Leash Reactivity – A Cause and Effect Relationship
By: Brittney Frazier
It seems one of the best experiences a person can have with their dog is a good walk. Some trainers even feel that the quality of a dog’s walk with their human is indicative of the overall relationship between the two beings. However, it is all too often that a simple walk in the park turns into a stressful experience leaving both ends of the leash feeling anxious and frustrated, straining the relationship on multiple levels. This is usually when our facility receives a call for help and a time when training begins.
Like holding a significant other’s hand, walking a dog requires careful consideration, trust, and common direction. This analogy rings true in many scenarios where owners find themselves dragging a lunging and barking dog past bikes, strollers, and even other dogs. I sometimes ask the question, “what would you do if the person you were walking with was yelling curse words at random things you passed by because he or she was nervous?” This usually helps me guide the owners to the root of the issue and through different methods of management and behavior modification to create a better outcome.
When I first started working with dogs on walk and observing the behavior of my own dog as a novice trainer, I started to wonder what would cause a dog to be reactive. Surely you would need to get to the root of the issue to fix it. What I found was that you don’t necessarily need to understand why a dog is reactive to other dogs to modify the behavior, but it is, however, the only way to help the dog continue to grow and develop social behavior in other settings. In my observations, a leash reactive dog responds or reacts due to a combination of personality, association with the environment, and direction from its handler. When examining each variable independently, an owner can begin to understand what the cause of the behavior is and how to guide the dog accordingly.
From a general standpoint, we take a lot of natural defense mechanisms and behaviors away from dogs when we make them our pets. When we walk a dog, we force it to be attached to us and ask it to respond to each situation we bring them into with grace and gratitude. If we walk them through a busy intersection, we want them to walk calmly by our side. If we walk our dogs directly towards another dog, we expect the dog to show enough interest to demonstrate “friendliness,” but not disagree if they find out the opposing dog doesn’t reciprocate that notion. What we need to understand is that there is a lot of trust and respect a dog must have for whomever is leading it into each scenario to give us the response we are looking for. We must take ownership of whatever behavior the dog is exhibiting at any point in time when leashed at our side.
Another thing to remember about a leash reactive dog is not to classify the behavior immediately as any specific behavioral “issue” like aggression, anxiety, or overexcitement. Most dog behavior starts very similarly on a smaller scale. If we classify a leashed dog’s behavior too quickly, we run the risk of labeling an “aggressive” dog without really understanding what the dog is communicating. This affects our view and reactions to the dog in training as well. Lunging, barking, growling, and whining are all natural dog behaviors that are used to communicate. If we are asking for a dog that does not communicate anything at all, we will never really understand what the dog is thinking. But, if we don’t properly read the dog’s communication early on, an anxious dog may become aggressive in a situation because the person walking them was not aware of how the dog was feeling. When deciphering the different reactions a dog exhibits on walk, start to determine which behaviors are and appropriate in certain scenarios. For example, lunging and growling will always be interpreted by other dogs as offensive and should be discouraged, but whining and looking at a dog is simply demonstrating interest.
I tend to think that most dogs only live in whatever reality we have taught to it when first starting out in training. If we teach a dog what being on a walk looks like, we should keep that separate from actually meeting other dogs when first developing the relationship. All too often, we blur the lines between when a dog can or can’t engage with other dogs they see, or what will or won’t happen when meeting a new person. Once we get each reality taught as consistently as possible, we can start to blend the two, but not until then. A leash reactive dog should not even encounter the scenario of meeting other dogs on leash until the walk is more under control. Even a friendly dog should have restrictions in socializing if proper leash walking is too inconsistent.
There could be many causes of leash reactivity to examine from a dog that is too playful on leash to a dog that is very fearful and feels that the only option in defending itself is to lunge and bark. The main goal of truly addressing leash reactivity should always be to find the cause and address it separately, while also simultaneously replacing the reactivity via a method that works best for the dog and owner as a team. By being clear in both scenarios and leading confidently, a dog will soon learn from the person walking it that it is both understood and protected. Find a trainer that is dedicated to the issue and you will find that your dog may be capable of more than originally anticipated.
Found Chicago, NFP is a 501(c)3 no-kill, all-breed rescue that serves to rescue, rehabilitate and re-home the most medically and behaviorally challenged dogs that would otherwise be euthanized. Found Chicago Boarding & Training Center is a subsidiary of Found Chicago, NFP that provides services to the public to give dog owners the knowledge they need to better handle their dogs and improve the quality of the dog-human relationship.
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Chicago, IL 60618