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Boo! What's that Over There!?: Tips for Handling On-Leash Reactivity

A witch’s dress fluttering in the crisp breeze; a huge, wobbling, growling black dragon; a dark grim reaper that rears from the cold ground; to the mundane: a dog across the street; a squirrel dashing up a tree; a kid on a skateboard. For some of you, all these things have one big thing in common: They make your dog absolutely batty.

Without turning this into a textbook-sized explanation, the long and short of it is you have a reactive dog. We at Adventure Pups always recommend reaching out to a professional who uses positive-reinforcement if you’re experiencing a difficult time with reactivity while your dog is on leash. Their objective eye will help you see anything you may be missing while you’re walking your pup. The following are the techniques we use to help our reactive pups.

No matter what may be causing your pup’s reactivity here are some tips that can help you gain a foothold on helping change that reactivity.

1) There Is Always A Threshold.

There is a distance where your dog will notice their trigger without barking. If your dog begins to bark, just walk away until you find that moment. For some dogs this is the size of a football field. For others it’s across the street. Sometimes it’s just outside of their leash’s length.

If you’re confronted by your dog’s trigger very suddenly the best thing you can do is just calmly and quietly turn around and walk away. Your dog may take a bit to turn around to follow you, but in an emergency this is the best way to handle the situation. Keep an eye on your dog and look for the moment they finally turn back to face you instead of their trigger. Celebrate with lots of praise and treats! If their trigger is still nearby, stay in place with them and whenever they look back at their trigger and not bark, mark that moment and give them a treat! This is a training game called “Look at that”!

If you’re able, try dropping a handful of treats on your dog’s nose. This may interrupt your dog’s barking, for them to find the snacks, giving them something else to focus on and help bring their attention back to you. If you’re unable to do this just continue to walk away.

2) Look At That Training Game

The “Look at that” game is generally used for “counter-conditioning”, which is changing how your dog reacts to and feels about something. For example, seeing another dog makes your dog stressed out and bark a ton! So if we start giving our dog something they find incredibly tasty whenever they notice a dog, they’re going to start seeing dogs as something that means a good thing is about to happen!

You start by marking the moment your dog turns their head to what they’ve noticed. You’re rewarding them for looking at something before the bark happens. Repeat a few times. If you’ve already been doing some dog training with your pup you’ve probably done some practice on eye-contact, so your dog should eventually start looking to you for more snacks. Now you’re going to wait for them to look at their trigger and then back at you before you mark and reward. Here we’re starting to build up the idea that when they see something that typically makes them bark that we, instead, want them to look up at us. This gives you the chance to see if they want to get closer or get further away from the trigger as well!

3) Barking to get closer? Or barking to make it go away? You practice the same way.

No matter what the reason behind their barking, how you help them learn what to do for you instead looks the same.

You either have been the person who has said, or have experienced the person saying, “I’m sorry, he’s really friendly, I promise!” who has a barking and lunging dog at the end of their leash. Followed by, “He’s much better off leash!”. For many of us with reactive dogs this is usually the case! Our social butterflies are just so excited to meet the potential new friends that they just suddenly explode!

Your dog knows they’re on a leash, and the inability to react how they would off leash can exemplify any stress or frustration. Walking straight for the other dog can build up that stress in both your dog and the other dog. By teaching your dog to look at you as you get closer you’re immediately taking social pressure off of the other dog by preventing eye contact between dogs. As well as preventing the buildup of excitement from staring down the thing they’re excited by in your own dog!

Humans are way more into eye contact than dogs are. For many dogs this can be very scary or stressful, so seeing your dog look away from them can help both dogs by preventing that stress in the first place.

Build up the cue “watch me”, “eyes”, or “look at me” to mean “maintain eye contact with me while we move” (This is what a true “heel” entails, too!).

The goal is that we want our dogs to learn that calm behaviors will be how we go see new friends. Or that they have no need to bark to make something they don't like go away, because we will take them away from the scary thing.

When I’m walking a dog who is excited to meet another dog on leash I follow one rule: “Keep the greetings short”! 3 seconds of sniffing each other’s faces max, before they decide to try and play and get tangled which can also result in an accidental fight.

4) Do not force your dog to get closer

If you’re confronted by something your dog shows a fear-response (suddenly sniffing the ground, looking away, putting more of their weight on their back feet) to the most important thing is to not force them to get closer. Holiday decorations pop up in your neighborhood, and your day may be taken aback by the sudden change in an area they know so well.

The “look at that” game can be used here, too! I used to work at a Petco and a few dogs would have a fear-reaction to the litter box sand refill station, because it had a picture of a giant cat looking right at the camera. Find that threshold of your dog noticing the decorations, and mark that moment they look. Mark and reward their curiosity (leaning in to sniff), their interest, and their attempts to get closer, but do not pull your dog toward these things. Your goal is not always to get them to approach the object, your goal is just to help change their reaction when they see the object.

These triggers and their threshold’s may vary, but knowing what to look for to proactively help your dog can sometimes be key. When I’m walking a dog I know can be reactive, I’ll be watching for small signs. Where their nose and ears point, how quickly they turn to face something, are they leaning forward or backward. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t catch your pup’s triggers in time! Sometimes our dog’s react to things that come as a surprise to us humans, and sometimes our dogs are caught off guard! Our job as their humans is to help them, not chastise them. Take a breath. We all get scared sometimes, and this is the best time of year to acknowledge that.

Happy Halloween!

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