One of the most common behavior concerns we deal with is leash reactivity in other wise friendly dogs. Reactivity, in the simplest sense, is an overreaction to stimuli in the environment, most commonly other dogs or people.
Leashes, fences and other barriers tend to exaggerate this overreaction and cause a class of behaviors referred to as barrier, or leash, reactivity. We often see reactivity from dogs in cars or running along a fence as people walk by but leash reactivity is by far the most concerning for owners as it can put you and your dog in an awkward and potentially hazardous situation.
Many dogs who are friendly and sociable off-leash are leash reactive and can look highly aggressive on-leash as they bark, lunge, growl and generally make a spectacle of themselves. Why would a dog-friendly-dog be leash reactive? Well, like any behavior, leash reactivity persists because it becomes a rewarded behavior (remember rewarded behaviors are repeated!). This behavior chain often begins as a development of over-excitement, frustration, fear, or any other normal response to seeing another dog. Unfortunately, it can quickly progress to an all-out-uncontrollable response because of a pattern of reward or inappropriate correction, most often an increase in distance and shouting.
To witness a dog approach another dog in a friendly way off-leash and then go seemingly berserk at the end of the leash at the mere sight of another dog can be confusing and frustrating for owners. But let’s look at how most dogs approach each other off-leash:
Generally, dogs greet each other off-leash at an angle or curved at their own speed so that they can sniff behinds first. Loose low body language with soft eyes and often with appeasing gestures, they will often back away and return before going face-to-face, etc. When dogs approach each other on leashes, they are often trying to move at a different speed than their owner, which causes them to pull and have their head up and back in resistance to the leash. They are walking in straight lines so that they stare at a distance and then come face to face. If they do attempt to sniff, leashes often get tangled or jerked (often by owners saying “gentle” or “be nice” in super tense voices), etc. Leashes make the whole process tense and unnatural which can lead to frustration, fear and all sorts of other emotions that are not present off-leash.
Many dogs coming into daycare are reactive in the lobby (ie: on leash and with an owner), but do great in off-leash play groups (see: http://perfect-pooch.com/walking-your-dog-into-daycare/), which is why we often ask people to hand their dogs over quickly to clear the lobby before the next dog walks in. We know that a large percentage of our clients are working through leash reactivity and don’t need to trigger their dog to react.
There are a few ways to train a leash reactive dog to be less or non-reactive, but it is always best to work with a certified professional dog trainer who can help you assess the level of reactivity and the best approach to take with your dog. Sometimes we can even determine the cause of the reactivity, which in some situations can speed up the training process (for example an overexcited adolescent can use different reward categories than a fearful senior). In general, it is important to keep in mind that we are often working with a conditioned emotional response that has a long history of accidental reward so the training process usually involves altering an emotional state as much as it involves changing the visible behaviors being exhibited.
It is extremely important not to punish or scold a reactive dog. They are exhibiting some sign of stress and adding yet another stressor may limit their visible behavior in the short term, but often increases the internal discomfort (primarily stress through elevating cortisol levels) and can lead to worse behaviors down the road. Dogs who have been punished for exhibiting reactive behaviors often bite “without warning” later on or, through transference, can begin exhibiting other negative behaviors such as self-harming, attacking the leash, fear of the outdoors, etc.
If your dog is showing signs of leash reactivity, there are a few things you can begin working on to help them feel more comfortable. Training can lead to a full remission of behaviors but there are a few simple changes you can implement in the short term as well. First of all, do not pressure your dog to approach other dogs even if they are showing non-reactive behaviors in some situations since you don’t want to trigger a reactive situation. If you are walking your dog and see another dog approaching, simply turn around and walk away. Diffuse the tension by not trying to have your dog pass by or sit and wait; just avoid the interaction all together. If you end up in a bad spot, either with multiple dogs in different directions, or a surprise dog from around a corner, etc., you can Pez-dispense treats for your dog or walk out of the line of sight behind a car or tree until the other dogs are at a safe distance. By preventing a reactive occurrence, you can begin helping your dog by not rewarding reactivity until you are able to work through a training protocol. Keep in mind you should have your dog wearing an appropriately fitted head halter or no-pull harness on walks.
Having a reactive dog is not the same as having a “bad” dog or being a “bad” owner. Reactive dogs were likely never abused or part of a dog fighting ring. If your dog demonstrates leash reactivity or if you see a leash reactive dog walking into daycare or down the street, try not to judge them and realize that they may be working on changing their dog’s behavior or need some space. In general, many dogs are leash or barrier reactive, even the best player in the dog park, their reactivity does not define them.
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator