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Pet Column: Leash reactivity, the lonely behavior battle

Brixie lunges and barks at an unfamiliar dog passing by. Photo provided by Elle Williams.

By Elle Williams  
Pet Columnist, Canyon Lake Insider 

Have you ever been on a walk and someone’s dog goes crazy, lunging, barking, and spinning with hackled hair, when they see you walking your dog? You might think the dog is ready to attack. Maybe you’re the one whose dog goes nuts on walks when an unfamiliar dog passes by. The term for this behavior is leash reactivity and it’s more common than you might think. 

I call it the lonely behavior battle because more often than not, people who have a leash reactive dog find themself isolating their dog from society and often give up on taking their dog out for walks because of the embarrassment leash reactivity causes. If this is the case with your pup, you’re not alone. There are ways to teach an incompatibility alternative behavior.

It’s important to know what’s going on in your dog’s brain during a reaction. To make it simple, think of the dog’s brain in two parts: the cerebral cortex and the limbic system. The cerebral cortex is in charge of learning and performing tasks. The limbic system of the brain is in charge of survival strategies and defense. When one is active, the other is shut off, inhibited. That’s why when your dog is reacting, they are unable to learn or listen to your cues because the limbic system is in full force. It’s important to keep your dog below the threshold in order to teach an alternative behavior.

Now let’s understand some of the reasons a dog may become reactive. Excitement to meet a new dog is the most common reason. It may look aggressive, but most dogs don’t go looking for a fight. Excitement can lead to frustration due to the fact there’s a leash keeping them from meeting the other dog. It’s important to note that frustration can turn into aggression. The best example is when you’re walking two dogs and one reacts and gets frustrated then releases that energy towards your other dog. This is called redirected aggression, and it’s scary to witness.

Another common reason for leash reactivity is fear. Dogs who have had bad experiences with other dogs can resort to being overprotective of themself, especially when they know they can’t choose flight over fight due to the leash. Dogs often develop a stronger fear of dogs when owners choose to use a shock collar to correct reactions. Although the correction is used to snap them out of it, it also gives the dog more reasons to act out of fear. Its thought process becomes “I see a dog, I get hurt,” which is why I don’t use shock collars but rather train an incompatible behavior to replace reactivity.

Leash reactivity is deeply personal for me. It’s the reason I went into the field of dog training. It all started when my young pit bull, Olive, was attacked by an off-leash dog. I was on a walk with Olive when a dog came charging from its front yard and quickly started biting Olive’s neck. I believe the dog felt territorial and I don’t blame the dog, it’s the owners who should have had a leash or fence in place. Olive did not fight back, it’s not in her nature. What did end up happening was the seed of fear was planted. From then on, Olive assumed that every dog she saw on a walk was going to attack, resulting in her becoming reactive out of fear.

If I had any other breed of dog, I may have not been so determined to fix this behavior. Because Olive is a pit bull, the last thing I wanted was people assuming her reactivity was aggression based on her breed. So I got to work.

The first step I took was to reintroduce walks as fun. This meant that we needed to avoid dogs at all costs. Anytime I saw a dog, we went the opposite way. After a month of dog-free walks, she was ready to start associating dogs with good things. I would take her to the park to watch dogs from afar. Whenever we saw a dog, I would say “look a puppy!” and then give her a treat. I even did this in car rides. While driving by I would say “look a puppy.” Then I would hold a treat up to her face and reward her with it when we passed by. Now, her mindset changed to “good things happen when another dog is around.”

Now Olive forward to dogs, but that wasn’t the cure. She still got excited when she saw a dog and if the dog was too close, she would still lunge and bark. I needed to give her an alternative behavior that was incompatible with reactivity. That’s where the focus work came in.

From home, I taught her to watch me. Each time she gave me eye contact, I would reward with a super yummy treat, something more valuable than reacting to a dog. Then, when I felt she was ready, I would use this on walks. When a dog would walk by, I would have her sit and watch me. If she didn’t react and the dog had passed us, she got a reward. Giving her this training with distance worked best. In time, we went from no reactions from across a small soccer field to no reactions from across a street. Thus allowing us to take normal walks around the neighborhood.

There are some other tricks I used to keep her from reacting. I used a game called “go find” to teach her how to tell another dog that she was not interested. While she was busy sniffing for the treats I tossed around the ground, the dog passing by would just see her sniffing around. Translated into the dog, sniffing around means “ I’m no threat, I’m not interested in you.”

Olive is doing much better now. Most of the time, she’s excited to see a dog but knows the routine and quickly redirects focus on me. This doesn’t mean she’s perfect. While working with reactivity, I fully expect extinction bursts. This is when a previously extinct behavior appears out of the blue, before becoming extinct again. It’s like a child trying out a bad behavior to see if it might work now that they haven’t done it in a while. 

Reactivity is a serious matter and I highly suggest seeking help from a vet behaviorist or a qualified dog trainer. Many dog trainers won’t work with reactive dogs in a group setting, so look for a trainer who can provide individual lessons and feels comfortable around a reactive dog. 

I hope this article gives anyone who’s dealing with leash reactivity hope and inspiration to help their dog overcome this debilitating behavior. And to those who witness a leash reactive dog, I hope this gives you a better understanding of what’s really going on.

Elle Williams is a local in-home dog trainer and the owner of Give a Sit Dog Training. She is certified in dog psychology, nutrition, and grooming, and specializes in basic and advanced obedience, puppy prep, and behavior adjustment training.

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