How to Handle Leash Reactive Dogs

How to Handle Leash Reactive Dogs

For the first few years of his life, our dog Omar was known as “The Rug” because he would lie down when other dogs approached and couldn’t wait to greet and play with them. It was a joy taking him on walks in our dog-filled New York City neighborhood, where he would charm other dog owners with his delightful behavior.

However, a few years ago, our mini goldendoodle started displaying signs of leash reactivity. Reactive dogs are triggered by certain stimuli and may react by growling, barking, and lunging. In Omar’s case, he would bark at big dogs with pointy ears, which became quite embarrassing for us as dog owners. We felt like the worst dog moms in the world.

According to Kate Senisi, a certified professional dog trainer at the School For The Dogs in New York City, leash reactivity is a common problem, and there is usually an underlying emotional component to it. Whether it’s fear or frustration, understanding the cause of the reaction is crucial in finding a solution.

Here are some steps we took to help restore Omar’s sweet sidewalk demeanor.

Preventing bad habits before they become habits

It’s essential to address reactive behavior as early as possible. The more a dog rehearses undesirable behavior, the stronger it becomes. To reduce the opportunity for your dog to practice reactive behavior, avoid close confrontations while working on leash skills.

Even if you have adopted an older dog with reactive behavior, it’s not too late. While it may be more challenging, you can still employ management techniques and reduce the intensity and frequency of reactions.

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Learning to recognize the warning signs

Eighty percent of addressing leash reactivity is about observing your dog’s body language and moving them away before they tip over into reactivity. Staring, shifting forward on the leash, or backing away could be signs that your dog is about to react.

In Omar’s case, we noticed that his body would stiffen, and he would give side-eye as warning signs. Paying attention to these subtle cues allowed us to intervene before he reacted.

Teaching alternative behaviors

Redirecting your dog’s focus away from the trigger and teaching them alternative behaviors can help manage leash reactivity. One effective alternative behavior is getting your dog to make eye contact with you. Position your dog at a distance where they see the triggering object but are not in full reaction mode. Have them look at you, mark the action with a word or phrase, and immediately reward them. Over time, you can gradually decrease the distance between your dog and the trigger.

By rewarding your dog for calmly looking at you or performing another desired behavior, you create a positive association with the triggering object.

Consider working with a trainer

While the steps mentioned above may sound straightforward, leash reactivity can be a stubborn issue that requires patience and practice. Seeking help from a professional trainer can significantly improve your dog’s behavior.

A trainer can assist in identifying the source of the reactivity and adapt their methods accordingly. If possible, consider taking a group class or arranging individual training sessions. Even one consultation with a trainer can provide you with valuable skills and techniques to improve your walks.

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In our case, enrolling in an eight-week Sidewalk Psychos class with Kate Senisi made a world of difference. We learned leash-walking techniques, how to use a marker word to reward Omar for looking at us, and how to interpret his body language.

While Omar’s behavior has significantly improved, we understand that training is an ongoing process. Dogs are always learning, and consistent reinforcement and prevention of reactive behavior are necessary to ensure lasting progress.

By following these steps and seeking professional guidance if needed, you can successfully manage leash reactivity in your dog and enjoy peaceful walks together.

Remember, every dog is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. Be patient, understanding, and willing to adapt your approach to find what suits your dog best.

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