Did you know that leash reactivity is the most common behavior we help dogs with? While it can feel like you’re the only one with a dog who’s got Big Feelings on walks, you’re in great company! (Including with Liz and Zumi!)
Working on reactivity is a journey, and it can help to have some reminders about what to expect and how you can help your dog (and yourself) live the best life possible! Here are our top tips for parents of leash reactive pups:
1. Don’t Push It!
This is probably the #1 mistake that owners make. (We get excited!) It can be tempting to push our dogs closer and closer to their triggers, especially when they’re being successful. Resist the urge to push your dog to their threshold every time they encounter a trigger (dog/person). If you do, they’re still practicing getting stressed in response to the trigger! You’ll get much better long-term results if you take things at their pace.
2. Prevent practice of reactivity.
Help your dog avoid situations that you know would likely trigger their reactivity. (Is that their nemesis coming down the street? Time to turn around! Does your dog have a hard time on Greenways with nowhere to get away? Choose somewhere else to walk.) Practice makes perfect, and that includes practicing the behaviors we don’t want!
3. Work in the “sweet spot”
The more your dog practices feeling calm around dogs/people, the easier it is for them to feel calm around them in the future! Training a reactive dog almost shouldn’t look like training at all! You want to be working at a distance where your dog is able to look calmly or with mild to moderate interest at the dog/person. This is the place where you would use your “123” game or your “Popcorn and a Movie”.
4. Distance is your friend
One of the best ways to make a dog/person less “intense” for your dog is to be further away from them. If your dog is starting to tense up or react, help them out by moving further away! (Or by using a car/garbage can/tree as a visual barrier if you can’t get away.)
5. Bad days are normal
Just like us, dogs have good and bad days. (They can be sick and tired, too!) It can feel really discouraging if your dog has a bad day or a bad experience after noticeable improvement. One of the best things you can do after this is to give your dog and yourself a break. Wait 1-3 days before you try a training session again. (You can also email your trainer if you have questions or just need to vent!)
6. The right amount of practice
Your dog needs regular practice to change their behavior! Too much exposure to their triggers can make things worse, and not enough can prevent progress. Aim for the Goldilocks amount for your dog. (For most dogs, this seems to be multiple days per week, but not every day.) This might mean you need to exercise your dog differently to either encourage or prevent exposure to their trigger. Exposure times should be short to start! (Think seconds or a minute, rather than minutes.)
Working on leash reactivity is, for most dogs, a months-long process where we help maximize their ability to be calm around other dogs or people. (And a lifetime of management to maintain their progress.) Patience and practice pay off big time!
As we all learn more about your dog and who they are, we’ll be better able to help them live their best and happiest life!