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The Dog Owner's Guide to Managing Leash Reactivity

Updated: Sep 15, 2023


Dog Owner's Guide


Introduction: What is Leash Reactivity?

Leash reactivity is a prevalent challenge among many dog owners, where dogs display unwanted behaviors like barking or pulling when on a leash in reaction to specific triggers. Often, a dog might bark or growl at an approaching canine when leashed yet appear entirely composed when off-leash. This reactivity can often originate from frustration; the confinement of a leash can cause some dogs to feel trapped, taking away their choice to flee from potentially intimidating situations. For the more fearful ones, this confinement might push them to act aggressively, serving as a deterrent to perceived threats. Past traumas also contribute to this behavior. If a dog has had negative experiences while leashed, such as being attacked by another dog or being corrected too harshly by their owner, they might develop such reactive tendencies. Furthermore, inconsistency and lack of clarity in the handler's rules can confuse the dog and exacerbate reactivity. And then, there's the factor of socialization. Dogs not adequately socialized during their formative months might be apprehensive when introduced to unfamiliar environments or creatures, leading to reactive behavior.


Regardless of its root cause, leash reactivity can be tackled effectively through training. The cornerstone of obedience training is leveraging a dog's incapacity to multitask. When a dog is given a specific duty, it becomes challenging for them to display unwanted behaviors. My training approach for students involves a methodical breakdown of environments based on the level of challenge they pose. The order—from least to most challenging—is determined by the dog's inherent interests and motivations. While some dogs might gravitate towards intriguing smells, others might be captivated by small animals, triggering their prey response. Distractions for dogs generally fit into four primary groups:


Environmental: This covers other animals, people, noises, moving items, and unfamiliar settings.

Social: Represented by other dogs or people with whom the dog wishes to interact.

Prey: Small creatures like squirrels or birds that awaken a dog's natural predatory instincts.

Scents: Intriguing odors that pique a dog's curiosity.


While most dogs are prone to distractions from all these groups, the intensity varies. Understanding what captures your dog's attention can be instrumental in deciding the starting point for training outside your residence.


Addressing a dog that's leash-reactive upon spotting another canine requires different strategies based on the root cause of their behavior. If the reaction stems from frustration—e.g., the dog's inability to access something they desire—consistent obedience training usually provides a solution. However, if the reactivity is fear-based, it's essential to combine obedience training with counterconditioning and desensitization.


The Foundation of Training

I've employed a process that has consistently yielded success when handling leash-reactive dogs. It's worth noting that my training philosophy veers away from quick fixes, which often involve harsh corrections or dominant behaviors to elicit a desired response. While such methods might offer immediate results, they rarely address the core problem, often leading dogs to revert to their undesired behaviors.


My training method begins with establishing trust and clear communication with the dog in a neutral setting, ensuring an effective learning experience. For those interested in a detailed walkthrough, I've covered this in my YouTube video titled "Everything You Need to Know to Train Your Dog". Here's a brief outline:


Initiate with play, incorporating toys and treats to create a "reward event," a concept I attribute to the renowned Michael Ellis.


Engage in what's termed as "engagement training" or "charging/loading the marker."


Train the dog to follow a lure, leading them into desired positions.


Using the lure-following skill, introduce "leash pressure training", teaching the dog to follow leash guidance.


Introduce verbal commands for each behavior, progressing to teaching the "stay" command.


Gradually integrate distractions into the sessions.


Finally, incorporate corrections to ensure reliability—but only after the dog demonstrates at least 80% proficiency with the given commands.


Progressing in dog training entails introducing them to new environments, starting with the least challenging ones. In each fresh setting, it's crucial to revisit all the training steps, essentially treating it like training a novice dog. However, the silver lining is the acceleration of the learning curve with each new environment. This stems from the need for dogs to generalize training, understanding that commands learned at home are universally applicable. Typically, by the eighth or ninth environment, a dog becomes fully generalized, responding to commands irrespective of the setting.


