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Reining in Reactive Rovers

What does walking your beloved dog look like? Is it the image of a relaxed walk with a dog — a loose leash, the dog trotting alongside you without a care in the world, enjoying the smells and ignoring all people and other dogs who might cross their path? Or does your dog react to other dogs, people, or inanimate objects, leaving walks fraught with pulling, barking, growling, lunging, or more? If your walk looks and sounds more like the latter option, then you have a reactive dog who is going to need some special attention to help make walks more enjoyable for both you and your dog.

The first thing to think about to help Reactive Rovers is that they always need to feel safe and to know that their humans are not going to force them into situations in which they are not comfortable. It helps to think about establishing and protecting a “space bubble” around your dog. Nothing is allowed into this space unless the dog is happy about it. This is true for both indoor and outdoor situations such as greeting people at the door, getting too close to people or dogs in hallways or on the street, coping with joggers, strollers, toddlers, bicycles, scooters, etc.

When outside trying to avoid strangers, dogs, or other things that trigger your dog, be aware of where you can turn or what you can hide behind to avoid them. Whenever you or your dog see a trigger, immediately turn away from wherever you are headed, (or pick up your small pup) and increase the distance from the trigger immediately. Teaching your dog a cue that means to turn quickly and jog away from the scary thing is not only helpful, but fun for your dog as well. Dogs can’t be scared when they are joyfully running with you.

The right equipment on your dog can help with redirecting your dog’s attention away from the trigger. Properly fitted front clip harnesses are an excellent choice for walking a reactive dog. When the leash is attached on the front of the chest (as opposed to midway down the back or to a collar), it is much easier to steer the dog away from the distressing trigger and back toward his reassuring human. Choke chains and prong or shock collars are never appropriate choices as the pain they cause when the dog pulls will only cause the dog to be more fearful of the trigger as he associates the sight of the trigger with the pain.

Your dog needs to learn that you can recognize his subtle signs of anxiety and respond to them. Learn what body language your dog does before he resorts to barking and/or lunging or growling. Be proactive. If you see your dog stop and stare, tuck his tail under his belly, raise the fur on his back, yawn, lick heris lips, pin (or prick) his ears, and/or anything else that indicates stress, then don’t continue toward whatever he is worried about. This lets him know that you can recognize when he isn’t comfortable before he needs to bark and lunge to make the point and try to “scare away” the thing that is scaring him.

Teaching your dog to focus on you despite distractions is also very important. If your dog is focused on you, then he isn’t looking at something scary and barking at it. Your dog should know how to make and hold eye contact (the “watch” cue) with you. Remember that if your dog can’t focus on you when his is calm and relaxed, then he certainly will not be able to focus on you when he is worried about something in the environment. Dogs need lots of practice to be able to reliably focus on you and the skill needs to be built up through increasingly distracting situations.

Consider walking reactive dogs when and where there are likely to be fewer people and dogs outside. Walk them at odd times, take them to less trafficked areas such as empty parking lots or the like. Remember that it’s up to you to advocate for your dog and emphatically explain that your dog does not want other dogs or people to greet him. Ever.

Walking a reactive dog can be extremely challenging, but helping a scared dog learn to calmly accept his surroundings so you both can enjoy walks can be the most rewarding thing you do with and for your dog.

Lauren Flato, VMD, CPDT-KA, is a veterinarian and trainer serving Silicon Valley and the lower Peninsula. Flato owns Sit Stay Wag Dog Training (SitStayWag.com) and specializes in using positive reinforcement methods to train puppies and to help all dogs with aggression or separation anxiety issues and other behavioral concerns.

Main article photo by: Photo by Phil Hearing Flikr