Reactive Dogs

How to deal with lead reactivity?

Reactive Dogs, Leash Reactivity, Dog to Dog Reactivity all refer to the same phenomenon, notably dogs being on the lead and showing aggression or other unwanted behaviour when other dogs approach. This causes anxiety both to the dog and owner. But how do you correct this behaviour? Can it be overcome at all? Why do some dogs react to others when on a lead? These are some of the questions we try to answer in this article.

Firstly, dog reactivity is not the same as dog aggression, however, reactive dogs could become aggressive dogs if not handled properly.

Dogs can be reactive for many reasons, but the most common ones are:

  1. Fear
    Dogs can fear or dislike other dogs because they had a bad experience or were not socialised in puppyhood. These dogs usually bark and lunge to keep other dogs away.
  2. Frustration
    Some dogs absolutely love other dogs and want to say hello and play with all other dogs but when they are on a lead they cannot do this, which causes frustration, which in turn makes them bark and lunge. These dogs are totally fine with other dogs when they are in an off-lead environment.
  3. Past experience
    Similarly to humans, dogs do what works! If every time they jump on the kitchen counter and manage to eat your steak then they will always try to jump upon the kitchen counter.

The other important thing we need to remember is that dogs communicate by behaviour. They don’t speak human language, to them the slightest facial expression, change in posture, staring look, ears down and so on is sufficient to let other dogs know what they like, don’t like or will do.

Dogs are peaceful creatures and in an ideal world they would not be on a lead but roam free, run, play and do all the other doggy stuff at their own will. However, this doesn’t necessarily suit us for all sorts of reason so sometimes it is inevitable not to put them on leads. However, when dogs are on leads, they become vulnerable. If they are vulnerable, they can get stressed, fearful or anxious and will trigger their natural ‘fight or flight’ response. When a dog is stressed it will either show the typical signs of being anxious (see below) or mask it by aggression (fight or flight).

 Signs of a dog being stressed:

  • Tail down and/or curled under
  • Ears are back and down
  • Body is slightly curled/crouched
  • Head turned away from the other dogs
  • Paw lifted
  • Licking the lips

Once you notice these signs, you need to take steps to alleviate the anxiety whatever the cause might be. Triggers can be other dogs, kids, cars, men wearing hats, runners, cyclists and so on. We need to understand what causes the reactivity. Given the numerous lockdowns we have faced in recent times, many dogs had no opportunity to socialise during puppyhood, which can cause stress when meeting other dogs. If you suspect this is the reason for your dog’s reactivity when on a lead, gentle socialisation should help but you must take it slowly. For example, I’m not keen on public speech. Whilst I’ve done several presentations in my days in the corporate world, I’ve always dreaded them and given the choice I would certainly not deliver any ever again. Given my anxiety and fear of public speech, if somebody had forced me to give a presentation to 200 people just to overcome my fear, I probably would have hidden in the attic until the day has passed! As such I don’t think throwing your dog into meeting many dogs is helpful so wouldn’t recommend putting your dog in large socialisation classes. A better way to approach it would be to agree to meet with a fellow dog-parent a few times and walk the dogs together. After a while you could walk your dog with another fellow dog-owner introducing your dog to yet another K9. As you widen the circle you could get the already vetted dogs together as a pack and your dog should feel comfortable.

However, if your dog simply doesn’t enjoy playing or being with other dogs, there is no need to force it. Again, just think about how you would feel if let’s say you are an introvert person who would rather spend the evenings reading books than going out yet somebody forces you to go to nightclubs every evening! There are other ways to make your dog happy, be it DIY agility course in your garden, scentwork, playing hide and seek or fetch, puzzles and so on.

If you have a dog who is reactive when on a lead, barking and lunging at other dogs, it is key to remember that simply facing the same situation again and again will only make your dog better at barking and lunging. As such, dealing with a reactive dog should start with managing situations and this means managing the ‘dog on lead’ walks. Instead try the below steps.

How to deal with dog reactivity

  1. Use high value rewards, diced chicken, cheese, air-dried sprats, whatever your dogs cannot have enough of.
  2. Have sufficient space away from distraction and offer a treat. If he won’t take it, you are too close to the trigger.
  3. When your dog demonstrates wanted behaviour (makes eye contact with you, no barking towards other dogs) praise him (‘Good boy’ or simple ‘YES’) and offer a treat.
  4. If your dog continues to behave nicely and appears relaxed, taking treats you can slowly move towards other dogs but you have to go slowly at this. As soon as you see signs of stress or aggression you should abandon the mission and wait for the next time.

Your plan will vary, depending on your dog. You might find that your dog prefers a different food. You may need to regularly switch up the food you offer to get the required response from your dog. You may need to keep your pup much farther away from other dogs at first. I’d highly recommend working with a dog behaviour professional to get the best result, especially if the above tips don’t quite get the required change in behaviour.

Someone with years of experience applying gentle, evidence-based training techniques will help your dog’s behaviour improve while helping you feel better about walks.

If you have any successful tips, please let us know.


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