A Predictable sequence of reactivity looks like this…
Dog sees a trigger – let’s say another dog. He moves forward, hits the end of the leash, and now he escalates rapidly; up on his toes barking and lunging. That causes the other dog to look and see what the fuss is about. The eye contact causes the reactive dog to work himself up into a froth at about which time the distressed owner is dragging their hysterical dog away, with or without verbal harassment and collar corrections, which is making things entirely worse and most certainly not better. And in terms of future reactions? The dog has practiced another round of problematic behavior which makes it more likely to occur next time.
Here is the question I want you to consider. Did the tight leash cause the overreaction or did the overreaction cause the dog to tighten the leash?
I would argue it’s both – those behaviors feed off each other and when you’re looking at a cyclical pattern, you want to break the cycle. Somewhere. Anywhere!
Clearly the trigger appeared. That got the dog’s attention. But in most cases, the vocalizing and complete loss of control occur when the dog is at the end of the leash facing the trigger. That is why I am focused on keeping a loose leash when a dog has a tendency to overreact in public – either from aggression or excitement or frustration or fear or much of anything else.
If I can keep the dog thinking about his body in relation to the leash then I have a much better chance of keeping his emotions from overrunning his brain. Remember that as soon as your dog is pulling on the end of the leash, opposition reflex will kick in and will skyrocket your dog’s problematic behavior, and the more hysterical your dog’s behavior becomes, the harder it is to stop the spiral.
In a perfect world the reactive behavior is not allowed to start because the handler sees the trigger well before the dog and makes decisions to avoid it. But in real life, that’s not how it goes.
So here’s my rule of managing and preventing reactivity:
Train your dog to walk on a loose leash and have a way to make that happen if the dog’s behavior threatens to tighten the leash. The dog must keep the leash loose. There are many ways to do that but that is the goal to hold and to help your clients understand. Keep the leash loose. Make that your focus over all other things. Dog on his toes looking ahead? Tell your client – don’t let the leash tighten and if it does, react immediately to get it loose again.
You can do that with greater distance (go the other way), cookies, prior training, equipment (front clip harness or head halters), verbal interaction, circling- whatever you find to be most valuable. But make that piece happen. A loose leash.
If you doubt this, watch a video of reactive dogs and notice how often the behavior escalates as soon as the dog feels tension on their collar. A lot! Prevent that tension from starting and a whole lot of reactivity dissolves.
When my dog tightens the leash we circle, and since circling is not punishing we circle at lots of other times too – it’s a familiar pattern. We circle when we see horses and squirrels and chickens and sheep and people and dogs and most anything. And you know what? It works. My dogs see something interesting, and while they might initially lunge forward, as soon as they feel the leash tension they remember their job and they stop pulling. They might stand and stare, which is fine IF the leash is loose. But they do not vocalize or lunge because those things are not compatible with a loose leash. And if they forget? Or are too excited to make a good choice? Then we circle as long as necessary, which prevents additional escalation and get them back into their head. And then I wait – when they are ready we can continue on. With a loose leash.
Try it and tell me how it goes for you.