Cats and Dogs
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Why do dogs become leash reactive?

Leash Reactivity: Behavior Causes & Training Tips

Leash reactivity is one of the most common behavior issues that dog owners and trainers encounter. Reactivity is expressed through undesired behaviors such barking, lunging, growling, and pulling while on a leash. These explosive reactions are caused by dogs being triggered by stimulus (i.e., strangers, dogs, squirrels, cars, etc) and the inability to use their natural instincts of fight or flight because they are restricted by a leash.

There are many types of reactivity and no two dogs will perceive environmental stimuli in the same manner. Leash reactivity can be caused by over-excitement, frustration, protective instincts, fear, etc. Once a dog has learned to be reactive on their leash, it will not go away without intervention. In order to improve your dog’s reactivity, you must improve their emotional state when triggers present themselves on your walk.

How to improve leash reactivity:

  1. Start by bringing your dog to a public environment where you know their will be triggers
  2. Sit on a park bench or on the tailgate of your car with your dog on a leash
  3. Keep your dog in a controlled position – i.e., sit or lie down
  4. Bring high value rewards with you – high value rewards can be any treats that your dog loves (i.e., beef liver, cheese, etc)
  5. Every time a stimulus walks past you, reward your dog heavily with “high value” rewards (i.e., beef liver, cheese) to begin a positive association with the stimulus
  6. Once your dog is calmly observing the triggers, begin your walk
  7. During the walk, have your dog sit every time a stimulus appears and allow them to calmly observe the stimulus walk by while rewarding
  8. Once the stimulus has passed, continue your walk

Behavior Modification

This will begin the process of behavior modification, which is changing our dogs emotional state during high stress situations. This practice will encourage your dog to stay relaxed and calm which will set them up for success. Repeat these steps frequently and over-time your dog will begin engaging with you during your walk for reward when one of their triggers appears as it has been positively associated!

Appropriate Gear:

A standard 6ft leash is great for keeping your dog close by to hear your commands and keep their attention focused on you. It also provides consistency. This can be very helpful for a dog that is already susceptible to stress. With a retractable or bungee leash the length they can travel varies and can aid reactivity.

A properly fitting harness helps to distribute pressure along your dog’s body instead of their neck, potentially causing them harm. A harness can also help reduce stress for your dog. When a collar starts to restrict or “choke”, it can create a reaction that heightens the reactivity more as they try to escape the collar.

Treats are a must when training. Bring high reward treats to every training session and walk as you try to correct the reactive behaviour. The high reward treat creates a positive association with the stimulus.

The Causes of Leash Reactivity

Leash Reactivity

Leash reactivity (sometimes referred to as leash aggression) is rampant in Denver, Colorado. In fact, it is so widespread that we developed a specialized leash reactivity program to help us train a larger number of dogs and people more effectively and efficiently.

As is my custom, when I find myself having to explain the same concepts daily to callers, I like to immortalize those concepts in writing and provide them as a resource.

So, with no further ado, here are the causes of leash reactivity:

Leash Reactivity Cause #1: The Leash

Dogs are creatures that move towards what they are interested in and move away from what they fear. When you put a leash on a dog, it no longer can do either of those things. For example, when the dog shows interest in exploring something (say, another human or dog), you prevent it. And when it wants to avoid something that scares it, you prevent that too. So, the leash inhibits the dog’s natural approach/retreat mechanisms. And any time you fool with mother nature, consequences arise.

Leash Reactivity Cause #2: Uncontrolled Enthusiasm

When an enthusiastic dog wants to move towards something of interest (for instance, another dog or a human), and it cannot, the dog may become frustrated. This leads to reactivity whenever the leash is on. The severity of that reactivity can vary: at one end of the reactivity spectrum, a small amount of frustration may result in barking and pulling. At the other end of the spectrum, a larger amount of frustration may result in redirected aggression towards the owner.

Leash Reactivity Cause #3: Inability to Avoid Danger

Alternatively, if a dog is fearful of an approaching human or dog (or car, or skateboard, etc …), it may want to move away. By doing so, it would be creating distance from the object of its fear — and therefore creating safety. But if it cannot do this, the dog may feel no choice but to throw up an aggressive display to ward off the object of its fear. Again, the reactivity may range from hiding behind the owner, to barking and lunging, to redirected aggression towards its owner.

Leash Reactivity Cause #4: Incorrect Handling of a Leashed Dog

Another contributing factor to leash reactivity is the way the owner handles the dog when it is on the leash. If an owner gets nervous when his dog sees another dog or person, he may try to quash the dog’s overenthusiasm or fear. By tightening the leash, jerking on it or handling the dog roughly, the owner confirms to the dog that there is reason for stress — after all the owner obviously feels the stress too! This adds to the dog’s tension. So, training the dog to walk correctly on a leash is part of the fix, but so is teaching the owner to correctly handle his dog in difficult situations.

Leash Reactivity Cause #5: Unrealistic Expectations

By far, one of the largest contributing factors to leash reactivity is the owner’s unrealistic expectations. In the big-city areas of the United States – and definitely here in Denver – there is a notion that all dogs should be joyful greeters of all other dogs and humans. This is unrealistic and unnatural.

Do you joyfully greet every other human you see on the street and force interaction upon them? I’d bet not. So, why expect your dog to act in a way that would seem psychotic if you saw another human doing it?

Having traveled to numerous European countries, my wife Linda and I have observed that most of them experience far less leash reactivity than we do in the United States — especially here in Denver. Why is this? How do we treat our dogs differently than they do? The answers to those questions will make for a great future article. But suffice it to say they do not impose a desire for incessant interaction upon their dogs, and it shows.

Leash Reactivity Cause #6: Untrained, Over-Friendly Dogs

Dogs that pull themselves excitedly towards oncoming dogs to greet contribute to the stress level of those dogs. In the dog world, such a rapid frontal approach can indicate an impending fight. Instinctively, dogs typically do not greet frontally. Instead, they approach in more of a semi-circular manner with more of an exploratory demeanor. Additionally, a dog that rushes carelessly into an oncoming dog’s personal space is begging to receive a scolding or worse.

That is not the way socially mature dogs act, and it increases the stress level of the encroached upon dog. And that increased stress, in turn, increases the likelihood of leash reactivity / leash aggression.

Those are the primary reasons for leash reactivity. For more information about how to cure it efficiently, please CONTACT US.

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