Part 1 of our Reactive Dog Series.
When you walk your dog, does he go nuts when he sees people or other dogs? (Or even bikes, kids, rollerblades, runners, etc...)? Are you at your wits' end and don't know what to do?
Having a reactive dog is disheartening, sad and difficult to deal with. The puppy that you thought would be your ideal walking partner is not turning out how you expected. Your neighbors think your dog is aggressive and are afraid of him. You are frustrated and have no idea how to deal with this. You can't even walk your dog anymore. To make matters worse, everyone is an expert: Put a shock collar on him! You need to show him who's boss! or, You should just take him to the shelter. Though you may feel helpless, there is hope. Leash reactivity can be worked on and made better. It may never go away completely, but with the proper protocol and consistency, you may be able to happily walk your dog again.
Leash reactivity is the most common behavior issue that we work with. So many more people have dogs and walk them these days. We walk them on sidewalks and narrow trails which force them to approach each other head on. Dogs are not particularly comfortable with this. In the doggy world, they would rather meet in a less linear way--nose to tail, preferably. In addition, being on a leash and pulling toward another dog can look pretty scary to the other dog. It could be perceived as threatening. That perceived threat can activate the amygdala and send all of those stress hormones into action, creating the fight or flight response, which is what creates this reaction.
Leash Reactivity is not something that your dog can control. It's like what might happen if I throw a spider at your face. You won't be thinking about your next step, you may possibly scream and run away without a rational thought in your head. It's mainly a fear-based reaction that your dog has developed due to a myriad of reasons. It could be genetics, a bad past experience, or simply, just a normal doggy response that we make much worse in the way that we handle it, as in my example below.
Reactivity sometimes starts out with a happy puppy or dog that just wants to go up and meet the person or other dog. But, picture it -- Your puppy, is lunging and going nuts because he wants to meet this very exciting person or dog. Most people don't know how to handle this craziness and don't react well when they see their dog acting like a fool. You might get embarrassed, angry, frustrated and often will yank on the leash and yell at Spot to stop. It's not your fault. You don't know what else to do! If this is your reaction, your dog is now beginning to think that something must be bad about people and dogs coming toward them. The more it happens, the worse he feels. It snowballs into full blown leash reactivity. Once you learn more about the behavior and what drives it, you realize the these responses only make it worse for your dog. It is about the association that your dog has with the approaching person or dog. He develops a negative association with them and wants them to go away. Your pup has learned that when he barks and lunges, the scary thing (the person or dog) goes away. Every time. Shew! Now, Spot realizes that this barking and lunging and going nuts works for him. It always makes the dog or person go away. See, dogs do what works for them. Always. If it doesn't work, they won't waste the energy doing it. So, say Spot sees a dog walking toward him. He barks and lunges. The dog walks away. Job done. Spot doesn't understand that the dog would be walking away anyway. As far as he is concerned, his behavior created the consequence of the dog leaving. Consider all of the stories that you have heard in your life about the dog vs the mailman. This is because the mailman comes to your house multiple days a week, your dog barks and goes crazy every time he comes, and the mailman then leaves. In your dog's mind, he made that happen. And he'll continue doing it because it works for him.
Unfortunately, if left ignored, this behavior will not get better. You'll want to make sure you get help as soon as you can. Unleashed Joy Dog Training, as well as many other dog trainers, have classes specifically geared to teach you about what leash reactivity is, why it happens and what you can do to make it better. It's important to choose a trainer with experience in this, as well as a force free, positive dog trainer. I see so many people refer to inexperienced dog trainers or trainers that use aversive methods like shock collars and prong collars to people with reactive dogs. What they don't understand is that these techniques can actually make the leash reactivity worse. These things won't change the emotions that cause the behavior. They may temporarily stop the behavior, but your dog will still be afraid, and many times the aggression will come out in other ways and get worse. Aggression begets aggression. Remember, it's all about your dog's association with the scary thing.
For example, if your dog is afraid of people or dogs approaching him and he starts to react to make them go away, then you shock him or jerk on his choke chain or prong collar; he is now thinking, Whoa! when people or dogs come near me, I get a very painful feeling around my neck, and it hurts! I'm even more afraid of them coming near, but I'm also afraid to react because every time I do, it hurts again. So now, you're forcing your dog to experience something very scary to him that he has no control over. He can't even do what comes natural to him and bark and lunge to make it go away. It's like you have a phobia of spiders and me making you sit still and not move if I put one on your head. (I know...the spider again) And if you do move, I'll shock you.
In the next blog, we'll discuss some of the things that you can do to lower your dog's stress and help to get a better understanding on how to make this behavior better.