When addressing leash reactivity rooted in frustration, as evidenced by the dog pulling, barking, and jumping, the solution becomes straightforward post-obedience training. But it's worth noting that a dog backing up, barking, with lowered tail and raised hackles, often (though not always) indicates fear. For deeper insights into canine emotions and body language, Patricia McConnell's 'For The Love of a Dog' is a recommended read.


Frustration-Driven Reactivity

For frustration-driven reactivity, having taught the dog markers, luring, and leash pressure proves beneficial. While I prefer going through the complete training process before embarking on a formal walk, I've found that an exercise teaching the dog to swiftly return to the heel position if deviated during the walk, what I like to call the 'Heel Position Recovery Exercise', can be invaluable. A demonstration of this exercise is available on my YouTube video titled 'Say Goodbye to Leash Pulling: How to Train Any Dog to Walk Nicely'. Preparation is paramount for both the handler and the dog to thrive.


Building a foundational understanding at home is pivotal for setting clear expectations during walks. Take the concept of the implied stay, for instance. When I instruct a dog to "sit," it's understood as a "sit-stay." I don't need to emphasize the "stay." This foundational process I use to teach the "sit-stay" mirrors the one I use for all my stay commands, even for "heel" which refers to loose leash walking. Although "heel" is a dynamic stay, its teaching methodology remains consistent with a stationary stay. This consistency ensures that each new stay command is absorbed by the dog more swiftly than the previous.


For effective loose leash walking, I begin by positioning the dog into the 'heel' using luring or a leash cue. After ensuring they sit beside me, I say "heel," pausing briefly to avoid overshadowing, then move forward, leading with the leg nearest to the dog—serving as another subtle cue. As we proceed, continuous praise rewards the dog for maintaining the 'heel' position. However, once they deviate, the praise halts, acting as a signal. If they keep walking forward, approaching the limit of the leash while it's still slack, I use "wrong" as a negative reinforcement marker. Remember, any word or sound guaranteeing a specific response within the four quadrants of operant conditioning is a marker. Negative reinforcement means alleviating pressure upon the right action by the dog. Markers such as 'wrong', 'oops', and 'uh-oh' are commonly used, but consistency in its use is key, and the tone should be neutral, not punitive. After marking, I cue the dog back to 'heel,' praise, but refrain from rewarding to prevent fostering unwanted behavior. This technique is part of what I term 'teachable moments,' instances where, instead of merely pointing out a mistake, you guide the dog towards the correct behavior. For instance, if a dog leaves their 'down stay,' calmly use your marker, approach them, and lead them back to the position using leash pressure. This approach can be extended to other undesired behaviors, like jumping on furniture.


When I'm walking a new dog, I aim to frequently step out of the dog's heel position, treating it as a playful challenge. If the dog becomes sidetracked, accelerates, or gets distracted, I swiftly move back. Once noticeably out of the heel position, I use my marker, "wrong", followed by a leash signal to guide them back. Re-attaining the heel position earns them verbal praise, and we repeat the process. A prevalent error many make is trying to match the dog's pace to maintain the heel position, essentially letting the dog lead. This sends a message that the dog dictates the walk's tempo, not the trainer. Such practices often lead the dog to subtly drift from the heel, reducing the efficiency of loose leash training. My game-like approach expedites the learning process. Another widespread technique is spontaneously changing direction once the dog exits the heel, resulting in a self-correcting mechanism. Though this can be effective, I don't favor it. I aim to convey my undivided attention to the dog, strengthening their obedience by making them aware I'm constantly observant.


In every training session, I utilize a systematic approach, always looking for specific milestones as they serve as benchmarks. When it's time to transition to the next training phase, these milestones confirm that the dog is primed and ready. During the loose leash training, if the dog autonomously returns to the heel position upon hearing my 'wrong' marker, that's my cue to progress to the subsequent phase, which emphasizes corrections for consistency. The readiness of this phase is evident when the dog heeds the marker and reassumes the heel position without needing leash cues. This transition phase introduces what I term a 'correction event.' As with reward and reinforcement events, a correction event has starting and stopping points. When the dog deviates from the heel position, I use a marker predicting positive punishment, such as 'no.' A half-second pause prevents overshadowing before the correction event begins. A standard correction method for loose leash training is a leash pop. Upon its application, the correction event ends. The next phase involves steering the dog to display the expected behavior, initiating it with a command. I assist them back to the heel position with the cues instilled earlier. Successful adherence is met with vocal praise, deliberately bypassing treats to deter the dog from linking unwanted behaviors with rewards. To put it plainly: a departure from the heel triggers a 'no,' followed by a correction, a reiteration of the 'heel' command, guiding them back, and verbal praise for successful compliance.


