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Dogs who are "Reactive" on leash

(lunging, over-exited reaction)

This is about dogs who react to some "target" like an approaching dog or person, jogger, bicyclist, skateboarder, etc while being walked on leash. A training method to ameliorate this problem.



Dogs who are "Reactive" on leash

(lunging, over-exited reaction to other dogs, people, vehicles, etc)

by Pam Green, © 2022

It's a serious problem if your dog has an over-excited reaction to seeing another dog or person or vehilcle while you are walking the dog on leash. The dog is pulling or lunging towards that "target" or is barking or jumping up and down. You may not be sure if the dog is feeling playful, excited , or aggressive. This reactivity is making it hard to enjoy walking your dog. Even if you are sure your dog is only being playful, this reactivity can cause you to loose your grip on the leash or can cause you to trip and fall.

This is also aplicable to a dog who is just leaping up and down in place, "the Bouvier Bounce" in joy at seeing people, because this can be frightening to people. If people seeing the dog become frightened and flee, this can actually result in the dog becoming aggressive. (Having the "decoy" approach, then flee is how Police and Schutzhundt dogs are initiated into the process of becoming ready to bite the decoy.)

So here is a method to change the dog's focus from being on the "target" to being on you and to be in a less excited frame of mind.

Before doing this work, you should already have trained your dog in loose-leash walking as the standard procedure under circumstances where the "target" situations are not involved. See Teaching a dog to Walk on a Loose Leash , which includes a short discussion of dealing with "reactivity".

Dogs can be "reactive" when on leash to some things they might not be as reactive when free. However if there is any chance that your dog is feeling aggressive (or if another dog present might be dog-aggressive), you cannot simply take the leash off and hope for the best. You cannot take the leash off in many other situations, situations where unleashed is unsafe or illegal. All dogs must be on leash sometimes, so reactivity on leash is a problem that requires solution.

The "Sit-front and Focus" method

It's a very benign method, a reward-based method. It is inspired by and based on the "Back Away" method that I learned at a Brenda Aloff seminar. It can change the dog's attitude and emotions towards a calmer state..

"reactivity" situations

Brenda Aloff was teaching it primarily for use with a dog lunging towards another passing dog in an aggressive manner. It would be applicable too to a dog who was barking or bouncing at the "target". It could be your dog's simply excited and wanting to play with the other dog. (Note : even though you are certain that your dog's excited reaction towards seeing another dog is simply desire to play, you still need your dog to be under your control and responsive to you. You cannot be certain that the other dog's behavior towards yours would be benign if they made contact.)

The "target" could be other dogs, could be people walking by, people jogging, bicyclists , skateboarders, or vehicles. (For my Queensland, Fox, the issue was her hard-wired desire to bite tires, expecially moving tires .) Wildlife could be another target, eg squirrels, rabbits.

So I will use the term "target" for all of these.

the method

Starting off with the target object which is approaching from in front , the handler takes several steps backwards, swings (guides with leash) the dog to Sit in front and then focus on treats held in the non-leash hand, hand in the position that has the dog focusing upwards (head and neck into "howling coyote" position). As the dog is sitting , treats are tossed to the dog. Some dogs love to catch a treat "on the fly" out of the air ; but a treat dropped to the ground near the dog's front feet works just as well. Initially several treats may be desirable in order to get and hold the dog's attention. Later on the dog has learned that the handler halting and reaching hand towards the treat pouch is a good reason to sit-front and focus, the treat can be delayed until just as the vehicle is passing.

The goal is to have the dog sitting in front of you with the dog's back towards the "target" and the dog's attention on you and your treat hand. So if the "target" is coming from behind you, either you can do a "double back away" in which you back away once and then a second time, or you yourself swing 180 so you are facing the dog. When you are in front of the dog, or dog is in front of you, you then hand signal and/or voice cue the dog to Sit and Focus. If the target is approaching from the dog's side, you can do a "half back away", ie stepping to the side and bringing the dog to face you. If the target is coming from your side, you do a "3/4 back-away". Your dance step is whatever will bring the dog to face you with the dog's back to the target so dog can get focused on your treat hand.

At some point you may or may not put the treats onto a "variable schedule" = "slot machine payoff". I tend to stay very liberal with treats because I'm combatting a very powerful reactivity. But you certainly can vary the amount of time the dog must sit and focus before you give the treat.

The goal is for the dog to replace that default reaction of lunging and excitement with a default reaction of facing you, sitting, and focusing on your hand and feeling a much calmer mood. Achieving that won't happen in just a few lessons. It happens more gradually over a much longer time. You may never get all the way to the point where it is truely safe to have the dog off-leash in circumstances where the "target" might occur. Certainly dogs who lunge at other dogs can't be off leash on walks. Dogs who want to chase vehicles or bite tires can't be off leash. The goal is to have a calmer and more controlled dog and to make walking a pleasure for both of you.

I've taught this method to others. The handler's dance step is easy to learn, and even though it has you "dancing backwards" you don't have to do it in high heels (indeed , high heels are not appropriate shoes for dog walking).

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created 3/13/2022 revised 3/13/2022, 4/24/2022
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