The biggest challenge that we have faced with Sasha is one that can be an issue for many dogs, and that is the problem of leash reactivity. You may not know it by name, but I’m sure you have seen it before: picture a dog lunging on-leash, possibly barking or growling, with the poor owner saying “Sorry, sorry!” as they try to drag the dog along. Sound familiar?
“Leash reactivity” is an overarching term that, in a nutshell, refers to dogs that get over-excited when on a leash due to feeling restrained or trapped. This “excitement” can stem from a variety of sources, including:
- Being nervous or uncomfortable around other dogs. This, in combination with the dog feeling trapped on-leash, results in the leashed dog acting more aggressively to protect him or herself.
- True excitement and desire to get to the other dog, which can result in frustration from being restrained.
It is important to clarify that, regardless of the reason behind your dog’s behavior, leash reactivity is not your dog being “bad” or acting “naughty”. Rather, leash reactivity is an emotional response. Since the causes of leash reactivity are very internal, rather than your dog simply not knowing the proper way to behave, it requires behavior modification rather than training. In other words, we must change the way our dogs feel when they see another dog.
Sasha’s leash reactivity stems from the second reason listed above. She loves other dogs, and we take her to dog parks very regularly. However, when she is on a leash, she becomes very frustrated when she can see other dogs but cannot get near enough to them to say hi. For Sasha, this manifests in lunging and running back and forth while bouncing in the air.
To deal with this we began avid counter conditioning, which means changing a dog’s emotional response to certain stimuli. We began giving Sasha tasty treats whenever she saw another dog, the goal being changing her emotional response (to be anthropomorphic), from “Holy crap! Another dog! I NEED to go say hi!” to “Hmm, another dog. But more interesting- Mom has a treat for me!”.
The first step of counter conditioning was teaching Sasha that hearing her name meant that she had to look at whoever said it in order to receive a treat. I started teaching her this cue in a low-distraction environment (for most people, that is right in your living room!). When she was looking away from me I would excitedly say “Sasha!” in a high-pitched voice. As soon as she looked at me, she heard “Good girl!” and got a treat. We gradually increased the level of distraction until she would respond to this even when we were outside on a walk.
Next, we started playing the name game when we saw dogs in the distance, far enough away that Sasha saw them but would still respond when she heard her name. Whenever she glanced at the dog, I would say “Sasha!”, and as soon as she looked, she got a treat. She would then start looking back and forth from the dog to me, getting a treat each time she looked at me. When we first adopted her, this distance was several blocks away. Now, close to five months later, the distance has decreased so much that a dog can be across the street from us and Sasha will still respond and look to me when I say her name, and she will automatically look to me when she sees a dog at a distance.
When in an especially challenging situation, such as seeing another dog who is also reactive, I will have Sasha sit in front of me and consistently give her treats. In less exciting scenarios you can keep walking while giving treats, but I recommend this tactic if it seems like your dog might get over-excited and react.
The key to this exercise is to take it very slowly, and to set your dog up for success. This means that you should stay far enough away from the trigger so that your dog isn’t bouncing-off-the-walls excited; rather, they should be at a distance where they see the other dog but are more interested in the treats that you have. Slowly but surely you will be able to decrease this distance, but keep in mind that your dog will only learn by being successful. Pushing your luck and getting too close to another dog too soon will only take you backwards in your training.
I also recommend recruiting friends and family with calm dogs to help you practice, rather than relying on dogs that you see on walks (who might also be very excited and only further rile up your own dog). You can use an empty parking lot or quiet side-street and practice these exercises.
Also, I cannot stress enough how important it is to have yummy, smelly treats! To state the obvious, this means having treats that are delicious to your dog, but might seem gross to you. When walking Sasha I rotate between cooked chicken, chopped-up hot dogs, and cheddar cheese. Think about it: use something so enticing that your dog would do anything for it, even ignore other dogs!
And one more thing: patience is key. It’s no fun being that person in the neighborhood, with the barking, lunging dog. Believe me, I know from experience! But by reading this post and looking into how to change the behavior, you are already doing something fantastic for your dog. Remember as you’re training that dogs, just like people, have their bad days. Sasha and I have had our fair share of walks where I go home thinking “But just yesterday she was perfect when seeing a dog a block away! What changed?” It makes it all worth it, though, when your dog sees another dog across the street and, rather than reacting, looks to you for a treat!
For those days that might be more frustrating (and those that are extra successful!) I would encourage you to comment and share your experiences! It can be uplifting to hear the stories of other people in order to remind yourself that you are far from alone in your situation, and that there are many things that can be done.