If you’re anything like me the simple task of taking your dog out for a walk can be quite a challenge. Over the past couple years we’ve made a lot of progress following these steps. Sure – it’s not perfect – there’s always going to be unpredictable circumstances, but it’s made a huge difference.
Walking Your Reactive Dog
Walking your reactive dog isn’t generally a nice or relaxing experience, but there are ways to make it easier. Unfortunately for us reactive dog owners we’ve had to put so much effort into avoiding situations that might set our dogs off we become mentally tired before the walk even begins.
Reactive dogs are hard to control. When you get looks from strangers wondering “why can’t she control her dog?” it’s a pretty disheartening feeling. Trust me – we’re working on it. You need to be able to move past the fact that you’re going to get dirty looks.
People that have never owned a reactive dog can be clueless when it comes to the time and effort required to treat reactivity. It’ is embarrassing – but in order to make progress you’ve got to get out there and work on it. Ignore the dirty looks and remember you’re doing this for your dog – not for your neighbors approval.
Owning a reactive dog is a liability. If you’re not comfortable training with your dog I highly suggest seeking out a professional trainer that’s worked with reactive dogs. Trainers that use positive training techniques and desensitization methods can work wonders for reactive dogs.
It’s Going to Take Time and Commitment
The best piece of advice I can give when it comes to walking your reactive dog is to stick with it. Whether you only make it a block or 10 miles in a day doesn’t matter. If you have many bad experiences because you’re moving too fast for the dog you’ll end up back at the beginning.
Start out slow and find out which techniques work best for your dog. Once you’ve got a decent technique it’s then time to gradually increase their exposure. Desensitization is a long process; training your dog to walk without incident is something you build on.
Unfortunately there is no perfect formula or overnight trick to guarantee a great, uneventful walk for you and your reactive dog. There’s a few tricks and techniques you can try; they’ve all helped Laika to varying degrees.
Make The Threat A Positive Experience
Letting your dog know that good things happen when they get close to their trigger is what’s worked best for Laika. Remember that your dog is under stress when she’s being reactive, try and communicate to them that nothing bad is going to happen.
It’s accomplished easily with their favorite treat and your handy dog clicker. For Laika I make sure we have some carrots or snap peas on hand. I know I’ve gotten too close when she immediately spits them out and stays focused on the approaching person, dog, bike etc. When this happens we turn back around and go back to finding her comfort threshold. The threshold is the point at which she isn’t exhibiting any signs of stress. Don’t be afraid to overpraise; if your dog is remaining calm while in the sights of another dog feed her treats like crazy and praise often. I’d recommend watching this great video by Kikopup who demonstrates calming behaviors you can practice when walking with your reactive dog.
Repeat Until Your Dog Believes It
Your dog needs to believe that other dogs (or whatever they’re reactive towards) make great things happen. Some discomfort for your dog is going to lead to a lot of praise, play, treats, and affection. Whatever your dog is most motivated by.
Training your reactive dog while walking is by no means a quick and easy process. It sounds easy enough but being able to actually implement it enough times to see tangible results will take some time. Remember that patience is a virtue.
If you remain consistent with the constant praise, clicks, and treats while your dog is nearing their threshold you’ll eventually begin to see a difference in their emotional response. Their reactivity may not ever be completely gone but you can learn a lot about their specific boundaries by constantly practicing this technique.
This technique is closely related to choice training, which is another popular way to train yourreactive dog to walk on a leash. You praise your dog whenever they make the choice to remain calm and well behaved in the stressful situation. It relies on catching behaviors you like and praising them for the choices they’ve made.
Failures Will Happen
If your dog becomes overly aroused it means you pushed too far, too fast, simply back up a few more feet next time and start again. It takes a lot of time to desensitize a dog to their stressors, don’t become discouraged if it doesn’t work quickly. Failure is always going to be a part of training, but it also helps us learn to improvise. I failed yesterday when I decided Laika and I should go meet some horses. Lesson learned, my reactive dog doesn’t like horses.
Keep it Unpredictable To Keep Your Dogs Attention
Incorporate something unpredictable and fun into your walk. Change your pace, switch directions. Praise your dog as they follow your lead. This will help build their interest in what you’re doing rather then focusing on what may possibly lie ahead. If your dog doesn’t give you a lot of attention on your walks this is a great exercise to gain their interest and focus, it’ll also make your future training sessions easier.
Teach Your Dog To Target You
Teach your dog to touch or target you with a specific cue. For Laika I use the ever so original phrase “touch” as I put out my right hand. When I see something up ahead that I’d like to avoid I’ll start to walk backwards and say “touch.” Laika may not know why I’m suddenly walking backwards, but she gladly turns around and comes running back to me. And of course she’s rewarded handsomely. I can then decide how best to handle the upcoming dog while I’ve got her full attention.
Avoid What Cannot Be Won
If you ever find yourself unsure about a certain situation the easiest way to avert a problem is avoidance. It’s not really a training technique, it’s just a way to keep things under control when you’re not feeling confident about confronting the situation. Safety should always be on your mind when you’re walking a reactive dog; if you don’t feel like you can handle the situation it’s best to avoid it.
As soon as you see a potential trigger for your reactive dog you can choose to walk the other way. You can also use things such as parked cars or bushes to create a barrier between your dog and the trigger. You can also just sit and tell your dog to stay until the other dog has passed. Not all battles are worth fighting.
Ask A Friend For Help
I’d also suggest incorporating the help of a friend. If you’re not confident in your ability to maintain control while walking your reactive dog just having another person with you can do wonders for your ability to manage stressful situations. Sometimes the other person might even help keep your dog interested, especially if they’re also carrying treats.
Consult A Dog Behaviorist
Seeking out the help of a dog behaviorist is something I’ve done. When I first got Laika I had never had to deal with leash reactivity and resource guarding, so I got help from a dog behaviorist. It’s especially nice to have someone on your side who isn’t going to pass judgment on your dog. It didn’t cure Laika, but I learned so much and gained confidence in my own ability to manage my dog, it was certainly worth it.
Use a Dog Backpack or Harness
I recommend using a backpack or harness for any dog whether they’re reactive or not. If you’ve ever had problems getting your dog to walk calmly a good backpack or harness can work wonders.
When I use a backpack on my own reactive dog her focus changes. She’s not interested in the squirrel a mile away or all those crazy car noises. She becomes attentive to me and focuses on the job at hand – walking. The same goes for a proper harness. To keep your dog from pulling buy a harness that clips in the front; when you use a back clip harness it’s actually encouraging your dog to pull more.
It Gets Better With Practice and Consistency
It’s embarrassing and frustrating to walk a reactive dog, but it can get better. With dog training as with many other things you get what you put in, and one size doesn’t fit all. Not all techniques will work for you and your dog. Find the tricks that work best to keep your dog calm and relaxed on walks. With enough quality training you’ll find that you’ve got yourself a much closer bond with your dog and not to mention a more relaxed walking buddy.
Once you start to see improvements you’ll notice that you’re able to focus more on the walk, rather than the reactive dog at your side. Eventually you might even find yourself able to take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy the scenery.
Look at these non reactive, happy dogs/This Year’s Love
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