Updated: Nov 17
I hear time and time again from clients- “I know it’s because I’m anxious and it’s going down the leash.” Often feeling guilty about another trainer's advice.
Leash reactivity is the most common issue it seems, so let’s use this as a reference.
Owners have bad experiences causing anxiety, fear and frustration leading to a potential trigger for the dog when walking their dogs.
Think about walking down the street. You’re unsure what your dog may do if the unexpected off-leash dog comes barreling down the street towards you. You know for sure your dog will be doing everything in its power to get to that dog. Lunging like a rearing horse, growling or barking like a lunatic, it takes all your energy to hold them back until finally the other dog retreats back to their owner-. Now you go home feeling defeated, embarrassed, scared etc. You and your dog both return with a lack of enjoyment for the walk.
In this situation, your anxiety, fear etc. will likely get worse with every walk you take, and will not be able to subside until your dog stops behaving this way. It's also important to note each time your dog reacts the behaviour is being solidified. Your dog potentially believes they are doing a great job.
The step commonly overlooked when trying to change this behaviour is figuring out why they are reacting in the first place. It's not what's going down the leash that started it in most circumstances.
If we look at dogs who are reacting due to over-excitement, exciting or elevating your dog's energy or state of mind will ensure a reaction when you see the other dog.
The excitable “Look at me!” while giving treats, and trying to make yourself more interesting than any dogs around will increase your chances of reactivity given that excitement is the main cause already. You can’t fight fire with fire.
You want the calmest, chill energy possible to help teach them to regulate themselves.
Once you find the solution to your dog's over-excitement, you can then concentrate on what you’re sending down the leash. Tensing your body, pulling tighter on the leash- essentially preparing for a fight as you focus on the other dog your dog is doing the same. I hear owners being blamed for continued reactivity because of their own anxiety. This cannot lessen if there is no improvement in behaviour.
Remember, it’s your physical and outward projection that your dog is following. It's you physically tensing, tightening the leash etc that the dogs act on. No amount of treats, positive thinking or becoming excited will help here, and in some cases make it worse. Reactivity, even when from being over-excited can turn to aggression fairly quickly.
Clear communication between owner and dog allows the owner to lead by example. Understanding dog language is key to leadership. Things like waiting for your dog to be calm, relaxed and clear-headed before embarking on a walk can be the most critical step to set you up for success.