Written by Christine Durrant, Professional Dog Trainer and Pet Care Consultant
“The following is based on my own experience and education. I choose to train dogs from a place of kindness and understanding, above all else. While I understand other training methods are in use and can be effective, I believe in training the whole dog – body, mind and spirit. This ensures there are no “side effects” such as suppressed feelings, fear or an increase in problematic behaviors. This process is about change, which takes time, and is by far the most healthy form of training I know of and this is what I believe in. I encourage you to take the time to learn about your dog and enjoy the process.”
Leash reactivity is a common issue and it’s important to look at this problem from the dog’s point of view in order to treat it or, better yet, ensure it never begins. If you are looking for help to teach your dog to stop reacting to other dogs, people or even children while on leash, you can use the same method described below but do note that you should not approach another dog, person or child until you are 100% sure it is safe to do so. This article addresses leash reactivity, not leash aggression. If your dog is NOT aggressive off leash but turns into a nut on leash, this is the article for you. If your dog is aggressive on and off leash, please start with your veterinarian and consider consulting a behaviorist and a reputable positive reinforcement or force-free dog trainer. Aggression needs to be treated carefully, by the right people, to ensure it does not get worse. I will discuss reactivity in this article.
When a dog is reacting it’s having an emotional response. When we add a negative “correction” to that response (inflicting pain, poking, choking, shocking) we can actually INCREASE the emotional response – whether it’s inward or outward. Choosing the right dog collar makes a bigger difference than many people realize. Can you imagine having a great fear and someone slapping you each time the fear presented itself? It’s not a fun or helpful way to learn to overcome fear. By giving a hard “correction”, a dog may stop what they are doing, but they will also then learn to suppress their feelings to avoid another correction that is not “treating” the problem – it is forcing the dog to suppress their feelings in order to avoid punishment. This can create what we call “learned helplessness”. Learned helplessness is behavior that occurs when the subject endures repeatedly painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it is unable to escape from or avoid. It’s much healthier for the dog to teach them what we want them to do by instead and it is always better to change the feelings rather than suppress them. This is the difference between using negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement with counter conditioning and desensitization. The process of using food/treats to change a dog's feelings about something is called counter conditioning which, by definition is: Conditioning in order to replace an undesirable response (such as fear) to a stimulus (whatever the fear is based on). You change the fear to calm by using a scientific method based on how dog’s learn and associate things. Counter conditioning was first researched by Ivan Pavlov. He discovered it was possible to condition animals to respond to a previously neutral stimulus.
Another problem that leash reactivity creates is that it can cause people to simply stop walking their dog (out of frustration). I encourage you to work with them so that you can start to enjoy walks and time together. NOTE: This article will not address leash pulling and it’s important to address one behavior at a time so if your dog pulls on leash, work on one or the other but not both at the same time.
To help your dog change their leash reactivity, I recommend the following: