Living with a leash-reactive dog isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Most leash-reactive dogs are at least moderately fearful of various things in the world – usually people or other dogs – and when they see one of these feared beings while out and about, they respond by putting on an aggressive display, usually barking, snarling and lunging to the end of the leash.
It can be embarrassing and scary and potentially dangerous, depending on how strong your dog is. A simple walk can turn into a major chore. The training options to deal with leash reactivity can be complex and usually take a long time for the dog to fully heal from this problem.
If your dog is leash reactive, keep the following in mind as you work with him:
1) This isn’t the dog’s fault. Dogs do not demonstrate reactive behavior (growling, lunging, barking, etc) to be “bad” or to bother their owners. Most reactivity is grounded in deep insecurity on the part of the dog. Your dog is worried or threatened by other dogs or people, no matter how benign they actually are, and lacks the tools and social skills to deal with the situation in an appropriate manner. Going over the top and having a breakdown is not fun for the dog. Most dogs develop leash reactivity due to their natural temperament or because of a series of negative experiences that happened on leash in the presence of other dogs or people. Over time they learned that showing aggression worked to distance themselves from what was concerning to them.
2) This isn’t your fault. Most owners are quick to blame themselves, feeling that they are showing insecurity that the dog is picking up on. The truth is that the situation is much more complex. The owners are showing insecurity because the dog has shown serious problems before. It’s a vicious circle – the dog blows up, the handler becomes even more insecure. The dog is more likely to blow up because the owner is insecure. The dog blows up and the handler becomes even more insecure. Don’t try and project a false sense of confidence; your dog will not be fooled. You will become confident once you know how to handle the situation and have begun having successes.
3) Your dog is an individual and you can set up his lifestyle individually. Don’t worry if all the other dogs are going on long walks through complex neighborhood. The other dogs are not your dog. Your dog might need shorter walks through quieter locations. Your dog might need to be driven offsite because there are too many off-leash dogs in your location.
4) Change will come. A commonly-heard maxim for this kind of work is “Slow is fast.” It’s okay if you spend three weeks (or even three months) doing your training work at a distance so far from other dogs that you can’t imagine that it will ever realistically transfer to a real-life scenario. But keep working at that distance. The easier your dogs initial training setups are, the more confidence the dog will get, and this will transfer directly to harder situations down the line. Leash reactivity training usually has a slow start, unlike many other kinds of training where things start happening right away. Realize that the slow start is normal, and letting it take its own time will prevent you from rushing, teaching a shaky foundation, and then having to go back and redo everything. This training is going to happen at the dogs pace, so whatever baggage, past experience, temperamental nervousness or whatever else the dog is bringing to the picture are going to factor in – let them.