Leash reactivity…what is it? Does your dog have it? Is it aggression?

dog reactivity

Let’s unpack what leash reactivity is. When a dog is on leash, and has a reaction to certain triggers/distractions. These reactions can be minor like change in posture or panting, to something more severe like lunging and barking. Luckily, for most dogs reactivity does not equal aggression (though sometimes it does).

Why does my dog have leash reactivity? There are a few different possibilities to this question. First, many overly friendly dogs who are leash reactive are excited when they see another dog. They may end up barking, jumping around, hitting the end of the leash and carrying on. Often these dogs are dogs who attend dog daycares, dog parks, or are allowed to go up and say hi to most dogs they see on a walk. While this type of dog is not aggressive it is often embarrassing for the humans and often stressful for the other dogs. Another reason your dog might be leash reactive is barrier frustration. Think of a dog who is barking when it is behind a fence or in the house behind the window. A leash acts as a barrier, and when it is tight dogs can become frustrated. This type of dog is usually fine to see dogs when there are no barriers present. The next type of reactivity is fear based. When a fearful dog sees another dog and he reacts, in his mind he made the scary thing go away. Often this dog has had one or more negative experiences with another dog or is due to lack of exposure to dogs (though usually it is caused by a bad experience). These dogs usually can warm up to other dogs once a proper introduction has been made. The last type of leash reactivity is true aggression. This is uncommon but does exist. This is a dog who definitely wants to hurt another dog. It is rare this type of dog can be fully trained out of this and may need management for the rest of it’s life. Luckily it is rare to see true aggression.

How do I fix reactivity? While the reason your dog is reactive plays a small role in the training plan to resolve the behaviour, in the end the recipe will remain similar if not the same regardless of the reason.

The core foundation of working on reactivity will revolve around 5 key factors.

Distance – When it comes to addressing reactivity, we want to meet the dog where they’re at instead of trying to muscle through the situation. What we mean by this is if your dog is in the grade school equivalent of Kindergarten, then don’t put your dog in a grade school level above their skill set, like say grade 6. In order to stay within their skill set we need to find out what our dog’s threshold is for success. Say your dog can see another dog at 40′ but at 35′ your dog starts to pant, and their tail goes up, you need to start working with your dog at 40′. When you push the dog past their threshold you are in essence muscling through it. In this scenario 40′ is the dog’s threshold and would be what we consider to be where the dog is able to learn. If you push the dog too far (or too close) then your dog will no longer be in a learning state of mind. If your dog is freaking out, lunging, barking, and carrying on, they cannot learn.

Movement – Part of working through reactivity is to use movement to help keep our dogs calm. If you consider your dog like a pressure cooker when you ask him to sit still, it is far more likely they will explode. If you keep them moving (with some strategy as movement alone will not necessarily fix the issue), you can help them feel more calm. Another reason to use movement is because if say when we see a dog, we panic, we pull our dog off to the side, and we either distract them or we let them stare the other dog down, we are also ourselves being reactive. Our goal is always to achieve a neutral response to things around the dog. If when we see another dog, we either a) rely on distraction or b) pull our dogs off to the side and let them stare, our dog is not neutral at all. A neutral response to seeing another dog or trigger would be to see it, look at it for 1-3 seconds, look away and carry on.

Correction – In order to disagree with reactivity we need to be able to correct the unwanted behaviour. However, we do not rely on correction alone. So many people have tried correction alone and it rarely works out for them. Why? There are a few reasons so let’s discuss. First is timing. Most of the time we see people waiting for their dog to be reactive in order to want to correct them. If your dog is blowing up it is too late, very few dogs will respond to a correction when they are already losing their mind. Second is how firm of a correction is given. We are not saying you need to do a double handed yank on the leash, but if your correction is too soft it will have no meaning to the dog. Lastly, the type of training tool used. Tools are not all equal and a correction given on a harness will not yield the same results as a remote collar, head collar or prong collar. Tools do matter and it will take you a VERY long time to work through reactivity on a harness.

Reward – We use a lot of food rewards in our training, and working through reactivity is no different. You might see other trainers trying to use food to distract, desensitize or counter condition the dog, but they we we use food is to reward the dog for every good choice they make. That might mean we reward them for less than perfect choices so long as it is better than the alternative choice they would have made before. You will often hear us talking about naming and explaining as well which is a type of perception modification used to help the dog feel better about their surroundings. The way we use N&E is when our dog notices something (anything not just their main triggers), we will tell them what it is. For example “that is a car, yes” and then feed. Your tone should be neutral like you are saying to them it is just a car. You can use multiple rewards for one trigger which can be super helpful in stressful situations. The idea is that not only are we helping the dog feel better but also creating what we call a cut off cue. Dog looks at the trigger, then looks at you for the reward. This is creating muscle memory in the brain that the dog is not to hard stare at the trigger, and can relieve stress by simply looking away. We also want to remember that improvement should be rewarded even if it is not perfect. If your dog is better than they were even 1 minute ago, you can reward that despite the fact that they may not yet be perfect.

Repetition – An important element to resolving reactivity is repetition and practice. Reactivity does not go away over night and will require plenty of practice before they get to neutral. We recommend setting up as many practice sessions as possible. This may mean driving outside of your neighbourhood to say a dog park to practice outside the park. When do you stop practicing? When your dog no longer needs the practice. Simple as that. That could be a couple of weeks, that could be two months. The better you follow the plan the sooner you will no longer need to practice!