Does your dog ever see something or someone when you are out walking and they go bonkers? Do they lose their mind and try to pull or lunge towards the other person or dog? Do they start to bark or whine at other dogs or people because they are frustrated the leash is preventing them from going to say hi?
We call this reactivity. Let’s talk about why this happens, when it typically starts and how to change it.
This behavior happens for several different reasons. One, our dog may naturally get overly excited around other dogs. Their arousal levels may escalate quickly. Dogs have different levels of prey drives and some have a hard time controlling their impulses. They may not have been taught what to do when they see other dogs or people. On the flip side, a dog may be fearful or nervous by seeing another dog or person possibly due to lack of socialization or an unfriendly encounter with a dog when on leash. These dogs may try to scare away what they see - the I’ll get you before you get me scenario.
In addition, if we are out walking with our dogs and we always go say hello to everyone we see, our dog starts to expect that we do that. They build up excitement around seeing other dogs and people and often can’t wait to go say hi. They start pulling, lunging and barking on leash simply because they want to get to someone, but the leash is preventing them. This builds frustration. The dog tries even harder to get what they want. Pretty soon we end up in a messy, not to mention embarrassing situation.
I see reactive behavior surface mostly in adolescent dogs. Yes as a puppy they may have been excited but add in hormones and trying new behaviors to the mix - we get a reactive teenage dog, generally between the ages of 5-7 months. Depending on how we handle it, this either becomes a new habit or we train new behavior and help the dog handle their response to triggers better.
There are a few keys to helping your dog in these situations. First, distance is your other best friend. As soon as you notice your dog noticing something, do not stop and let them stare. Instead, in a happy tone, cue “Let’s go” and move in a different direction. Reward your dog as they come along with you. Move far enough away your dog stops caring about what’s behind them and starts to focus again on walking with you. I like to say, arch out and around. Make that arch as big as needed. Overtime that will shrink and we will be able to walk closer to whatever triggers our dog. For now, remember distance and walk in places where you can create some. Avoid public sidewalks until your dog has better skills at controlling their responses to whatever triggers they have.
As I mention triggers, it is a good idea to sit down and make a list of what you notice your dog overreacts too. Be as specific as possible - men with beards, children riding bikes, dogs bigger than my dog, etc. This will save you time as you’ll notice what specifically to focus on. For example, rather than practicing with all kids, spend time on the ones riding bikes. Got it?
For each trigger, you may need to add more or less distance. Make a note of that as well. If your dog can handle being 10 feet away from a child on a bike, no need to start or move 50 feet away. This will take some experimenting. Just remember, if you notice your dog’s body language tense up, do not let them stare, simply say, “Let’s go” and arch out and around. Keep them moving past the trigger and reward them for cooperating as soon as possible. Doing this consistently will help them handle the situation better and you’ll see that the distance required decreases to the point where your dog can see their triggers and remain calm. Skip the walks around the block for now, set up a training session where there is plenty of space to work and things will improve. In the meantime, you can exercise your dog through play. Then when your dog’s walking skills improve you can return to the sidewalk.
A final thought on this for today, is to be patient with your dog. Do not add to their frustration by being frustrated yourself. Recognize it for what it is and help them move away from it, then reward them for their cooperation. Staying positive and calm helps them calm themselves much better than getting mad or frustrated with them.
That’s it in a nutshell. If your dog struggles with reactivity, please check out our online puppy school. My team of trainers and myself are happy to help coach you through this process. I have clients who send me video clips of their leash walks and then we go through the video and coach on specific points throughout to help improve the training session, ultimately leading to faster success.
Our goal is your success. Please don’t hesitate to reach out.