Updated: Mar 14, 2022
Is leash reactivity turning your sweet pup into a lunging, snarling, teeth gnashing hell hound? Leash reactivity, or leash aggression can quickly derail a nice, relaxing outing, and depending on the dogs involved, can also be dangerous.
What causes leash reactivity?
Typically, a dog becomes reactive to another dog on leash either because of frustration, or because of fear. My eight month old puppy, for instance, loves to say hi and play with other dogs. He has regular play dates and does well at the dog park too. Unfortunately, approaching dogs we don't know while on leash isn't always appropriate or appreciated. Unless I can distract him or gain distance from the other dog within a few seconds, he rapidly goes from excited and happy to extremely pissed off. My affectionate, fun loving pup suddenly goes into gremlin mode, and is in no state to make friends. A dog who is under socialized, has had scary interactions with other dogs, or just wants to be left alone can have a similar reaction.
Can leash reactivity be cured?
With management, training, and patience, you can help your dog learn to be calmer when they see other dogs. Working with a positive reinforcement trainer can be a huge help in this process, especially if your dog has extreme reactivity, or has gotten into scuffles and fights with other dogs. It's important to remember that helping your dog decrease their leash reactivity is not an overnight process.
Invest in the right training tools.
Most likely your dog starts to pull or lunge when reacting to another dog. If you have a larger dog, using a harness that has a front attaching ring for the leash can give you more control. Also, wearing a treat pouch and carrying treats while out with your dog will help you to gain and keep your dog's attention. Treats should be high value, such as chicken, cheese, or hot dog. Freeze dried treats can also work well. If you work with a trainer, they might suggest other tools as well.
Practice focusing commands.
Teaching your dog to look at you on cue will help by giving them an acceptable option for what to do when another dog arrives on the scene. Cues like 'watch me' or 'focus' are common ones. You can start by holding a treat to lure your dog's gaze, and eventually they will turn towards you when you give that command. Of course, new commands are best practiced in a boring, indoor space where you and the treats are more exciting than anything else within view.
Get to know your dog's threshold.
Does your dog react when they see another dog across the street? Down the block? Or just when a dog comes within a few feet of them? Do they react to some dogs but not others? What sorts of dogs or behaviors trigger your dog more? If you can get your dog's attention, and they will take treats from you, you're in a good place to keep control of the situation. If your dog is ignoring treats and you, they've gone above their threshold, and need to be quickly moved to a place where they either cannot see the other dog, or are far enough away that they can regain some composure.
Be on the lookout, and aware of your surroundings.
Be strategic in the route you take and when you walk your dog. I prefer early mornings, and areas where if there is another dog out, I have options for ensuring there is ample space to keep my dog under threshold. If I see someone walking their dog, I can move my dog away and distract him with treats until the other dog passes, or I can change direction and avoid crossing paths altogether. If my dog has spotted the other dog, I make sure to treat him even if my choice is to move in a different direction.
Pair dog sightings with yummy treats and lots of praise.
Remember Pavlov's dogs, who learned that a ringing bell meant treats were coming? Giving treats, especially high value ones, when your dog sees another dog will have the same effect. Your dog will learn to associate a dog sighting with good things, and will start to turn their attention to you in anticipation when they see other dogs.
Keep an eye on your dog's body language.
Watch your dog for signs of tension to help you gauge how they're likely to react. If their body stiffens, hackles go up, or they become fixated on the other dog, they are approaching or possibly over threshold. It's also helpful to notice the other dog's body language. Are they also stiffening up or giving a hard stare? Wiggly, smiling, and wanting to say hello? Or are they unreactive to your dog and happy to continue on their way?
Working through leach reactivity can be stressful and challenging, so it's encouraging to notice when your dog has made progress. Did they used to fixate on dogs across the street and now can ignore them? Have they started to check in with you when another dog approaches? Both you and your dog deserve a shout out for putting in the work and being partners in this process.