Leash Reactivity: Using Setups for Success

As I have mentioned many times before, Sasha struggles with leash reactivity: she gets crazy excited when she sees another dog, and jumps and lunges out of frustration that she can’t get to them. Thus far, and as mentioned in my previous post, we have been actively working on improving her threshold and helping her to become calm in these situations. Some of the different methods we have utilized are:

  • Cuing looking at me when she sees another dog
  • “Where’s the dog?”/”Look at That” (a little different, but basically she gets rewarded for looking at the trigger)
  • Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0 
  • Medication (20 mg of Fluoxetine once per day to help her be less anxious when reacting)

All of these techniques together have helped immensely: six months ago, Sasha would be out-of-control excited if she saw a dog down the street; now, she can remain calm when seeing a dog half a block away! However, there is one other tool that is critical to progress when using any of these previous methods, and that is using setups with other dogs.

The idea with setups is that, if you just train opportunistically with dogs that you encounter on walks, that is not nearly enough training for a dog to progress at a desired rate. Additionally, these encounters are often very uncontrolled and can go awry quickly. Thus, it is key to recruit friends with dogs to practice these situations in controlled setups.

You can manipulate these setups differently depending on what exactly your dog struggles with. When we first adopted Sasha, she struggled with simply seeing a dog from several blocks away: so, we practiced with stationary dogs down the street. This is often where many people start: recruit a friend with a calm dog, and have them simply stand still. There is no set distance for this- the key is to choose a distance in which your dog notices the other dog, but remains under threshold so that they can focus on you and learn. Then, when your dog looks at the helper dog, praise, and give them a treat. Simply repeat until your dog is glancing at the helper dog, and then looking back to you for a treat. You can gradually decrease the distance in a setup such as this, but be careful and go slow- you don’t want to get too close and undo all of the progress that you just made.

These days Sasha struggles more with movement, and dogs passing us across the street, so we do setups with a dog that is moving while we are stationary. Lately we have been starting so that the helper dog is on one side of the street, and we are on the opposite, but in a driveway so that we are a little further away. Then, the helper dog and person simply walk back and forth across from us. The idea here is the same: your dog will look at the helper dog, and then look back to you for a treat. Begin by cuing your dog’s name, or using a “watch” cue if your dog knows it, to get him or her to look at you. By the end, they may be glancing back to you without you using a cue.

Dealing with leash reactivity is definitely a challenge, but doing setups like these may help you feel like you have more control over your situation. Gradually, the more that you do them, the more progress you will see!

Sasha practices with Stephanie and Mar. When she looks at Mar, I mark it with a “yes!”, at which point she looks back to me for a treat. Thanks, Stephanie and Mar! 

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