By Lisa Ellman
A couple years ago there was an article going around the interweb about a Yellow Ribbon Project. The goal was to have dog owners, with leash reactive dogs, place a ribbon of green, yellow or red on the dog’s collar or leash to indicate to people, walking with or without a dog, that your animal was either approachable, cautious or unapproachable. I thought it was a brilliant idea. I started to suggest to clients that this is a pretty safe, accurate way to let people know not to let their dog approach yours.
It can be difficult and confusing to determine the reason(s) for leash reactivity, especially if you have a dog that’s great off leash. There are several factors that could explain the reactivity. Perhaps there was no leash socialization as a puppy, perhaps it’s fear, maybe your dog feels trapped by the leash and becomes hyper vigilant trying to ward off danger, trying to protect itself and its resource: you. It also could be that you’re somehow reinforcing the reactivity without even being aware of it. Let me explain.
You have a dog that’s reactive on walks. You see another dog approaching and you automatically become anxious; your body chemistry changes, you tighten up the leash, at this point the dog has become on alert and perhaps senses that there is some tangible danger. Maybe you start dragging the dog off in another direction. The threat ceases because the dog is taken out of the situation and you continue the walk until the next dog appears. Lather, rinse, repeat.
No matter the reason for the reactivity, all of those responses will not change the behavior. Reactivity is not easy to rehabilitate, it takes consistent work, every day. The first thing one must do, in order to change the dog’s behavior, is change human behavior. It’s a scary and difficult thing to do; it’s frightening to see your dog spinning and lunging like a Tasmanian Devil, and all you want to do is get away. But here’s the thing, by leaving the situation the dog learns nothing. No alternative behavior has been taught. Some people give up walking their dog altogether! The dog learns nothing.
I like to teach people to use positive reinforcement and calm focus to recondition the dog’s response. For example, BREATHE! Stay calm. Scan and anticipate the reaction, you know it’s coming. Be aware of the dog’s body language and signals before it starts to react. Catch the dog before it reacts and reward it, with high value, tasty treats (or a ball), for not reacting. Teach “look” and put the dog’s focus on you, the calm confident leader. Use clicker training if you’re comfortable with it. Be aware of distance. Start far enough away from the stimulus so you can actually get your dog’s attention. As the dog becomes more comfortable and less reactive at that distance, gradually, over time, move a bit closer. Teach your dog “leave it”. Walk quickly past other dogs while engaging your dog with treats or words, keep the focus on you. Don’t slow down or stop.
Learning to manage the behavior is going to make a huge difference in your walks. Working privately with a trainer, or attending a reactivity workshop to clarify training and help you be consistent will accelerate the progress and build your confidence. If you want your dog to meet and greet another dog, look for a ribbon or always make contact with the other owner first, and ask permission. Put a ribbon on your dog or leash and explain the significance to others.
Lets get this going and make walking your dog safe and enjoyable again!
Good Dogma has been helping dogs with people problems since 1996. Readers are invited to submit questions to email@example.com. Contact information for all offered services can be found on our website www.GoodDogma.net