From Crazy To Calm: A Training Plan For Leash Reactivity

From Crazy To Calm: A Training Plan For Leash Reactivity

Welcome back for today’s follow-up discussion on treating leash reactivity!  If you didn’t get a chance to read last week’s post on this topic, you can find it here.

Today, I will be breaking down in detail how we approach this problem from a training perspective.  I’m excited to write this post because this issue is so common, and so incredibly frustrating for owners!  As I said last time, leash reactivity is one of my favorite problems to treat because it’s very rewarding – almost all of these dogs get better (MUCH better, in most cases) with a good training plan.

So, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of how it’s done.  There’s lots of great basic information on the internet about how to work with reactive dogs (as well as some stuff that’s not so great, unfortunately), but I find that a lot of it isn’t very specific.  Even if you understand the general idea of what we’re trying to accomplish, it can be quite difficult to translate that into a successful plan for your dog – especially if you don’t have much experience with dog training!  By including a case study with videos in today’s post, I’m hoping to give you a really clear picture of how things should look.

(Huge thanks to our doggie volunteer, Louie, and his mom for graciously allowing me to use video from some of their training sessions – you are both fantastic!)

First, let’s talk theory for just a moment… we’ll get into specifics shortly, but it’s important to understand what we’re trying to do before delving into the process itself.  As we discussed last week, most reactive dogs act this way because they are fearful or uncomfortable – the barking, lunging, snarling, etc. is their attempt to make the scary thing GO AWAY as quickly as possible.  It stands to reason, then, that we have to address your dog’s fear if we want to make any real progress at changing the behavior.

Which brings me to a very important point – as much as you might feel like you should, please don’t ever punish your dog for reacting this way!  Remember that what you are seeing (barking and lunging) is his way of communicating that he is frightened and uncomfortable.  Scolding your dog for being afraid is counter-productive, as well as being terribly unfair… he’s acting this way because he’s upset and doesn’t know what else to do.  Verbal corrections, leash pops, or shock collar corrections do nothing to teach him better coping skills, and they often worsen the underlying anxiety that is causing the problem.

Instead, if we want to truly “fix” leash reactivity, the single most important thing we have to do is change how your dog feels about his triggers – this can be accomplished by teaching him to associate good things (usually treats!) with other dogs, or bearded men, or children on bikes.  In some cases, we might also choose to teach him something else to do instead of barking.  This doesn’t need to be anything fancy – in many cases, it might be as simple as teaching your dog to look at you when he sees something that startles him, rather than launching into attack mode.  We can then reward the “check-in” with a treat, and calmly get him out of the situation if needed.

Makes sense, right?  Okay then!  Let’s get into the good stuff – how do we actually do this, with a real-life dog that barks at everything?

Meet Louie.

Louie is a very cute, very sweet young dog that I have had the pleasure of working with for the past several months.  He was adopted from a rescue, so his owner has limited information about his history but we believe that he is around 1.5-2 years old.  He has soft, silky brown fur, with longer fringe on his ears and tail – I’ve always thought he looks like a particularly adorable cross between a golden retriever and something like a dachshund.  Once he gets to know you, he loves ear scratches and tummy rubs, and will happily gallop around the training room in delight if you toss him a stuffed toy.  Altogether a wonderful little dog – one of my very favorite patients 🙂

Unfortunately for Louie and his new owner, it became apparent within the first few weeks after his adoption that he was severely reactive to almost everything new that he encountered – this included unfamiliar people, dogs of all shapes and sizes, and even sometimes objects in the environment that he had not seen before.  The problem was somewhat manageable in the house, since his owner had the option of putting him in his crate or a separate room when visitors came over, but his daily walks were an ever-worsening nightmare.

Louie is fairly small, around 20-25 pounds, but he has an incredibly loud “WOO-WOO-WOO!” alarm bark that is capable of shattering the morning stillness up and down the block.  It was rare to be able to complete a quick 5-10 minute potty trip without encountering multiple neighbors walking by, each of whom was met with hysterical barking and lunging forward on the leash – eyes wild, teeth bared, deaf to any attempts to calm him.  Even with his small size, it was sometimes difficult for his owner to hold him back; and predictably, her neighbors were beginning to frown and glare in disapproval whenever they saw her and her apparently vicious, uncontrollable dog.

