Dealing With Distractions

Why Are So Many Dogs Reactive When On The Leash

Most dog owners, at least most of them that seek help from me, find loose leash walking challenging. There are many aspects to loose leash walking. For the sake of this article I’m going to focus on dealing with distractions on the walk. About half of my clients have dogs that are dog reactive on the leash. That is, they have dogs that get overly excited, or even aggressive, when they see another dog while walking on the leash. This is a very common behavior, even for dogs that are not dog aggressive when off leash. Why is this problem so common? How can so many dogs become so out of control on the leash?

A Couple Of Things That Contribute To Dogs Being Unruly While On The Leash

There are two things most dog owners do in dealing with distractions that contribute to their dogs being out of control on walks. The first is that they let their dog walk in front of them. Letting your dog walk in front of you puts a lot of pressure on your dog. It sends the message to your dog that he’s in control and that he has to “deal with” whatever comes along. So whatever your dog does when he meets people, cats, other dogs, skateboards, garbage trucks, birds, squirrels, etc., he will be MUCH more likely to do it if he is walking in front of you on the walk. This means if you have a Golden Retriever that gets excited when he meets new people, he will get more excited. If you have a Cane Corso that is fearful and becomes aggressive when he sees another dog, he will get more fearful and aggressive. I talk about this in one of the first blog articles I ever wrote titled, “Why a Slack Leash is So Important”.

Dogs walking in front of owners contributes to them being out of control, but it doesn’t have the largest impact. A much more significant contributor is how most dog owners respond when their dog peaks or goes over threshold. Every dog is different, but in most cases by “peak” I mean stares with his ears up, and by “over threshold” I’m referring to barking, lunging, jumping, or any combination of the three. In these situations, most dog owners respond in one of three ways: 1) They try to put their dog into a sit or a down to get the dog to calm down, OR 2) They tighten up on the leash or start correcting the dog, OR 3) They run away from the situation to get the dog out of it as quickly as possible. In this blog article I will explain why ALL THREE of these actions nearly ALWAYS make the situation, and the behavior, worse in the long run.

Dog Pulling on Leash

Why Trying To Calm An Excited Dog Makes Matters Worse

The response I see more than any other in this situation is a dog owner trying to calm their dog by putting the dog into a sit or a down. As always, the first question I ask before attempting to change any dog behavior is, “Is it a reasonable expectation to change this behavior or am I asking my dog to do something he can’t do?” I explore this idea in greater detail in my blog article titled “Be Reasonable”. I have also told clients for years that you generally don’t train a dog to be calm. More often than not, excitability is an Energy Management issue rather than a training issue. Assuming that it IS a reasonable expectation to change this behavior, even if you get your dog to calm down by putting him into a sit or a down, YOU’RE STILL REINFORCING EXCITED BEHAVIOR. In order to put your dog into a sit, while he’s in that excited mind-state, you have to engage him while he’s in that excited mind state. When you do that on some level it reinforces the excited behavior. So, even if he calms down in that moment, the next time you encounter the same situation he’s going to get just as excited, or even more excited, because on some level you’ve reinforced the behavior.
Once your dog goes over threshold, ANYTHING you do at that point: “No,” “Stop it,” “Sit,” “It’s okay,” pull on the leash, run away, etc., is going to reinforce the excited behavior! It’s TOO LATE to do anything about it at that point. The ONLY thing you can do in that situation, that’s not going to reinforce the excited behavior, is immediately get your dog out of the situation and let him calm down on his own. And I don’t mean drag him out of the situation or run away from the situation! I have to show you how to do that safely and in a way that will not reinforce the behavior. To change this behavior, you need to change the way you approach those situations in a way that keeps your dog from going over threshold in the first place. This is generally what I cover in the second session and this will also be the topic of my next 30-minute video! I’m still looking for a videographer to help me with this one since it has to be filmed at the dog park. If you are into filming videos (I do the editing myself), or know someone that is, and live in Northern California, please do reach out.

Loosen Up On That Leash

Another reaction that is quite common for dog owners dealing with distractions is that they instinctively tighten up on the leash. I suppose they believe it gives them more control over their dog or they want to be ready in case the dog lunges. This is how the phenomenon of dogs being out-of-control-reactive toward other dogs on the leash begins. The very first time you walked your puppy and he saw a dog and wanted to pull over to say hello and you tightened up on the leash and pulled back he pulled harder and then the race was on. When you tighten up on the leash that tension goes right down the leash. Your dog doesn’t know why you are tense when other dogs show up — he just knows that you are. So he becomes tense. Think about how many times this happens on a typical walk — or in a month of walks. After years and years of reinforcing being tense around other dogs on the leash, reactivity is the behavior that emerges because that is what was reinforced every time you encountered a dog on the walk. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not suggesting that you should let your dog go anywhere he wants on the walk. That would be just as bad or worse. I frequently tell clients that the most important thing, any time you have a dog on a leash, is that the leash can NEVER be tight. As soon as the leash is tight, your dog’s in control and leading you around. When it’s loose, he has to look to you for direction.
I don’t address loose leash walking in the first session in detail, but I do mention it. I emphasize the importance of loose leash walking and dealing with distractions on walks in order to get your dog to look to you for direction. The MOST effective way to get the message across to your dog that you’re the one in charge and when you tell him to do something he needs to listen, is loose leash walking. Walks are not for exercise! You can take your dog for 20 walks a day and it wouldn’t tire him out one bit (I go into this concept and much more in the blog article titled “Why Walking Your Dog Doesn’t Count As Exercise” and the video on “Energy Management” on my website). The walks are for structure. How you put on the leash; How you walk out the door; Whether your dog is walking in front of you or behind you; Whether you let your dog sniff and pee on the walks; How you deal with distractions on the walks — like cars, people, other dogs, cats, pigeons, squirrels, skateboards, garbage trucks — every one of these things either shows your dog you’re in control, or shows him you’re not. That’s the purpose of the walk. So a 5-minute daily walk, even if you don’t make it out of your driveway, is pretty important if you want to start getting the message across to your dog that you’re the one in charge and when you tell him to do something he needs to listen.

So What Can I Do That Won’t Make Things Worse

It may be frustrating to hear about all of the things that you shouldn’t be doing to deal with distractions on walks, without actually getting any tips on what you should be doing. The ways I recommend you respond in these situations are very complex and can’t easily be explained in words. This is why I sell a video that demonstrates them here. There is one thing you can do for now that may help. It’s not a viable, long-term solution, but will likely improve your situation in the short-term. Like my recommendations for what you should NOT do in responding to distractions on the walks, this one is counter-intuitive and may seem extreme. You ready? Here it is. STOP WALKING YOUR DOG! I tell clients every week, if the walks are stressful for you and/or your dog, then you should NOT be walking your dog. It will only make the behaviors worse. Remember, the walks are not for exercise: the walks are for structure. The walk either demonstrates to your dog that you are in control and lets your dog relax, or shows your dog that you are NOT in control and puts pressure and stress on your dog. That’s the purpose of the walk. Until you know how to put the right structure in place to give your dog what he needs to relax, there’s really no reason to walk your dog (other than the mental stimulation it provides — the importance of which should not be underestimated). Play tug five times a day the way I show in my video, or give your dog a bullstick every day instead (don’t start off at one a day, you have to ease your dog into them). These alternatives to a walk can provide physical and mental stimulation for your dog in ways that can be less stressful for both of you until you are able to watch my video and start working on leash reactivity. I hope everyone is doing well, staying safe, and enjoying time with your dogs. Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
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