If you are struggling with your dog’s reactivity towards dogs, prey, or people on your walk, understand you are not alone and help is right around the corner. This is something that we, Say It Once Dog Training, are known for solving. I want to break it down for you. Welcome to Part 1.
There is a huge difference between leash reactivity, and aggression, and the difference lies in the behavior your dog displays without a leash. We see countless clients who talk about how well their dog plays with other dogs at the park, or family and friend’s dogs, but as soon as they are on a leash they turn into Cujo. This, is the prime example of frustration related reactivity. If our dog is seeking to cause physical harm and attack a dog, on or off leash, this is considered, quite obviously, aggression. Now, you’re going to take a similar approach for both of these reactions, but for people who are struggling with frustrated reactivity, you need to understand why your dog is frustrated, how it started, and how to fix it moving forward.
What does a typical walk look like for the average dog? We stroll down the street, often they drag their human quite a while, and sometimes they meander from side to side, sniffing the grass and spacing out as we walk them. However, they rarely check in with their owner because the owner rarely asks much of their dog when they go out on a walk. Most of the time the owner will only try to ask their dog to stay close if they see another dog, which is a clear signal to your dog that they should focus on to them. That other dog is now providing me with tension (because you have physically put tension via the leash, and the only thing that has changed is the addition of the other dog) If the only time you try to get your dogs attention is when another dog is around while walking them, you are in for a world of hurt.
From the dogs perspective, as soon as they see another dog on a walk they become very interested. Ears perking up, head lifts high, tail starts to wag with a faster pace, their chest puffs out, and all of this body language happened in the blink of an eye. Within a few seconds, there is tension on the leash, and Fido begins to pull towards the other dog. The average owner takes one of two routes here.
Option 1. Because the dog owner knows the other dog and their human, they allow fido to pull towards the other dog until they get up to them for a greeting. “They are friends, so it’s not that big of a deal.” Here is the problem with this scenario. When you allow your dogs to meet as they’ve been pulling, you are reinforcing their pulling, but also the state of mind which is the big issue. The other issue with this option is when you come across you do not know, and you do not want to greet them. Your dog doesn’t understand why you won’t let them greet other dogs, which forces them to pull harder. You’ve probably noticed the trend, the harder they pull, the harder it is for you to physically hold back, and the more they try (opposition reflex) On-leash dog greetings are not something I recommend, but I’ll talk about that in another post.
Option 2. You see a dog, and you immediately tense up. You wrap the leash around your hand 4 extra times until your hand starts to turns purple. You start to pull your dog closer to you for “more control”, and cross the street to get as much distance between each other. In this scenario, this is where dog owners believe their dog can all of the sudden speak the English language, and we start pleading with our dog to not pay attention. “Fido, come on now, leave it, leave it, leave it, keep it moving, he doesn’t want to be friends, he could eat you, why do you do this to me?” A full on conversation, until we physically drag our dog 30 feet past and can regain the small amount of control we had to begin with.
Now, where did you go wrong in this scenario? The answer is not on the walk, it always starts well before you even saw the dog. When you opened up your front door to go for a walk, I can all but guarantee your dog ran out the door first, excited, without permission. It’s not about being “the alpha”, it’s about not rewarding your dogs frantic and overexcited state of mind. Pay attention to that line, “state of mind”. If you allow your dog to walk out the door while they are overexcited, you are teaching them that their crazy behavior is going to get them what they want. (As it does when they react when they see another dog) Just like a child who is kicking and screaming in the grocery store because they want chocolate bars, and gets rewarded for it, your dog will do the same. I don’t want you to only focus on the obedience commands you are asking your dogs to do, I want you to focus on the state of mind of your dog. Our goal, is to have a dog be as calm as possible while we walk.
Some other steps to take before taking your first steps on your walk is the way you put your leash on. Do not put the leash on your dog if they are jumping up, bouncing around, barking and whining. Once again rewarding a behavior that we hate. Ask them to sit, wait until they are sitting CALMLY, and put the lead on. Try not to make a huge fuss over the fact that we are doing this, because truly it shouldn’t be that big of a deal to your dog.
Before you grab the leash, if you catch yourself hyping up your dog by asking them, “Do you want to go for a WaLk?” Stop it. Remember, do everything in your power to keep your dog calm while getting them ready to go for a calm walk.
Once you’ve made the appropriate changes, does this mean your dog is now going to calmly pass other dogs on the walk? Heck no, but it’s the start of you asking more from your dog. It’s the start of the relationship change that is required to lead your dog. Sometimes, leadership is uncomfortable, and most always leadership takes patience and calmness. Now, lets go over how to teach our dogs to heel on lead.
Part 2 next.