It’s a beautiful summer morning. You’re out on the sidewalk, leash and poop bags in hand, enjoying a peaceful stroll with your dog. It’s early, still cool and gray. Quiet. The very best time to be out, before the world around you is awake.
Your dog sniffs contentedly in the grass, finds a suitable place to pee. Birds chirp. A car passes, slow and lazy. You glance up and down the street, ever watchful. So far, so good.
You’ve nearly completed your loop of the neighborhood, allowing yourself to relax a bit. Making the turn for home. When suddenly – off to the side, not half a block away – you hear it.
The familiar creaking whine of a screen door opening.
A neighbor steps outside, oblivious, with her little dog on a leash beside her.
You tighten your grip instinctively, but it’s too late. Your dog has seen them too.
He hits the end of the leash like an explosion, barking and lunging with a terrifying ferocity that shocks you every time it happens. You call his name, tell him “no!” – jerking hard at his collar in a desperate attempt to make him listen, but it’s like you’re not even there. The neighbor looks on in startled disapproval as you struggle for control and finally drag him towards home, a snarling mass of fur and flying saliva fighting you every step of the way.
Another walk cut short, another day begun with frustration and tears. Once inside, you unclip the leash with shaking hands.
And the worst of it is, you’ll have to do it all again tomorrow.
If you’ve ever had a dog with leash reactivity issues, you don’t have to imagine this scene – you’ve lived it yourself, more times than you can count.
You know all too well what it’s like to take your walks early in the morning or late at night, choosing the most secluded route you can. You’ve felt the frustration and embarrassment of making constant apologies for your dog’s behavior, and watching your neighbors clutch their pets closer and give you a wide berth when they see you coming. Trips to the park or other public places are out of the question.
Perhaps you’ve watched other dogs on their walks, ambling along beside their owners, blissfully unconcerned with all the strange people and dogs around them. Calm and friendly, enjoying the day. Picture perfect. And perhaps you’ve wondered, with just a twinge of guilt… why can’t my dog be like that?
The million dollar question. Why, indeed?
As with so many things in behavior, there is no one simple answer that explains every case. One thing I can say for certain is that it’s an incredibly common problem – and perhaps there’s some comfort in that. Given the social stigma and embarrassment often associated with being the owner of “that dog,” it can be a relief to know that you’re not alone! In fact, it might surprise you to know that leash reactivity is by far the most frequent training issue that I am asked to help with.
And really, in many ways, that’s the crux of the problem.
The truth is, leash reactivity isn’t really a training issue at all, like jumping on people or not coming when called – it’s an emotional problem. These dogs may have a variety of different underlying reasons for their reactivity issues, but when they are snarling and lunging at the end of the leash, they all have something in common – they are truly, genuinely upset. They are in a situation they don’t know how to cope with, and are doing the best they can.
Imagine being in a dark alley at night. You’re alone. Hypervigilant, aware of every sound. If you happen to see a menacing stranger approaching, chances are good that you’ll scream, run away, or try to fight. It’s also likely that if you were asked to recite multiplication tables at this particular moment, you would fail miserably – in fact, you might not even process the request.
How on earth can I do math right now, you think. Your heart is pounding in your ears. Your palms are sweaty. This is a life or death situation. I’m about to be attacked.
This is precisely how your reactive dog feels, every time you go for a walk.
It’s why he doesn’t listen when you tell him “no!”, or sternly command him to sit or heel, or anything else you may have tried. He’s not ignoring you – he’s quite literally not capable of doing what you ask. You can’t calculate 3 x 4 with a potential serial killer bearing down on you, even though I’m sure you know the answer. And your dog can’t heel beside you while he’s barking hysterically at your neighbor, no matter how well-trained he is.
Knowing the answer is not the issue. In order to follow instructions or recall simple things that we have learned, we first have to feel safe.
Not surprisingly, our dogs are no different.
For most of the reactive dogs that I work with, the world is a scary place. Some are genuinely alarmed by every unfamiliar sight or sound they may encounter – everything from strange people, to umbrellas or flapping garden flags, to a box of recyclables on the curb that wasn’t there the day before. Others have very specific triggers – they may react only to other dogs, or bearded men, or running children. But all of them have decided (quite reasonably, from their perspective) that the best defense is a good offense.
And if you’re a dog, a good offense looks like this: barking, lunging, and snarling like a vicious wild animal, doing your very best to convince your adversary that you are much too big and scary to tangle with. Even if the thing you’re afraid of is just an empty grocery bag blowing across the parking lot, the emotions underlying this impressive threat display are very real.
All right, you might say. That’s all well and good. But why is my dog so afraid? What’s so scary about an unfamiliar person smoking a cigarette, or another dog on a walk with its owner, or an unattended bicycle leaning against a fence?
These things may be scary to your dog for a variety of reasons – all perfectly legitimate, from his point of view.
Remember that your dog’s perception of the world is a product of his past experiences (good, bad, or indifferent) as well as his genetic make-up. In an earlier post, I wrote about a German shepherd named Heidi who was severely reactive to other dogs – in her case, the onset of her aggression could be traced back to a rather dramatic negative experience with a neighbor’s dog when she was young. Other possible causes – less flashy, but just as important – may include a lack of adequate socialization as a puppy, or a genetic predisposition to fearfulness and reactivity.
Parsing the possible underlying causes of fear issues like this in any given dog can be complicated, and is a fascinating topic in its own right – but sadly, beyond the scope of today’s post. Indeed, for rescue dogs with an unknown background or other dogs acquired as adults, we often have no idea of their history or what may have led them to develop their current issues. The good news is, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter – the end result is the same, and so is our general approach to treatment.
So – with this in mind, what can we do to help?
Lots of things, as it turns out! Leash reactivity is actually one of my very favorite behavior issues to work on, because treatment is usually a resounding success – most of the reactive dogs I’ve worked with have improved tremendously with a little time and effort, once a good training plan is in place.
I will go into much more detail on how we treat this problem in next week’s post, including a case study with videos and some specific suggestions you can implement yourself. So if you have a reactive dog, stay tuned! I hope that by the time you finish reading, you’ll have a much better idea of how you can improve life for both of you 🙂