Do you dread taking your dog on walks because of how they behave while they are on their leash? Are you constantly rubbing your shoulders due to them pulling or lunging at other dogs that pass by?
These types of behaviors that your dog displays while on a leash is called leash reactivity, and it’s a common behavior challenge faced by many pet parents. These intense reactions can make walks stressful, challenging, and downright unworkable for both you and your dog.
These behaviors can be managed and improved, though. With proper understanding, training techniques, and patience, a peaceful and relaxing walk with your dog is on the horizon. Today we’ll chat about what you need to know about leash reactivity, ways to address the behaviors, and some practical strategies to help you address this behavior.
What Causes Leash Reactivity?
Think about all of the stimuli you experience on a walk. Cars pass by on the street, sometimes honking. People walk past; they may be talking on their phones or carrying a load of shopping bags. Birds are whistling; kids are playing; other dogs pass by, and not to mention all the smells that catch your attention (so imagine what your dog’s nose picks up).
Being outside can be overwhelming for your dog, especially if they are in a new place. All of these external stimuli can cause your dog to feel excited, frustrated, or even stressed. They may also feel restricted by their leash.
While we know the leash is there for their own safety, your dog may not feel that way as they feel overwhelmed by all the activity happening around them. They aren’t able to get away and are now being confronted by these triggers, resulting in leash reactivity.
Preparing for Success
The key to managing a dog’s leash reactivity is first identifying the stimuli that cause them to feel overwhelmed. If your dog begins to bark and lunge at other dogs, then it’s safe to say that other dogs trigger their leash reactivity. If your dog whines and tries to approach other people, then people are their trigger. Sometimes it can be a combination of both or something else entirely!
If your dog’s trigger is other dogs, avoid the dog park or places where others are taking their furry friends on their daily walks. If this can’t be avoided, try to put as much distance as possible between your dog and the others.
The same thought goes for crowded areas with other humans. If your dog reacts to other people, take your dog to less crowded spaces. While we often can’t resist a cute dog while out and about, you’ll sometimes have to advocate for your dog if another human approaches them.
One helpful trick is to let the other person know what your dog is in training. This’ll send the message that while you appreciate their love for dogs, you and your dog need some space.
You should see some improvement on walks if you are able to avoid your dog’s triggers. While this isn’t a feasible long-term plan, in the beginning, this will help with effectively managing your dog while on walks.
Positive Reinforcement Training
Positive reinforcement training is very effective when training your dog, especially if they are food motivated. When utilizing this type of training, you’re giving your dog a reward (treat, praise, anything positive that your dog enjoys) to reinforce behaviors and create a positive relationship with something that your dog does.
You’ll want to keep this training in mind while working on managing your dog’s leash reactivity. If you know your best buddy’s favorite treat or toy, stock up on these to help training go more smoothly!
Loose Leash Walking
If you start to see an improvement when avoiding your dog’s triggers while on a walk, then it would be a great opportunity to teach your dog loose leash walking. This is another skill that will help make your walks more enjoyable.
Loose leash walking is when your dog walks calmly near you during walks, which results in a loose leash. This will result in no pulling, and your dog will pay more attention to you during walks. This will help later if they see any triggers that cause leash reactivity.
Reward your dog with treats when they walk nicely on a leash. If they begin to pull, immediately change direction. This will let your dog know that pulling will not get them what they want. Once they start to walk calmly again, offer them a treat. They will soon learn that walking next to you instead of in front of you and pulling will result in a tasty morsel.
Managing Walks and Encounters
As we mentioned earlier, avoiding your dog’s triggers isn’t a long-term plan. At some point, a dog will need to be exposed to their triggers, but you can give them opportunities to deal with these stressful moments in a controlled environment.
You’ll have to help manage their behavior and desensitize them to their triggers. In the future, when you and your dog have to face these stressful moments, you’ll be prepared.
Positive Reinforcement Is Key
This is where positive reinforcement comes in. You know your dog best, so you know if they enjoy treats, a pet, praise, or a toy. Keep those rewards on you and go on your walk. Whenever you see one of your dog’s triggers, don’t avoid it like you usually do. Keep walking as normal until your dog sees the other dog or person, and offer them a treat. If your dog still reacts or does not take the reward, it means you came too close to the trigger. Try again, but this time keep more space between yourself and the trigger.
This is where you want your dog to start making the connection that when they see another dog or person, they get a treat. This is the sweet spot where your dog starts to associate the trigger with treats. In their mind, this starts to turn the negative into a positive.
With consistent training and counter-conditioning, your dog’s triggers will elicit less of a reaction. This will take time and consistency on your part. With each training session, start to get a little closer to the triggers while giving your dog their treat and showing them that everything is okay.
Watch Your Dog’s Body Language
Watch your dog’s body language during all training sessions. Your dog may show signs that they are anxious but haven’t completely started to react. Look for raised ears, panting, lip licking, and whining.
When these behaviors increase, pull away from the situation to a calmer environment. You don’t want your dog to show their typical reactive behaviors like barking or pulling. You’ll have to constantly monitor your dog while walking so you can pivot and change direction if needed to help your dog feel more comfortable.
Note that if a dog has a history of biting or a risk of biting, ask your dog trainer if it would be safer for everyone involved (including the pup) if the dog wears a basket muzzle or similar safety device.
Seeking Professional Guidance
Remember that just because your dog shows leash reactivity, this doesn’t mean that they are a bad dog or can’t learn. There’s no such a thing as a bad dog anyway — everyone needs a little help now and then, including our dogs.
Sometimes, we need a bit more guidance in this area when our approaches aren’t working. Professional guidance can be very helpful, as these experts deal with these types of issues on a regular basis and have received special training.
AskVet can be your tool in helping minimize leash reactivity in your dog. For one, our Certified Pet Lifestyle Experts™ can help you better understand why dogs behave the way they do. This will allow you to be better equipped to handle your dog’s leash reactivity, especially if you have already tried other approaches.
Together, you’ll be able to come up with a personalized plan for your dog. Frequent check-ins will allow your expert to make changes as needed to better suit your pet. Think of these as lifestyle coaching sessions for your dog. Schedule a chat with a Certified Pet Coach and get started today.
Walk in Sync With AskVet
Managing leash reactivity in your dog requires patience, consistent training, and a positive mindset. By understanding what causes leash reactivity, you can implement positive training techniques to effectively address and manage this behavior.
Progress may take time, and we’re here whenever you need any guidance. Remember to reach out to AskVet and schedule a virtual session whenever you have any behavioral questions. We’re here for your and your best furry pal every step of the way.
As a member of AskVet, you’ll also have access to a pet parent community so you can share and get advice on any pet topic you can think of. If you need a more personalized touch, our Certified Pet Lightstyle Experts™ can help to create a personalized pet plan for your dog.
Additionally, anytime you have any health-related questions, AskVet has veterinary experts on hand. They’ll let you know when it’s time to go to the vet or if there is anything you can do to help your furry friend be comfortable when they aren’t feeling their best.
Together with AskVet, you and your furry buddy will be able to walk in sync and enjoy peaceful walks together.
Positive reinforcement training | The Humane Society of the United States
Managing reactive behavior | Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine
Anxious behavior: How to help your dog cope with unsettling situations | Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine
Teach your dog to walk on a loose leash | Animal Humane Society