I adopted my Lab mix Korra at eight weeks old and followed all of the training books to a T. I crate trained them, socialized them with all kinds of people, and brought them everywhere with me, in the hopes that they would become an easy-going dog as they grew into adulthood.
Those hopes were dashed when one day, on a walk in a new neighborhood, an off-leash dog jumped a fence and raced towards us, teeth bared. We were able to get away without injury, but from then on, Korra’s behavior changed. Seemingly overnight, they became uncontrollable, often lunging and barking at the end of their leash whenever they saw another dog. Walks became stressful for me, not enjoyable for them, and with each day, the behavior only seemed to get worse.
After two or three months of this, I took her to a local trainer, who was able to give us a diagnosis for what was going on: Leash reactivity
What is leash reactivity?
Leash reactivity is when your dog overreacts to a stimulus while they are on a leash. Dogs can be “reactive” towards any kind of trigger they have a negative association with such as other dogs, cars, or people. The reactivity could look like lunging, barking, or growling. In some dogs, they may show a fearful response or try to run away from the thing that upsets them.
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Where does this reactive behavior come from? To understand reactivity, it’s first necessary to understand how a dog communicates (hint: it’s a lot different than how humans communicate). Dogs prefer to give each other space, circle around each other, sniff butts, and then maybe play, or, if they decide they don’t like each other, get out of each other’s faces!
What happens when you introduce a leash into the mix? A leash essentially puts a dog in a “cage”—their movements are restricted, largely out of their control, and greetings often occur head-on, face-to-face. There are several reasons why a dog may not like this type of greeting:
It makes them feel protective: Some dogs get very sensitive or upset when a stranger (human or canine) comes close to their beloved owner.
It frustrates them: Some dogs get really excited by the prospect of saying hey to another dog—but alas—the leash! The leash gets in the way, and so they get frustrated.
It makes them fearful: If a dog is fearful of the stimuli in front of them, the leash interrupts their biological “flight” response and doesn’t fully allow them to escape from the thing that’s upsetting them—which can cause even more stress. This was the case for my dog Korra. As soon as I understood they were reacting from a place of fear, I could move forward with tools to reduce that fear.
How to Train a Leash Reactive Dog
There are multiple protocols out there, but they all boil down to one basic concept: The goal of leash reactivity training is to keep the dog below their threshold of frustration, so they can see the thing causing the reactivity, without getting upset. You have to change their reaction to the stimuli in front of them, but you can only do that if you start them at a distance away from the trigger where you know they can succeed.
When I started out on this journey, this meant that the trigger-dog had to be at least on the other side of the street. At this point, Korra could see the dog and be aware of its presence, but they were assured that the dog wasn’t an immediate threat to them. Every time Korra looked at the dog without any signs of stress or reactivity, they would be rewarded. As soon as the dog disappeared from sight, the treats would stop.
Eventually, the idea is that your dog will associate the sight of another dog with a happy event—getting a treat. Over time, your dog will be able to see another dog and react calmly, because they know that as soon as they do, good things happen!
The ultimate goal is to work towards closer distances with your dog, so eventually they exhibit fewer stress signals as the stimuli gets closer. An important note: Don’t rush. Each dog will go at their own pace. If you see your dog reacting, exhibiting signs of stress or frustration, then you’ve moved too quickly and are expecting more from your dog than they can handle. Back off, and try again at a farther distance.
Korra is still working on lowering their frustration when we’re on walks, but they have shown a world of improvement from the fearful, lunging, reactive dog they used to be. It hasn’t been easy but because we stuck with it, I have my walking buddy back.