Leash Reactivity in Dogs

Dogs are such a big part of our lives, and we often want our furry friends to come with us everywhere. This can be difficult for those dogs that seem to “lose their noodle” at certain everyday stimuli such as other dogs, bicycles, skateboards, or joggers. Their reaction could be hyperactive, excited, or even aggressive. These reactions are often only seen when the dog is on leash or behind some sort of barrier (fence, kennel or carrier, etc.) The barrier effectively makes it impossible to run away, so fight becomes the only viable option (fight or flight instinct.) This common problem is called reactivity. Of all the reactive situations, leash reactivity is the most common, and is often a source of anxiety and embarrassment for owners of reactive dogs. 

The main motivation behind reactive behavior is a lack of emotional control or impulse control.  This is very often combined with underlying anxiety towards the stimuli (the trigger causing the reactivity.)  When anxiety is a factor, there is more of an emotional motivation for the reaction.  The targets for this behavior are seen by the reactive dog as unpredictable and possible threats.  In order to protect themselves (and possibly their people,) they put up an aggressive display of staring, growling, barking, lunging, and/or jumping.  This is all an attempt to convince the threat that they are big and bad, and not worth approaching.  In most cases, the perceived threat will continue on their way (jogger keeps jogging, bike rolls by, dog and owner keep walking), thereby proving to the reactive dog that this behavior works really well to avoid confrontations.  Other dogs may have an anxiety about social interactions with other dogs as their motivation for their display.  These dogs may or may not show aggression, but will react with at least unruly behaviors (jumping, pulling on leash) and barking.  The motivation here is still anxiety, stemming from an extreme desire to interact, but nervousness at not knowing what to do or what to expect.

In all cases, the first step for treatment is for you to understand that your dog isn’t doing this to embarrass you.  Blame, whether towards your dog or yourself, will only serve to make everything more difficult.  Instead, try to see the situation from your dog’s point of view- this is a situation that causes anxiety and fear for your dog, and his behavior is purely an emotional reaction.   He is not thinking rationally, much like a person isn’t when they are scared by something.  (For me, it is spiders!  I always try to think “what would I do if on a walk a giant spider came running at me?” It helps me understand how a dog might feel.)  Approaching the recommended training from a place of empathy will make it much easier to become a team with your dog to tackle this problem constructively.

As a pet-parent of a reactive dog, your first move should be to limit your dog’s contact with the stimuli that causes a reaction.  Behavior that they repeat often becomes more ingrained and easier to slip into over time – thus making the reactivity a go-to behavior…not good.  If you are working on the prescribed training an hour a day but the other 23 hours your dog is allowed to continue reacting, you won’t make much progress.  If we can control access to the triggers, however, AND we are working daily on the behavior modification, your pup will progress faster.  This could be giving only supervised visits to the yard, or walking on less busy routes, or at less busy times.

I also recommend treating underlying anxiety, as emotional swings interfere with your dog’s learning curve and can also slow progress.  Behavior modification is what will ultimately change your dog’s emotional connotations to the triggers, but getting your dog to actually learn and retain the new information you give him may take a long time when he is experiencing anxiety.  There are several ways we can do this, and we tailor recommendations based on your pet’s individual needs.

Behavioral modification will be started and monitored through recheck consults based on the individual dog’s case and needs.  I will work together with you and your dog to find a plan that makes sense for you as a team.  Helping your dog feel safe is the first step, so we can find a start point to move forward towards helping your dog learn a new emotional connotation, as well as new, more acceptable behavior. 

If you are interested in discussing your dog’s reactivity, please contact us today!

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