Leash Reactivity : Part 2 - Management and Behavior Change
with Melissa Dallier of ACanineAffinity, Training Advocate

In Part one of this post we discussed the what & why of leash reactivity. Identifying if your dog is feeling excited and frustrated or afraid is important. Also learning how to prevent the behavior is key. First and foremost we create distance. This is the most important step in the behavior modification and management program. Distance from the other dog/person/skateboard etc. will allow you to more easily manage your dogs behavior.


Once you've figured out how much distance your dog needs, ie how far away your dog needs to be from the trigger he is likely to react to, the behavior modification process can begin.


But first let's talk about some behaviors you may want to teach first. Trying to teach a dog a new behavior while he is aroused or frightened is often not successful. So we want to lay the groundwork and teach a few behaviors in the home before we try to help our dogs out of the house.


Eye Contact/Attention:

Teaching your dog that it is extremely valuable to pay attention to you and look at you is one of the most valuable behaviors your dog can know, whether they are reactive or not. This is an "alternative" or "incompatible" behavior to a reactive behavior. If your dog is looking at you, they are not looking at the potential trigger for reactivity.


For this you will need your dog, some yummy treats and a clicker or marker word that your dog already knows.


Teaching the behavior:


·       Begin with your dog standing in front of you.  Taking one small treat and showing it to your dog, then move the treat up to your face, right between your eyes to encourage your dog to look around the general area of your face, once they do“mark/click” and reward. 


·       Repeat this 10-15 times, with the reward in your hand, luring your dogs attention to your face. 


·       Repeat this process moving the food to the side of your head away from your face, encouraging your dog to look away from the treat and at your face/eyes by making a quick noise (kissy noise, tongue click etc) as soon as the dog looks at you mark/click and reward. 


·       Remember that just because your dog looks at you a couple of times, doesn’t mean they yet understand, they are just following your lead! Repetition is the key to success!


·       Whenever your dog actually looks you in the EYES, give them a jackpot of treats by feeding several treats in a row, this will help them understand that they got it right! 


·       After a few short training sessions, try to “phase out the lure”.  This means, you no longer need to have a treat in your hand to have your dog look at you. To do this, place your finger up to your nose like the treat is here, if your dog looks at you, immediately mark/click, and still reward and repeat. If your dog is still looking for the treat, you may have moved too fast so repeat a few more times with the treat in your hand. 


·      Once your dog is clearly “getting it” you can add in a “cue” word like “watch/look” so that you can ask for eye contact when you want/need it.  To do this, warm her up like you normally would with a few repetitions. Then a second before she looks at you (this should be a pattern by now) you say “watch/look” when she looks up, immediately mark, treat and repeat! 


Practice this in different locations around the house, and on walks while there is nothing exciting or scary around until your dog is reliably performing the behavior.


Putting it into practice with reactivity


Using eye contact/attention as an alternative to reactivity can be a wonderful option. If a potential trigger for reactive behavior appears, and is at a distance that your dog can handle, you can ask for the alternative of "watch/look" to pass by the situation and prevent a reaction from your dog. This is a good management strategy and also can teach your dog that looking at you when a scary or exciting stimuli appears is a good thing.


The U - Turn


Teaching the U-Turn is one of my favorite management techniques for reactive behavior. This simple, yet effective technique helps your dog turn around on a dime and avoid a potentially explosive situation. If taught well, most find this behavior super fun and exciting as well.


A "U-Turn" is a great tool to have in your training repertoire. A U-Turn is exactly what it sounds like: 


  • You and your dog are walking forward, and on your cue and with a food lure at your dogs nose, you both instantly turn 180 degrees and move in the opposite direction, where he earns a tasty reward.


  • **But remember you want to try to keep moving as you are rewarding him, as stopping can cause him to look back at the very thing you are trying to move away from!  Your dog turns because he knows your cue (U-Turn OR TURN) means: "Quick! We're going to play the turn-around-really-fast-and-go-the-other-way game!" 


**Important**Your dog doesn't turn because he hits the end of the leash. That would increase the tension and could elicit the very behavior you're trying to avoid. He turns because he knows the game, hears the cue and almost without thinking, wheels away from trouble. 


The action itself is simple, but it needs to be mastered to be truly useful. A U-Turn is a behavior that is incompatible with your dog barking, lunging or stiffening. A U-Turn differs from a Watch/Look cue in that you use it when you know your dog will be too aroused to perform a Watch or has already barked or lunged at another dog. The goal of a U-Turn is to get you out of sticky situations, and if you and your dog master both the Watch/Look and the U-Turn, you'll be able to handle most of the situations that life can throw at you. 


Remember to practice in low distraction settings first, then move to areas where your dog will have a more difficult time focusing, but make the rewards even better, then practice on actual walks BUT when there is nothing scary in the dogs environment. If you only use this when your dog sees a trigger, then the behavior will predict a scary thing rather than a fun, rewarding thing! Once your dog is responding to the U-Turn cue without hesitation, its a wonderful management strategy. You see a dog, its coming towards you, you say U-TURN in a happy voice and your dog quickly turns around and looks at you for a yummy treat rather than barking and lunging! Its a win-win.


Gradual Desensitization/Counter Conditioning


This is the bread and butter of helping a reactive dog. This is the process if pairing the trigger for reactive behavior with a positive reinforcer to change the dogs emotional state when in the presence of the trigger. In order for this to be successful, your dog must be in the presence of the trigger but not reacting. This is where discovering the distance that your dog needs is essential. Once you know how far your dog needs to be from another dog/person/skateboard etc you can begin to reward your dog each time he is safely at that distance and looking at the trigger without reacting. This will pair the trigger with a positive consequence, and in time the dog will learn that: Seeing a Dog = Cheese (for example). However if your dog is reacting, you need to move farther away or stop. The goal is calm behavior in the presence of the trigger with a high rate of rewards.


Management really is key however, as you want to avoid as many reactive incidents as possible during the training process. As you manage and work to desensitize, you will see the distance decreasing and your dog's behavior changing, gradually! Patience is key.


This journey rarely travels in an upward line. Some days will be easier than others and some days your dog will react more strongly and at a greater distance. Don't give up and remember, if you need professional help, don't be afraid to hire a positive, force free trainer.


Good luck!