We spent our first several sessions with Louie working on his generalized reactivity towards people.  At first, we focused on helping him get to know our staff at the vet clinic and training center – we did this by introducing a different person each week, having them enter the room and toss treats to Louie from a distance until he calmed down and approached them to say hello.  This plan worked well for him, because he tends to warm up to people quite easily after the initial bout of barking – he was happily accepting belly rubs and climbing into the lap of every staff member we introduced within 10 minutes of meeting them.

(It’s important to note that many of the reactive dogs we work with are also quite aggressive or quite fearful about direct interaction with people – with these dogs, we approach things very differently!  For a more fearful or aggressive dog, we would not allow or encourage any direct contact with our staff or anyone else, and would instead focus on rewarding for calm behavior at a distance.)

Louie came to our office for training sessions approximately once a week.  Within the first month, we saw a tremendous improvement in his behavior towards our staff at the training center – instead of having a meltdown and launching into panicked, hysterical barking whenever one of us entered the room or walked past the window, he began to approach us happily for petting with a wagging tail and loose, relaxed body language.

During these first few weeks, we also introduced the technique that we use for the vast majority of reactive dogs – namely, classical conditioning using a clicker to associate treats with seeing strangers.  There are a number of excellent books and other resources available that go into great detail about how to do this, and I will list some at the end of the post in case you want to read more.  But for now, I’ll try to give a brief summary of how it works, and explain how we implement this approach with most of the dogs we work with.

The concept is very simple.  Essentially, you want to teach your dog that seeing a person (or a dog, or whatever trigger you’re working with) = something great!

For most dogs, the easiest way to do this is by using high-value food treats – hot dog slices, roast beef, chicken, string cheese, etc.  This is no place for dry kibble or Milk Bones; if you want to make progress, you need to bring out the big guns.  Whatever your dog loves most, cut up into bite-sized pieces and stowed safely in a baggie in your pocket for easy access.

(For dogs who have very little interest in food, it is possible to use other things as rewards, such as focused play with a tug toy or some other activity that the dog finds rewarding, but this requires quite a bit more creativity and is beyond the scope of today’s discussion!  Fortunately, the vast majority of dogs can be motivated quite effectively if you find the right treat :))

Now, this part is critically important – you need to work at a distance where your dog is able to notice the trigger without immediately reacting.  For some dogs, this may mean that you need a lot of distance at first!  I harp on this point because it can literally make or break your entire training plan.  Often, during the first appointment with a new training client, they’ll tell me that oh, they’ve tried using treats… it doesn’t work at all, he completely ignores them when he’s barking!

The problem is distance, pure and simple.  If your dog is already barking, you’re too close.  Back up to a point where your dog is able to settle and take treats, and start again.

This is where it’s tremendously helpful to work with an experienced trainer.  For most of my clients, we have much more success in the beginning by setting up controlled training sessions with a helper (person or dog, depending on the issue) at whatever distance we choose.  Once the dog has learned the game and things are going well, we can gradually move closer and increase the overall difficulty of the exercise until we get to “real-life” scenarios – like passing another dog on the street, or politely greeting a stranger.  But at every step, the dog gets to decide when he’s ready!  We don’t move any closer until he’s relaxed and confident, happily taking treats with no barking.

To give you an example of how this might look, let’s go back to Louie.

The following video clips are from three separate training sessions earlier this year.  At the time these were taken, Louie’s reactivity toward people had improved tremendously, to the point that he rarely reacted at all anymore to people passing by outside the window of the training center.  He was also doing much better on his daily walks, no longer barking at every neighbor he saw.

However… at the sight of another dog – any dog, regardless of size or personality – all bets were off.  This was still a major sticking point at home, since it wasn’t unusual to encounter other dog owners out for a walk, and Louie was rapidly developing an unflattering reputation in the neighborhood.

And so, in late summer of this year, we spent several sessions working specifically on his reaction to other dogs.  We started with a helper dog (my boy Clint, in this case) outside the window, and Louie against the back wall inside the training center.  At first, we practiced with Clint standing quietly in one place – every time Louie looked at Clint, we clicked and gave a treat.  (The click is a good way of marking the precise moment that your dog sees the trigger, which helps to make the association with the treat more clear – you can also use a verbal marker such as “yes!” if you prefer.)

