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Leash Reactivity: Explained

Does your dog act diabolical on leash? Do they bark, lunge, snap or have an over the top reaction towards other dogs or people on-leash? Do you find yourself apologising for your dog's behavior when out in the park? Leash reactivity is the most common issue dog owners ask me for help with. It can be one of the most misunderstood issues dogs and their owners deal with and, arguably, the most frustrating for both.

Leash reactivity can start with your dog twitching their nose, licking their lips, fixing their stare, being tense on leash, attempting to turn the opposite direction or pinning their ears back at the sight of another dog three times their size barreling towards them and your dog having zero interest in meeting them. Leash reactivity in simple terms is your dog's way of saying "i am not okay!" on walks.

There are a number of reasons that are at the root of the cause of leash reactivity. Here are the most common;

  1. They are frustrated - many dogs love the idea of saying "hello" to everyone and anyone but the leash gets in the way and boom! they are frustrated and cope with this frustration by developing barking habits and other undesirable behaviors.

  2. They are fearful and/or experiencing stress - they react to stimulus they have a negative association to with an extreme "fight or flight" response.

Essentially, a fearful or frustrated reactive dog is experiencing an overwhelming response to a stimulant that they cannot cope with. Stimulants can come in the form of traffic, buggies, other dogs, people, birds, bicycles etc. to a reactive dog.

When understanding our dog's leash reactivity, It's important to note, dogs can't verbally express to us when they are feeling uncomfortable, stressed, frustrated, anxious or vulnerable. Dogs communicate this in other ways through their mouth or body language.

What causes Leash Reactivity?

When dogs are on-leash they are restricted in their movement to express themselves the only ways they know, they cannot circle each other, disengage if they need to, sniff the way they need to or get out of each other's faces if they want to. Their movements are restricted, largely out of their control and greetings often occur head on, face

to face on a walk. Typically, much of the time spent on a dog walk is walking on a path, in the direction coming head-on with every other dog and person on the same path walking the opposite way. These kinds of head on greetings are a predative movement in the dog world and cause a lot of upset for anxious or nervous dogs. This causes the biological "fight of flight" response to trigger and without any alternative means to cope or ability to disengage on-leash, many dogs feel their only option is to lunge and bark and make themselves scarier than the stimulant itself. What usually happens next is their handler typically removes the reactive dog away from the trigger-dog and immediately creates space, exactly what the anxious dog had been asking for.

The anxious dog then learns that this pattern of behavior is a really valuable habit to have when they feel uncomfortable and they need space. The big explosive reactions come from a means to cope from an overwhelming feeling of a lack of safety and being beyond their threshold for stress.

The most socialised, dog-friendly, easy going dogs can develop leash reactivity. Even if we do everything by the book for our dog from the get-go, leash reactivity can develop from an off-leash dog running up to our on-leash dog out for a walk one day frightening them out of our control or a working breed type with a high drive developing leash reactivity out of frustration at being confined on leash unable to move freely without restriction.

Working with a professional to help dissolve your dog's leash reactivity is highly recommended as timing and technical skills are important while working within your dog's threshold for stress. My job as a trainer is to build better communication between dog and handler. We do this by working on a better pattern of behaviors based off trust and supporting the dog through scary experiences. Then putting this into practice in a way that makes both dog and owner feel better on walks by the dog feeling supported through any frightening or tense situations they may come across and the owners feeling confident in their ability to manage their dog's reactions.

How do we help our dog work through their reactivity?

Familiarise yourself with your dog's body language, learn to recognise what it is they are trying to tell you so you can respond appropriately. Earn your dog's trust by knowing when they are within a safe distance to a trigger that they can cope with and can learn to create positive associations with triggers and, most importantly, they can relax. This may start as simple as being at a distance from a trigger that your dog is comfortable enough to glance at the trigger and turn back to you for focus or to take a treat. Remember, training is all about keeping communication open with your dog. Start training focus cues like "watch me" and practicing this when there are no distractions around and slowly building this up around areas gradually increasing distractions. This is a good starter basis for teaching our reactive dog that essentially you've 'got their back' and there is no need for defensive behaviors.

It sounds hard but with time and some practice, it gets much better. It is an exhilerating moment the first time a reactive dog chooses to handle being in the presence of a trigger by turning look at their owner rather than lunge or bark. I have no shame in admitting I've leapt in the air with excitement with an owner on more than one occasion when this happens. You reach a point when you don't even need to ask your dog for focus and they know they can disengage themselves without your guidance.

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