Countering Leash Reactivity by Conditioning a Positive Emotional Response
Updated: May 3
Maureen Fitzpatrick CTC is a graduate of the Academy for Dog Trainers and owns Seven Cedars Dog Training on beautiful Whidbey Island, Washington.
What is leash reactivity?
Leash reactivity describes dogs who bark and lunge at other dogs while on leash. Leashed dogs can also react to cars, bicycles or other moving objects (skateboards, etc), strange objects they see (a flag or balloon for example) or people. When dogs bark and lunge at squirrels or other small creatures we usually talk about this separately under the heading “prey drive”. In this article we’ll be talking about the most common type of reactivity which is to other dogs. However, the strategy to modify most leash reactivity on a walk is the same.
The first thing to consider is gear. Reactive dogs are not candidates for retractable leashes, so put that away for now. Lunging dogs who “lose their mind” when they see other dogs can strain their trachea and neck if your leash is clipped to a collar. A harness is better but depending on the weight of the dog in relation to the weight of the handler, may not give you enough control. The equipment of choice for a medium or large reactive dog is a Haltie, Gentle Leader, NewTrix or other head halter.
Dogs must be acclimated to a head halter. There are several good You Tube videos showing this process. One such instructional video can be found here: https://youtu.be/1wakterNyUg. Keep your walks with the head halter short and peppered with treats while your dog is getting used to the new equipment.
When your dog sees another dog rather than lunging, barking, and making a scene, we can train him to look up at you and walk on by. We do this by conditioning him to associate the sight of another dog on a walk with extra good food treats delivered generously.
Before the walk
If you have a reactive dog, get used to the idea that you will be preparing high value food rewards to take on your walks. If this seems inconvenient, compare it to the frustration and embarrassment of having a barking, lunging maniac! For this type of conditioning, ordinary treats won’t cut it. Bring the food your dog likes best….think a thick slice of roast beef chopped into little squares, cheese, or poached chicken cut into 1 cm cubes. The reason we need such high value food is we are actually “countering” your dog’s previous built-up emotions around the stimulus. He’s not neutral about those other dogs, after all.
The ideal scenario:
Develop your own situational awareness so that you see dogs coming before your dog does. Make a travel plan that gives your reactive dog plenty of space! Watch carefully and the instant your dog sees the other dog start delivering treats. There is no need to say anything, and there is nothing your dog needs to “do” to get the treats. Hopefully, you have managed to give your dog enough distance from the other dog that he is willing to continue to receive the treats for the entire span of time it takes to pass the other dog. If you can accomplish this, you are well on your way. But even if your dog reacts, continue the flow of treats. Repeat with each dog your reactive guy sees. With time and many, many iterations you’ll notice that your dog begins to see another dog and then look at you for his expected treat. It’s likely that he will still need a string of treats to get him past the other dog but gradually his happy anticipation of food will replace whatever his original emotions were around other dogs.
What if my dog takes the first treat while at a distance, but then goes crazy as I get closer and won’t take any more?
You are too close to the other dog, and your dog is “over threshold”. Use your situational awareness to avoid getting too close, head up a driveway (while delivering treats), use a lawn or a field, cross the street. Do what it takes to give your dog more space. When your dog is at a distance that is comfortable for him, he will take the treats. Proceed as described.
What if I can’t get extra space?
Sometimes you have to pass by another dog in a space that is too close for your dog to stay under threshold, or it’s a surprise encounter. If that is the case either turn around and get out of there pronto, or just get past the other dog any way you can. Once you’ve achieved a comfortable distance, THEN give your dog a “spill “of treats. While not the ideal training scenario, your dog will still shed the stress of that close encounter sooner if his brain is smelling scrumptious food.
A trick to increase the value of the food
For some reactive dogs even food they love loses its some of its appeal when they are passing another dog on leash. For some dogs, tossing the treat into the grass a few feet ahead of them increases their interest in the food. It’s as if the chasing down of the food and perhaps sniffing it out of its grassy hiding place is enough of a game to suddenly be more rewarding than giving the dog across the street the evil eye. This takes some practice on the part of the handler to toss the treat in the right place while making sure the dog gets enough leash to accommodate his lurch toward the tossed treat.
What if my dog isn’t food motivated?
All animals are food motivated! You can nurture along food motivation by
Increasing the value of the food you are offering
taking your dog on walks when they are hungry
trained with food rewards more frequently
If your dog is highly reactive, consider getting professional help
Select a dog trainer who works with reward-based training. With forceful methods, intimidation (loud noises, smashing water balloons, bonks on the head), or painful equipment it is entirely possible to suppress reactive outbursts once the dog’s fear of their handler, or these alarming consequences, trumps their emotions around the stimulus. Your dog will either associate the negative consequence with you, or with the other dog, neither of which is a desirable outcome. Choose the more humane and effective path by conditioning a positive emotional response as described above rather than suppressing your dog’s reaction with fear or intimidation. These latter, “old-school” methods can create dangerous dogs who have learned not to react outwardly but their fear simmers beneath the surface and can erupt as a redirected bite to their handler or an even more intense fear of dogs.
Most likely your positive reinforcement trainer will set up some scenarios with calm, well-rounded, non-reactive stimulus dogs and you can practice your approaches under controlled circumstances.