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Deep Dive: Leash Reactivity & How To Resolve It

Before we jump into the complexity of resolving reactivity, let's define what exactly reactivity means. Reactive behavior often refers to a dog who barks and lunges on leash at other dogs, people, cars, or other triggers. That is, the dog has a reaction with a higher than normal level of intensity to a relatively normal stimulus while on leash.

This often leads to feelings of embarrassment from the human end of the leash and looks of disdain from others around. Many jump to the assumption that a dog who displays reactive behavior is poorly behaved. However, despite what many think, this behavior is not caused by a dog lacking obedience, manners, or leadership. Conversely, most dogs display reactive behavior because they have big feelings about the dog, person, car, etc. who triggered the reactive display.

Dogs most often feel some level of fear or discomfort with the trigger's presence. Usually when I explain this, I get looks of confusion. How could a barking, lunging dog be afraid when it appears to be so angry? Many dogs learn that the best defense is a good offense over time. In order to get the scary thing to go away, they put on a threatening display and for obvious reasons, this works! After all, what dog guardian would march up to a dog who is behaving in such a way? Usually, either we or others hurry our dogs along and out of the situation thereby providing relief from the trigger's presence and rightfully so. In this case, the reactive behavior serves the function to increase distance.

More rarely, dogs can exhibit reactivity out of frustration. If a dog is frequently socialized with other dogs on leash, they might also display this behavior in attempts to gain interaction with the trigger. In this case, the behavior is distance decreasing. The outward, observable behavior might vary a bit. While there aren't studies that I know of on the topic, I believe this subset of reactivity to be quite rare.

Now that we understand what reactivity is and why it often occurs, let's dive into the complex topic of what goes into resolving it. However, before I do so, I want to preface in saying that I strongly believe behavior we label as reactive is often is best resolved by working with a qualified training or behavior professional. Resolving this behavior is complex - so complex that I will undoubtedly not be able to cover all of the complexities in this blog post and instead will outline a more general plan. Additionally, it can be easy to make mistakes that inadvertently make the behavior worse over time. For example, many think that dogs displaying reactive behavior require more exposure to those things that trigger a reaction, but this often leads to a dog who becomes even more sensitized and reactive to their triggers.

So let's dive in... to ethically begin the process to resolve reactivity, we need to start in a place that is often missed: health. Undiagnosed pain and underlying illness or disease can contribute to any behavior we label as problematic. Signs of pain and disease may not always be obvious, so it's always best to start at your vet's office with a comprehensive visit to rule out medical, nutritional, or other health factors that may contribute to your dog's behavior. Depending on the severity of the behavior, the dog's environment, or other factors, it might also be necessary to have a consultation with a veterinary behaviorist.

Simultaneously, we will want to implement a management plan to help ensure safety and prevent the behavior from occurring. This may include walking at alternate locations/times or not walking at all for a period of time. This may also include implementing changes in your household to help manage your dog's levels of stress like adding window cling, barriers, and more. It could include safety tools such as using a leash with two connection points, a muzzle, and more. The plan will be custom to each and every dog-guardian team. At this point, I also to ensure that species typical needs are being met via an enrichment plan that is both effective and sustainable. This step often requires some experimentation to find the right fit. These steps are those I often see skipped by those trying to go it alone; however, jumping straight into training is a critical mistake and often results in frustration.

Once those factors are addressed, the approach varies based on the preferences of the professional you are working with. Personally, I like to start laying the foundation for behavior change by introducing essential skills through positive reinforcement. These will vary depending on the dog and guardian, but I generally take an approach that involves both ends of the leash and includes learning body language, handler engagement, disengagement as a concept, data tracking, and self-regulation. Next, we start to build upon our foundation by adding trained behaviors to help prevent reactions in real life by keeping our dogs attention as there will almost always be a time that real life results in a less than desirable situation. Finally, we start to work on the finishing touches by implementing an alternate behavior that also serves to changes our dog's emotional response to their triggers with carefully selected environmental set ups. All of these skills are trained to fluency by gradually increasing the level of distraction of the environment they are practiced in under my guidance. While this part may seem to be the shortest, this is often the longest as changing emotions takes time.

As you can hopefully now see, behavior change for reactivity is complex and highly individualized. Doing it alone is possible, but is often much steeper a hill to climb than if you find a qualified professional to help.

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