By Melanie Benware, Holiday Barn Training Coordinator/Consultant
An increasing problem
Trainers all over the country are seeing an increase in leash reactivity with dogs of all sizes, breeds and ages. Leash reactivity, as I define it, is a dog that when put on the leash feels threatened or defensive when it sees other dogs and acts out. The severity of the reaction depends on each dog and the level to which it feels insecure. Some dogs simply growl and their hackles raise. Others will bark and lunge towards the other dog. To be clear, there is a difference between leash reactivity and dog aggression. Leash reactive dogs, when done properly, can interact well with other dogs. Many dogs that are leash reactive do wonderful in off leash environments with other dogs. Truly dog aggressive dogs will not. I am not saying that dog aggression cannot be improved but it is my opinion that aggression is managed, not cured. However, reactivity can be “fixed”. It just takes time, training and understanding why your dog is reacting the way he is.
The Proper Walk
It is my belief, after years of observation, that many leash reactive dogs were created due to constant tension on their leashes. This is why a “Proper Walk” as defined in The Power of the Walk that I wrote about before is so important. It is not the tension on its own that is the only problem. Couple the tension, the constant straining to get to another dog with over excitement and improper introduction to the other dog and communication is likely going to go south. For example, let’s say you have a goofy, happy, rambunctious 6 month old golden retriever. You take her for regular walks with constant pressure on the leash…now, she sees another dog, how exciting!! She starts pulling on the leash more, maybe jumping towards the other dog and you, being the obliging owner, lets her rush up to the other dog, face first. She is wiggling, pouncing on the other dog, full of excitement… Then it happens, the other dog snaps at your puppy, your pup yelps and moves away. You think “How rude, I can’t believe that other dog snapped at my puppy!!” You pet and reassure your pup that everything is ok and go on about your walk. This happens time and time again and by the time your pup is a year of age you notice that she is no longer excited to see other dogs on her walks but rather she is cautious and she growls if they get too close. All unknown to you, you created this behavior by consistently allowing your pup to greet other dogs improperly causing her to get snapped at and then reassuring her when it is finished. Now your pup no longer trusts that she will not be “attacked” while on a walk but worse, she may not trust that you, as her leader, will defender her and help her avoid these situations.
The Rude Dog
Now, let’s look at the dog you thought was so “rude” to your puppy by snapping. That dog was actually displaying proper communication to tell your puppy that the greeting was inappropriate. Imagine walking down the street and a complete stranger runs up, gets in your personal space, overly excited and starts touching you, “HI, I AM SOOOO HAPPY TO MEET YOU!!!!” “I LOVE to meet new people!” “What’s your name?” “What do you eat” “Where do you live”… on and on without noticing that you are stiff, uncomfortable with their advances, energy and close proximity to you. We are a verbal creature… With a quick “Back off, you are making me uncomfortable”, hopefully the person would take a few steps back and calm down. But this “rude” dog doesn’t have that luxury and because he is on the leash, he cannot get away from your puppy. He is left with only one option, the snap, letting your pup know that she is the one being rude. To make matters worse, this dog’s owner does not realize what they are creating in their dog too. As soon as their dog snapped, they pulled him away, maybe even yelled at him for the behavior…but guess what, pulling him away and removing him from the puppy was exactly what he wanted. Over time, as this scenario repeats itself over and over, the dog learns that his owner will not stop other dogs from getting in his personal space or conduct proper greetings so every time he sees another dog on leash he barks, growls maybe even lunges at them. The owner is horrified at their dog’s behavior and continues to remove him from the situation, again, confirming with the dog that if he acts this way he will not have to be assaulted by other dogs.
Fixing the Problem
Leash reactivity is very easy to create in a dog if we are not careful and understand how dogs should greet and interact. However, fixing the problem is not as easily done and you should always consult a professional. Some owners just need to learn the “Proper Walk”. Trust building exercises coupled with positive dog interactions (ie. Day Camp) will send them on the road to recovery. Some cases require much more work and often muzzle training to insure that everyone is safe. Many owners are uncomfortable with seeing their dog in a muzzle but teaching your dog to feel safe and comfortable in a muzzle is actually very helpful, even if your dog is not leash reactive, but that is a whole different blog!
Is Your Dog Leash Reactive?
Amanda and Schylar would love to set up a time to do an evaluation with your dog to decide which training program bests fits your situation. They can teach you about proper communication with your dog, how to build trust and leadership, how to conduct a proper greeting AND knowing when to just say no to another dog.