Once he was good at this, we increased the difficulty level by having Clint walk back and forth outside – still clicking and treating for every look, gradually moving closer as long as Louie was successful.

A few things to point out from this first clip:

Your reward rate (also called rate of reinforcement, or ROR in behavior parlance) should be very high, especially at first!  Note how quickly I am clicking and treating on the first pass in particular – this is because Louie is immediately looking up at the dog again as soon as he finishes each treat, which means that I also need to click again immediately.

Also notice how Louie gets less concerned about the dog with each subsequent pass, even though we are gradually moving closer to the window – he’s not quite so quick to look back at him as soon as he grabs each treat, and on the third pass he actually pauses to sniff something interesting on the floor before he can be bothered to look up again.  This is what we want to see – much more casual body language, which tells us that he’s getting more comfortable.

Finally, note that the barking dogs in the back kennel area don’t faze him at all!  This is common with reactive dogs, in my experience – many of them only react to seeing their triggers, not hearing them.  Interesting, right? 🙂

Once Louie was doing well with another dog passing by just outside the window only a few feet away, we moved on to the next step: bringing our helper dog into the room.  Because this increases the difficulty level quite a bit, we moved Louie to the back wall again and gradually worked our way forward – essentially repeating the same procedure as before, moving closer one step at a time as long as he was comfortable.  Clint was positioned behind a physical barrier just inside the door (an x-pen) to prevent any direct interaction between the dogs at this point.

Here, I want to pause for just a moment to talk about our goals with Louie, because this has a major impact on how we opted to do things at this point.  Louie is a young dog, very playful and energetic, and his owner was very hopeful that he might be able to have playdates with some doggy friends at some point.  She had a couple of friends with potentially suitable dogs – friendly and small, about the same age – but no attempt had been made to introduce them because Louie was so reactive.

We had no information about his previous experience with dogs, if any, and no idea if he knew how to read social signals appropriately.  He had never successfully met another dog since coming to live with his current owner – she very much hoped that this was something we could work on.  Clint is an ideal helper dog for this purpose, because he’s easy-going and quite friendly with other dogs.  We could be very confident that he wouldn’t react badly and frighten Louie, and also wouldn’t be overly bothered if Louie became startled and barked at him.

At any rate, this is why you will see us clicking and rewarding Louie’s tentative interest in Clint as he gets closer.  I wanted to point this out because this may not be a goal for all dogs.  In many cases, we focus exclusively on teaching the dog to calmly ignore the presence of other dogs, or to offer some other behavior such as eye contact with the owner.  If there was any concern that the dog might be truly aggressive, we would also use additional safety measures such as basket muzzles, head halters, etc. to prevent any problems.

Now, on to the third video.  I didn’t trim this one much at all, so it’s longer than the other two – you certainly don’t have to watch the entire thing if you don’t want to, but I really wanted to show how the introduction process looks in real time with a dog who is unsure.  I find that people have a tendency to rush this by just throwing the dogs together and hoping for the best, which can lead to lots of problems.   As you can see here, we take things very slowly!

This session was around 20 minutes total, and it went wonderfully.  A friendly greeting with no barking or lunging, and a lovely example of off-leash play:

(We do normally try to have the agility equipment moved back out of the way when dogs are running loose for safety reasons, but this was a somewhat impromptu session.  Clint likes to use it if it’s out!)

Louie continues to come semi-regularly for training sessions as his owner’s schedule allows – he still has days that are difficult from time to time, since behavior issues are rarely 100% cured, but things overall are much better than they used to be.  We are planning to work on walking past some other dogs he hasn’t seen before outside on-leash over the next few sessions, as well as doing controlled introductions with some possible playdate friends in his neighborhood sometime soon.

If you have a reactive dog, I hope that this discussion has given you some good ideas on how you can help!  Every dog is different, so it’s very difficult to give a “cookbook”, step-by-step procedure for every case – it depends on your goals, your priorities, your dog’s personality and preferences, and a host of other factors.  This case study is meant to be an example of a plan that has worked well for this particular dog, not necessarily a “how-to” guide for every situation.  If you can, I would definitely encourage you to get in touch with a good reward-based trainer or (ideally!) a veterinary behaviorist to help make the best plan for your dog.

