I have a confession…I’m watching you. When I am out with my dogs, I pay attention to how you interact with your dog, if your dog is in tune to you or completely disconnected. If he is happy or scared or anxious. If you are stressed or having fun. In the dog training business a lot of communication is done with body language, space, distance and pressure.
Quite often I see owners that are completely disconnected from their dogs. Their dogs are walking all over on leash, sniffing a tree, pulling on leash, peeing on a bush, going back and forth from left side to right. There is zero respect for their owner, who they are essentially taking for a walk…their owner is just a person tethered to a string that is hanging off of them as far as they are concerned.
And when these dogs encounter another dog, typically all bets are off. They are either rushing the other dog or they completely erupt into a white hot ball of furry fury. At this point the owners only recourse is to drag the dog away, some end up yelling at the dog…probably feeling pretty frustrated and annoyed or embarrassed. Sometimes I see owners trying to treat their dogs through this behavior or talk their dogs past, to no avail. There is no conversation going on…it’s all one sided.
I feel sad for those owners and for those dogs. It’s not only the owners who are stressed, but the dogs are too! Frustration, stress, fear, anxiety…it’s felt by both the dog and the owner. Those emotions are also at the core of the reactivity.
Let me address a few things:
1. The treat method. Listen, I would LOVE it if this could work with all dogs. But the fact of the matter is that it just doesn’t. Quite often your dog is already disconnected from you when the eruption happens. If your dog is already disengaged and the situation has already begun to escalate, you could probably wave a 10-pound, grass-fed ribeye in front of him and he wouldn’t stop. Am I right? Anybody ever experience that? Or, maybe your dog takes that treat, I mean, come on that ribeye smells fantastic after all, but then goes right back to barking his head off. Have you had that happen? You know what you just did? You rewarded him for being that white hot ball of furry terror on leash. Bottom line is that this is a bandaid solution for a much bigger problem. Your dog is not respecting you on leash and is completely disengaged from you. You are trying to get your dog’s attention when he has already escalated to a 10 on a scale of 1-10 vs trying to catch it at a level 2. Your dog is frustrated, anxious or fearful (or all of those things), waving a treat to try to get his attention back isn’t going to work.
2. What you allow will continue…and will often times get worse. Does your dog pull you to where he wants to go on a walk? He wants to “meet” that other dog, pee on that tree, chase that squirrel, so you are just along for the ride. You are allowing him to pull you around. Why should he listen to you when you suddenly want him to stop barking at a dog or whatever he is reacting to?
3. Dragging your dog or yelling at your dog is not having a proper conversation. Would you respect somebody that drug you around or yelled at you? My guess is no. Then why should you expect your dog to respect you when you do that to him? The leash should be a way to have an effective conversation with your dog.
So, how do you fix your dog’s leash reactivity? It is a process. You need to work on addressing the underlying cause of the reactivity. Put the work into changing your relationship to one that is mutually respectful. Ensure that you are meeting your dog’s physical and mental needs. Learn proper leash handling skills and walk your dog on a loose leash, don’t put back pressure or walk them on a short, tight leash. Understand what your dog is “saying” to you and how to manage his environment so that you both succeed…and that you are both enjoying your walks again.