Also, it's crucial not to shout 'no' to your dog. Deliver it with the same consistency you'd apply to other markers. Continuity in tone and approach is pivotal, as aggressive outbursts can cultivate anxiety and mistrust, impacting your dog's overall demeanor with you. Think of it as a simple cause-and-effect sequence: any breach or disregard of a rule by your dog initiates a correction event. This mindset empowers the dog to recognize they are in control, thus comprehending how to avert such events. Prior training sessions ensure that the dog grasps the rules thoroughly before any correction is made, facilitating swift progression to reliable behavior.


Once your dog is trained, upholding the principles of loose leash walking, even in the face of distractions like another dog, becomes straightforward. Should your dog show an unwarranted reaction to another dog while in a commanded heel stay, this deviation from the command signals a correction event. This educates the dog that the correction is due to their departure from the heel, not their response to the other dog. With reinforced established rules, the dog can't multitask. They won't respond to another dog since they're engaged in walking calmly on the leash. If a dog is spotted on the opposite sidewalk, we maintain our course with my dog in heel. Conversely, if the dog shares our side, I guide mine onto the grass, setting them into a sit. While I let them observe the fellow canine, leash-pulling or barking will prompt another correction. For the majority of dogs, this process proves effective, and it has consistently aided in my training sessions.


Fear-Driven Reactivity

Let's delve into my approach to addressing dogs exhibiting leash reactivity due to underlying fear. Post-obedience training, these dogs are introduced to areas of heightened canine presence, for instance, local dog parks. However, the dog doesn't enter the park. Instead, we ascertain a distance where the dog perceives other canines but remains non-reactive. At this juncture, engaging and fun exercises are initiated. This procedure involves daily revisits, progressively closing the gap between the dog and the park until the dog can be adjacent to the park without any adverse reactions. The prolonged nature of this method ensures that positive reinforcements, like engaging activities, are paired with what initially was a fear stimulus, leading to a positive association. This process is known as counterconditioning and desensitization.


Another popular technique worth mentioning is the 'Engage-Disengage Game.' This training technique leverages positive reinforcement. The basic idea is to reward the dog for noticing a potential trigger (another dog, person, etc.) without reacting and then choosing to focus back on the owner. The process involves presenting the trigger at a distance where the dog notices but doesn't react, marking the moment the dog looks at the trigger, and then rewarding the dog when they disengage and look back to the owner. Over time and with consistent practice, the dog begins to associate the presence of triggers with positive outcomes, thereby reducing the reactive behavior.


In addition, successfully implementing the training methods outlined in this article can significantly enhance your chances of passing the AKC CGC test with your dog. A crucial component of the test is titled 'Reaction to another dog'. By developing proficiency in the steps we've discussed, this component will become much more manageable. Watch a demonstration of these techniques with a group of students I instructed here.


The journey to overcome leash reactivity in dogs might be filled with challenges, but the outcomes are immensely rewarding. Recognizing the root causes of our dogs' fears and applying adaptive, positive techniques can transform fearful walks into joyful experiences. As we navigate this journey, patience, and consistency remain our trusted allies. With dedication and the right methods, we can help every dog embrace the world around them with confidence and happiness.


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Nice article Nate concerning reactive dogs. I deal with this same behavior issue with many clients and pretty much use the same methods you describe. Regarding the 80% success rate, I tell my clients that the success rate is a reflection of their handling skills, not the dogs behavior. It seems to make the handlers focus more On their skill development.

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That's an excellent point. Thanks for sharing, I appreciate your feedback. Cheers!

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