If you want to read more about classical conditioning and how it works for aggression and reactivity, ins-and-outs of using a clicker or other type of marker training for reactivity issues, or more detailed suggestions for specific situations, I’ve listed a few really excellent resources below.  These are by no means the only books on the subject, but in my humble opinion, they are some of the best available.  All of them are full of great, scientifically sound information and are written by highly accomplished trainers (or PhD behaviorists, in the case of Patricia McConnell and Karen London) in the field of aggression and reactivity.

**Links provided are Amazon affiliate links.  These books can also be purchased from many other online retailers including Dogwise, Clean Run, or even brick-and-mortar bookstores, if you prefer.  Happy reading! :)**

Feisty Fido: Help for the Leash-Reactive Dog, by Patricia McConnell, PhD and Karen London, PhD

Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog (Karen Pryor Clicker Book), by Emma Parsons

Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out: Training the Crazy Dog from Over the Top to Under Control, by Laura VanArendonk Baugh

Control Unleashed: Creating a Focused and Confident Dog, by Leslie McDevitt


3 thoughts on “From Crazy To Calm: A Training Plan For Leash Reactivity

  1. Thank you so much for this article. As a veterinarian I am always looking for ways a to improve my dog’s mental and physical health. He is very excitable around other dogs on leash. I am going to try the clicker. We have tried other techniques with our local veterinary behaviorist. Consistency has been an issue so I think the clicker will help that. I always worry though that if we are on a walk and have to get home and cannot avoid the stimulus that we are setting ourselves back. For example, we are two blocks from home, I am out of treats and a dog is coming our way. Do we try to distract our dog or just go on by and hope we don’t have a major set back. Also what are your thoughts on dog parks? In working with a previous veterinary behaviorist we know our dog is dog reactive and mainly out of excitement. Will going the dog parks worsen his excitement when he is on a leash because he thinks all dogs want to play? Maybe these are too specific questions so if one of the books you recommend better answers them then just let me know. Thank you again for this information.

    1. These are great questions! The same general approach to training will work for dogs who are overly excited, like your boy, as well as dogs that are fearful or anxious – I’m actually going to do a follow-up piece on that soon, since several people have asked about excitable dogs and it’s definitely worth discussing. I make a few minor tweaks in the plan for these dogs vs. fearful dogs, but the overall goal is very much the same 🙂

      If you’re on your way home and out of treats, then yes – at that point, I would do whatever you can to avoid the problem. You can duck into a yard or side street if possible and keep your dog busy doing something else while the other dog passes, or quickly turn around and take a different route. You’re right that anytime you encounter a dog on a walk and don’t hold up your end of the bargain by clicking and rewarding, this is a training set-back – so we want to do everything we can to avoid this! If it’s happening regularly, you may need to adjust how many treats you’re bringing with you, or shorten your walk if you start to run low.

      Generally speaking, I think that healthy play with other dogs can be very good for excitable greeters like your boy – it helps to remove some of the novelty from the situation when they do catch sight of another dog, and also burns off energy and teaches good social skills. **Healthy** play is the key word here, though… inappropriate, rough, or overly one-sided play can make things worse. Dog parks are always iffy for me, since you don’t have any control over who else may be there or what might happen, but can be a good option for some dogs if you have one that you like in your area. Regular playdates with other dogs that you know are a good match for your boy are a great option as well.

      Dogs are very good at differentiating different contexts, so I wouldn’t be overly concerned that this will negatively impact his leash manners. But I would make sure that you stick to your criteria when approaching the dog park (or doggy friends in preparation for play) by making sure that he is calm and responsive on-leash all the way up to the gate – if he loses his mind, back up and try again, very slowly. Just like Louie with Clint in the last video – no making a crazy beeline for his buddies! Instead, nice and slow, click and treat each time for looking, gradually moving closer as long as he’s successful.

    2. Forgot to add – as far as additional reading, both Control Unleashed and Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out go into a lot of detail on excitement-based reactivity like this, so either one would be a great option for your situation if you want to read more.

      There is also a great online class through the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy called Management For Reactive Dogs that just started on October 1st – you can still sign up as an auditor, or even in a working spot if you’re interested. It’s taught by PhD behaviorist Amy Cook, who is an awesome instructor as well as being very skilled and knowledgeable in this area. The class focuses a lot on strategies for situations like this – how to get out of a problem situation, methods for keeping your dog busy or distracted when needed, and simple skills you can teach to make daily life easier with a dog like this. Link is here, if you want to give it a look:

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