Walk this Way: Managing Leash Reactivity in Our Dogs

By October 10, 2020Blog

By Staff Member Leanne Schmitt BS, RVT, Fear Free Certified Professional

Leash reactivity is a common behavior concern for dog owners. It can be challenging to navigate our own feelings of embarrassment and frustration when our dogs are reactive on leash. Pressure to eliminate reactive behavior can result in choosing aversive training techniques. When positive punishment is used to manage leash reactivity we risk increasing reactivity, suppressing behavior, and solidifying a negative emotional state for our dogs. Behavior modification techniques that utilize positive reinforcement enhance the human-animal bond and respect the dog’s individual needs. The Fear Free Certified Doctors and Staff at CoastView Veterinary Hospital are here to support and assist you with your pets’ behavior concerns. Walks can and should be enjoyable for you and your dog.

What is Leash Reactivity?

When we observe these behaviors we have a tendency to assume the motivation behind the behavior by using human emotions. Our desire to understand our dogs is natural, it helps us build connection with them. However, by anthropomorphizing our dogs we risk misinterpreting behavior and developing training plans that are likely to be unsuccessful.

When addressing leash reactivity we like to ask “what would you like the dog to do instead?” This gives us an opportunity to establish realistic goals for both you and your dog. The behavior modification plan is centered around the desired goal and executed at a pace that is comfortable for everyone involved. There are some instances where prescription medications may be necessary to facilitate learning in our dogs and can be prescribed only by licensed veterinarians. Qualified trainers can provide support and assistance in the application of behavior modification techniques, but are not allowed to recommend and or prescribe prescription pharmaceuticals.

Scheduling an appointment with one of CoastView Veterinary Hospital’s veterinarians is a great place to start when addressing behavior concerns in your pet.

Behaviors Associated with Leash Reactivity

Behaviors may include:

  • Barking
  • Lunging
  • Growling
  • Jumping
  • Pulling
  • Redirected aggression onto a nearby dog or handler
  • High pitched vocalizations
  • Predatory Behavior (stalking, hard stare)
  • Escape behaviors

Why is My Dog Leash Reactive?

While there are many contributing factors, please remember that our dogs are individuals and there is never a one size fits all approach to managing leash reactivity.

Here are a few of the most common reasons:

  • Onset of Social Maturity at 2-3 years of age
  • Positive Punishment/aversive training techniques used to address leash reactivity
  • Negative emotional state including underlying fear, anxiety, and stress
  • Leash tension/body restriction from devices used during walks
  • Genetics
  • Suboptimal socialization to novelty, people, and other dogs between 6-12 weeks of age
  • Traumatic event including being attacked by another dog

The Following may Accidentally Increase Leash Reactivity

Our dogs are sentient beings, capable of feeling fear, anxiety, and stress. When we utilize punishment as means of teaching new behaviors we jeopardize our bond with our dogs. We risk increased reactivity, lack of reliability in behavior, and we create a negative emotional state for our dogs resulting in learned helplessness.1 Our relationship with our dogs is not hierarchical, we are not competing for resources, and we do not abide by the natural laws that govern wild wolf packs. Therefore, when we train our dogs using positive reinforcement, the dynamic shifts to that of a team, working toward a common goal. We start to see behavior as a means of communication between us and our dogs, where we focus on the desirable not the undesirable behaviors.

Behavior Modification for Leash Reactivity

There are many behavior modification techniques that are appropriate in managing leash reactivity. Below are four of these techniques:

Technique #1: The “Find It” Game

The first technique is the “find it” game which can be used when in close proximity to another dog and you may be unable to move away. When you find yourself in this situation you may notice your dog is unable to engage with you because they are focused on the nearby dog. We can do our best to avoid these situations but sometimes these situations are unavoidable. It is important to have a variety of tools in our training toolbox to use when we find ourselves in this predicament.

As demonstrated in this video with my own dog, Dinah, when we play the “Find It” game I will give the verbal cue “find it”, reach into my treat pouch, grab about 3-4 treats and toss them onto the ground. The goal is to engage your dog in foraging for the treats while the other dog passes by.

Technique #2: Make a U-Turn

The u-turn technique can be used when another dog is approaching head on and you have the ability to change direction.

As demonstrated in this video, my own dog Dinah is on her long lead (not ideal) and I would instead recommend using a 4-6 foot leash or a hands free leash to avoid getting tangled in the leash. I was able to shorten my leash for this demonstration making it easier for both of us to navigate this training technique.

Technique #3: Capturing the Check-In

A great skill for any dog owner to learn is how to capture a check in. A check in is when the dog engages with you. This could include orienting their body toward you, looking at you, or making eye contact with you. Check-ins are really helpful on walks and in distracting environments. They are opportunities for your dog to earn reinforcement for giving you their attention.

Technique #4: Desensitization

Desensitization is defined as the decrease of an emotional response to a stimulus after gradual exposure.2 In leash reactivity cases this means exposing your dog to another dog, on leash, at a distance that does not elicit a reactive response. Gradually (at your dog’s pace) you move closer and closer to the other dog. You give your dog the opportunity to look, listen, and smell in the direction of the other dog. If your dog maintains a relaxed body posture and a calm response, reinforcement is earned. Always set your pet up for success when beginning desensitization exercises. This means carefully assessing a safe distance from the stimuli to ensure they have many opportunities to earn reinforcement.

Decompression Walks Revisited

What should a walk look like for our dogs? Please be sure to check out Sarah Stremming’s concept of Decompression Walks. We love this idea and you’ll find reference to it in two separate blogs!

Decompression walks have so many wonderful benefits for both humans and dogs. It involves making time to escape the hustle and bustle of urban life. It is an opportunity for us to be present in nature and allow our dog the freedom to be a dog. These walks are not about obedience, time restrictions, or predetermined routes. They are about exploration, tranquility, and connection. Use a long lead or allow your dog to be off leash (in designated areas) so that they can sniff, roll, run, and climb to their heart’s content.

If your pet dog or cat is exhibiting any unwanted behavior, scheduling an appointment with one of CoastView Veterinary Hospital’s veterinarians is a great place to start when addressing your concerns.

1 An emotional state in which the animal has learned through past experience that their behavior does not change the outcome of a circumstance, and therefore they stop trying and shut down. Cooperative Veterinary Care, First Edition. Alicea Howell and Monique Feyrecilde. 2018 John Wiley and Sons Inc.

2 Cooperative Veterinary Care, First Edition. Alicea Howell and Monique Feyrecilde. 2018 John Wiley and Sons Inc.

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