On-Leash Reactivity often presents as barking and lunging at other dogs. Reactivity can develop both in dogs that are highly sociable or dogs that are fearful. When dogs that play well off leash display on-leash reactivity, they are commonly called Frustrated Greeters. Their motivation is to get closer to the other dog to say hello. They are thwarted by their leash and are having the dog equivalent of a temper tantrum. Other dogs practice reactive behavior because they are trying to increase the distance between themselves and the other dog, usually because they are afraid. This behavior has often developed a reinforcement history, meaning it worked to get the dog what they wanted. The dog has learned that reactivity makes dogs go away. Whether a dog is a frustrated greeter or exhibiting fearful behavior, reactivity responds well to behavior modification. The goal of behavior modification is to help a dog relax and make better choices in the presence of other dogs. We see a change in behavior because the emotion that originally motivated the behavior has changed.
Training needs to start where a dog is well under the point of frustration or panic. If your dog has spiraled into reactivity, this is not a moment for training, all you can do is try to recover by de-escalating the arousal. Sometimes this can be achieved by throwing a fistful of really savory food on the ground in front of your dog to interrupt them. Other times you might have to move your dog farther away to help them de-escalate. Having a clear understanding of how far away your dog needs to be from others and NOT react is key when starting a training plan. This is the place where training strategies should start to be applied. Oftentimes spaces in neighborhoods are too small: your dog needs to be 50 feet away from another dog to see and not react, but your streets are only 25 feet wide. This means every time you pass another dog, your dog is reacting. The environment is setting your dog up to fail. Such a dog would need to be walked at off peak hours to avoid other dogs, or driven to a location where they could be kept 50 feet away. We never want our dog to practice the behavior we are trying to change. Practice makes perfect, and we don’t want them to perfect the wrong behaviors. We want your dog to practice relaxation and attention on the handler, not barking and lunging.
As your dog repeatedly practices these skills at the 50 foot mark a new association with other dogs starts to form: I feel relaxed and enjoy paying attention to my handler. Once that is solidified at 50 feet, we can start to apply training strategies at 45 feet, or maybe 40 feet. We gradually and systematically reduce the distance at which we are training. The goal might be to work down to 25 feet so that passing by a dog in your neighborhood is No Big Deal. This is a slow process and for some dogs will take weeks, for others it will take months. But the good news is, at some point, you can enjoy walks in your neighborhood once again.