By Sari Reis
Does your sweet sociable canine turn into Cujo when he sees another dog while walking on leash? If so, he is likely displaying “leash reactivity.” I have met numerous dogs that are as sweet as can be off leash at the dog park but unruly and obnoxious when walking on leash. This type of erratic behavior can be very unsettling for the handler as well as embarrassing and stressful. Unfortunately, many owners display anger or punish their dog when he is “acting out.” This is not the way to change the behavior.
Leash reactivity is an emotional response to stimuli in the environment when the dog is walking on leash. It is an overreaction that persists because it has become a rewarded behavior. It can occur in any dog for a variety of reasons.
Regardless of the cause, the dog develops a behavior of overexcitement, of frustration or fear that has been reinforced inadvertently by his handler. In order to modify the behavior, you have to change the dog’s emotional response to the stimuli (another dog), from a negative one to a positive one. If you reprimand the dog for his reaction, the encounter with other dogs will continue to be associated with bad things. If you are able to counter condition the dog’s response to a positive association, you can likely change the behavior. The best way to make this happen is by working with a professional trainer.
Angie Fonseca, CPDT-KA, the owner of SDK9, offers specialized training for leash-reactive dogs.
“When dogs meet off-leash, they greet side by side in order to sniff each other,” she explained. “They use soft eyes and to dogs this is considered polite and appropriate behavior. When dogs greet on leash, especially if their handler is holding the leash tight, the encounter becomes face to face. This is considered forward greeting by dogs and can trigger the over-reactive response.”
All leash-reactive dogs have triggers. Your job is to find out what those triggers are as well as their threshold level (i.e. the distance before they start to react emotionally). Your trainer can help you with that.
“It is important for you to teach your dog to stay focused on you during your walks and then reward him for staying focused,” Fonseca said.
You can use a kissy sound or say look at me to get his attention, but keep your voice upbeat and positive. When he sees a dog but has not yet reacted, get him to look at you and reward him with a high-value treat.
You want him to associate seeing another dog with something positive. Give him lots of space around other dogs. Don’t permit face-to-face encounters with other dogs. If necessary, cross the street or walk in another direction to prevent an incident while your dog is in training. Keep his leash loose when you are walking and stay positive. If you react nervously when you see another dog approaching, so will your dog.
Most importantly, remember that his reactivity didn’t happen overnight and it will take time, patience and training to get him comfortable when seeing other dogs on leash. For more information or help with training, please contact Fonseca at sd-k9.com.
—Sari Reis is a Certified Humane Education Specialist and the owner of Mission Valley Pet Sitting Services. You can contact her at 760-644-0289 or www.missionvalleypetsitting.com.