Does your dog misbehave on-leash? Is he lunging and frantically barking at other dogs, people, or even cars?
Many dog owners struggle with reactive behavior in their dogs. They are frustrated and anxious because their dog misbehaves on-leash. They walk their dogs at odd hours of the day to ensure they won't meet anyone or they may even avoid taking their dogs out for a walk.
What many dog owners don't realize is that reactive behavior in dogs is seldom due to aggression. In many cases, reactive behavior comes out of insecurity or can be caused by hyper-excitement.
An insecure dog will demonstrate reactive behavior because he is fearful or unsure of himself. He barks and lunges. He does this in the hopes the imaginary threat (the other dog or person) will see him as tough and will walk away. The closer the "threat" comes, the more the dog barks. A sure sign of an insecure dog is that he will retrieve the closer the "threat" comes to him.
On the other hand, if the dog is hyper-excited, then he barks and lunges because he is over stimulated. Unable to contain his excitement, he jumps around wanting to make lots of noise to draw attention to himself, in the hopes the other dog or person will come over and give him attention. This type of dog will usually whine or bark excitedly the closer the person or other dog gets. The body language of the hyper excited dog is a lot of wiggling and the dog may even bounce.
A dominant confident dog's reactive behavior can easily turn into aggression. Quite often the reason for the barking and lunging is due to the fact that the dog is on a tight leash. A lot of dog owners will unconsciously tense up and hold their dog back. This tense hold on the leash conveys to the dog that there is something to worry about, so the dog is on alert. If the dog is out in front of the owner, he is in a protective mode and will bark and lunge to ward off what he perceives as danger.
No matter what the reason for your dog's reactive behavior, there are 3 things you can do to help your dog get over his reactive behavior and recondition him to be more relaxed and better behaved on-leash.
1. Teach your dog to NEVER pull on the leash
The first and most important behavior to teach a dog that is reactive is to condition him to walk on a loose leash. This is something that only 75 percent of dog owners teach their dogs! We teach all our customers to expect their dogs to walk on a loose leash next to them. When your dog is taught to walk in this way, he is given less opportunity to escalate. Because it is his job to pay attention to you, he is unable to focus on other things around him, which will immediately take away much of what may cause reactive behavior.
When we teach a reactive dog to walk on a loose leash, he becomes less reactive, because now he is walking next to the handler, and not in front. When the dog does focus on something that brings out the reactive behavior, it is much easier to handle.
Here is a video that will give a few tips on how to teach your dog to walk next to you on a loose leash:
2. Redirect your dog's attention
Once your dog has learned to walk without pulling on the leash, you can practice redirecting the reactive barking by interrupting his behavior. It is important to interrupt as soon as your dog displays the first signs of going into his reactive behavior. If the dog is already reactive, put some distance between the trigger and you first and then work with your dog.
You will have to find out what type of redirect works for your dog. Different dogs are motivated by different things, so here are a few ways to redirect:
1. You can use a high-value treat, something with a strong smell that will grab your dog's attention and get him refocused. This works well with dogs that are highly food motivated. Do not GIVE the treat to the dog, rather hold it in your closed fist and offer the scent only to redirect his attention.
2. You can use a toy to redirect your dog's attention. If your dog loves to tug on a toy or enjoys playing with a squeaky toy, find one that you can bring along on the walk. When the dog starts to focus on the dog or person and becomes reactive, show the toy. Start getting excited about it and offer it to the dog for play.
3. You can give your dog a correction. This is usually a tug or sideways pull with the leash. Don't yank on the leash, but rather just give a quick tug. The tug shouldn't move the dog and the leash should be loose. The tug is like a tab on the shoulder, telling your dog to pay attention to you. Say "No" and then give the correction.
When you encounter a trigger - something that usually causes a reactive behavior in your dog - try to redirect with either method before the dog escalates into the reactive behavior. If he is already barking or lunging, put some distance between you and the trigger first. Then continue to work on redirecting the dog. It is very important to have a loose leash! If your dog still pulls on the leash, you need to go back to the first exercise and recondition your dog to NEVER pull on the leash!
3. Display a calm and confident posture
Now that your dog knows to NEVER pull on the leash and you are able to redirect his behavior, you will be able to walk him through any situations. One of the most important aspects of working with a reactive dog is to maintain a calm and confident posture. Most dog owners unintentionally actually trigger a dog's reactive behavior, because they tense up and tighten up on the leash when they see another dog or something that might trigger the reactive behavior in their dogs.
First and foremost, don't be embarrassed or frustrated when your dog gets reactive. See it as an opportunity to train him. If he doesn't react, how can you train him not to?
Become aware of your own body language. BREATHE and relax your shoulders! Keep the leash loose at all cost. If the dog can't feel you on the tight leash, he is on his own. You may hear a frustrated bark, but a dog on a loose leash won't lunge or act stupid.
If the dog escalates, put some distance between you and the trigger. I am not suggesting to avoid the trigger, I just want you to be a few feet away until you can get the dog redirected and under control. When he is paying attention to you, bring him closer to the trigger and expect him to keep the leash loose. You may have to keep going closer and then again further away, working with your dog on the reactive behavior by redirecting him. This will only work if you send a calm and confident signal! If you feel frustrated, end the exercise and walk away. A stressed out handler CANNOT control a reactive dog.
Watch this short video to see how the owner of the German Shepherd is using all three techniques here to walk past a dog park full of other dogs playing off-leash.
We have worked with many dog owners that had problems with their dog being reactive. Don't get caught up in the why and move to resolve the issue by becoming a calm and confident handler, teach your dog to always walk on a loose leash and learn to see the signals of him getting into the reactive state to interrupt and redirect early in the process.
By becoming the one in control of your own dog's behavior, you will soon see a well-mannered dog that is less reactive. You will be confident in walking your dog anywhere. When your dog escalates, you will know what to do and will remain calm and in control.
We have a reactive dog ourselves and here is a video that shares our personal journey with Apollo:
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