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Managing Leash Reactivity

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Do you have a dog that is reactive to other dogs during walks (growling, barking, or lunging)? Many owners struggle with this issue and need some immediate tools.

The first step to controlling leash reactivity is to manage your dog proactively. You do not want the dog to have a chance to practice the undesirable behavior. At the same time, work with a qualified positive-reinforcement trainer to develop a structured counter-conditioning and desensitization plan.

Start now!

What you'll need on walks:

  • Treat bag with high-value treats
  • 4 to 6-foot flat leash
  • Front-clip harness or head collar (if dog pulls)

When and where to walk:

  • At times of the day when, and in areas where, you won't encounter any (or as many) dogs.
  • Try late at night, early morning, less busy neighborhoods, empty parking lots, etc.
  • Individually (one dog, one walker) if you have more than one dog
  • After a game of fetch, tug, work-to-eat toy, or a fun training session so that your dog will have worked off some anxious energy

How to walk:

  • Remember leash mechanics—hold your leash hand at your core for safety and control
  • Look out! Watch for and notice any approaching dogs before your dog can spot them.
  • Increase the distance if you see a dog. Here are some options:
    • Turn and go (u-turns): Quickly call to your dog in an upbeat voice, turn the other way, and increase the distance from the other dog.
    • Find-It!: Play a rapid-fire game of "find-it" by tossing treats continuously in a direction away from the other dog as you walk away. Use your upbeat voice to block sounds from the other dog like a collar jingling or the owner's footsteps.
    • Touch!: If your dog knows "Touch!" by targeting your hand, you can ask him for a few touches as you walk away. This helps him refocus on an obvious target and engage in a fun easy behavior.
    • Use barriers if you can't add distance: If you can't add any more distance away from the dog, use cars, bushes, walls, or your body as a barrier to decrease visual access to the other dog. Use your upbeat voice to block out triggering sounds and play "Find-It!" as you wait behind the barrier for the other dog to pass.

KPA Training Tips of the Day are brought to you by Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partners. You can find more articles, ideas, and inspiration to help you train better and enjoy a lifelong bond with your dog on our website.

About the author

Alice Tong, KPA CTP, LCSW, provides private training services through her business Choose Positive Dog Training and teaches group classes through the East Bay SPCA. A licensed clinical social worker, Alice is skilled at reading and assisting humans and dogs of all personalities. Her focus is always on positive methods, respectful communication, and high-quality service.