-clip harnesses for dogs with reactive issues. We never advocate for the use of shock, prong or choke collars as these can also make the problem worse. Calming caps and thundershirts can be helpful in cases where anxiety is a cause of the problem.

The above techniques will not solve the underlying problem but can help manage as you obtain professional help to modify the behavior. We use classical counterconditioning, Look At That (LAT) and BAT (Behavior Adjustment Training) techniques. We strongly recommend seeking a professional for this particular issue. Dog behavior is complex, especially when it comes to issues of reactivity, such as this question poses, and it’s important to enlist professional help to adequately and safely address reactivity. Contact us if you have more questions or would like to schedule a consultation.

Thank you and happy training,
Laura
Owner, Delightful Doggies

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