Leash reactivity in dogs is a very common behavioral issue. You can help your dog become more calm, confident, attentive, and under control when on-leash. Putting a stop to leash reactivity requires diligence, patience, calmness, and attentiveness (sound familiar?) on the part of the person holding the leash as much as from the dog on the other end.
Let's begin by asking a very simple question: Do you feel confident when you are walking your dog?
Ending leash reactivity starts here. If you are experiencing anxiety, fear, frustration, or uncertainty while you are out walking your dog, it is imperative that you address it. Perhaps that feeling stems from uncertainty as to whether or not you're able to control your dog when it is reacting, and perhaps it comes from something else entirely. No matter the reason, you will communicate this discomfort to your furry friend, who is constantly observing your body language in an attempt to figure what it is you expect from him/her. Your dog will react to your emotional state in the only way dogs know how.
And that leads into our next question: How do I know if my dog is leash-reactive?
There are some sure fire cues that most dogs will display when experiencing leash reactivity or anxiety. One excellent indicator is food. If your on-leash dog is unwilling to take food that he or she normally would without hesitation, you know that s/he is uncomfortable and needs some time to adjust. Some anxious or reactive dogs may also lean heavily against their owners, or they may pant, appear restless, bark incessantly, have their tail pinned between their legs, and in some extreme cases, even whimper and cry out.
So, what do we do when we know our canine friend is experiencing anxiety/discomfort when on leash?
Leash-related anxiety is a tough habit to train away once it starts. There are a few things you can do to help reduce and eventually end on-leash anxiety in dogs. Remember, dogs learn in increments. Progress will be slow at first. You must stick with it to see results. Patience, diligence, confidence, and most importantly, lots of love for your struggling furry friend are absolute requirements.
We begin with training attention. High value food rewards are critical to teaching a dog to look to you for all things good in the world (that includes food, walks, scratches behind the ears, etc.). Liver, tripe, and other protein rich, all-natural dog treats do the trick. For some dogs, a little extra kibble is more than enough to motivate them. Begin with two seconds of eye contact to train attention. Increase to five, seven, and so on, until your dog gives you a solid thirty seconds without interruption.
Next, incorporate slow leash walking with the training of attention. Taking a few steps and stopping to wait for your dog to look to you before continuing, are all that this part of leash-reactivity training requires. Sound simple? That's because it is. Your dog will be tempted to be very impatient with you, and want to walk on. Stand firm, make sure that s/he is oriented on you at every opportunity. After some time, your dog will walk at your pace with a loose leash.
This next bit is a little more challenging. You must find your dog's threshold. This is important in terms of distance as related to reactivity. A dog that passes threshold repeatedly becomes harder and harder to rehabilitate. For this reason, avoid allowing your dog to bypass the reactivity threshold once you figure out where it lies (stop the dog before s/he reacts to the anxiety-provoking stimuli). The longer you can keep your dog at threshold, the sooner you will be able to reintroduce the stimulus that provoked the anxiety in the first place.
Last but not least comes tried and true classical conditioning. Once your dog has learned to give you his/her attention on leash, is a slow leash walker, and you've learned how to keep him/her at threshold, exposure becomes key. If you and your dog are city dwellers, it is important that you can handle all kinds of potentially anxiety-provoking stimuli; from noisy vehicles, to skateboarders and cyclists on the sidewalk, to strollers and excited children – all of these distractions are an every day reality. Exposing your dog to these when s/he is in the correct frame of both mind and body will teach him/her how to tolerate and eventually accept the stimuli as an everyday part of life.
Utilize these basic tips for leash-training and good manners for yourself and your dog and enjoy this time with your best friend. Learn, get fit, have fun, and do it all with your dog. We can't imagine anything better.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.