Leash Reactivity: Putting it All Together!
Updated: Dec 21, 2022
Once your dog can respond to their cues like "123" and "come" on walks without distractions around, they're ready to start using them around their triggers.
The Basic Plan
Every time you encounter a trigger, you'll do the following. (This might be other dogs, people, bikes, kids, etc. For this example, we'll use dogs!)
Tell your dog about it! You'll be using one of these two options:
1. Start your "Look at that" game by cueing your dog to look at the trigger and start playing.
2. Say "There's a doggie", or any phrase that you prefer. (Only say it once when you first see the dog.)
Allow your dog to see the trigger. As long as they can calmly watch, you're at a good distance! It's important for your dog to see the trigger in order for this to work. Ideally, they start to "be a dog" again pretty quickly and look at other things, sniff around, or choose to continue walking.
Any time your dog can't play one of their games or starts to react to their trigger, they need help! This is done through DISTANCE or DISTRACTION. Here are a few ways you can do it:
Use "come"/"here" and see if that space helps them feel better.
Walk away from the trigger if possible or move behind a car, garbage can, or other visual barrier to minimize their reaction.
Toss treats on the ground for your dog to sniff for and eat! ("Snack!")
The best method to use is the one that reduces or stops your dog's reaction.
Top Tips for Success
Most of your dog's time around their triggers should be spent in the “sweet spot”. The sweet spot is the distance where your dog notices the trigger, but is able to watch it calmly or even disengage and do other dog things. It should feel easy-breezy at this spot :)
If your dog has a hard/stressful encounter, their cortisol levels (and therefore tendency to react to any more triggers) will be elevated for a few days. You can use shorter walks and avoidance of other dogs when this happens to help them do their best.
Avoid doing anything you’re not comfortable with. Trust your gut! :)
When you just don't feel like training, it's a-okay to exercise your dog in the yard or at a location where you are unlikely to run into the thing they react to.
You can help them feel better about dogs (or people, or kids, or bikes, etc.) by using “hanging out” around them at a distance, as a stepping stone.
Dogs move a lot! A walk can be a high-stimulation, high-pressure situation for many dogs. Adding in opportunities to be around other dogs that are still or that aren’t on a proper walk can be really beneficial.
To do this, you can borrow a friend/neighbor and their dog, or you can camp out around a park path where your dog's triggers are present. The idea is to be far enough away that your dog can see the other people/dogs, but they’re not coming towards you, and your dog isn't reacting. You can even hang out near the car so you can enter it as needed.
How Much Practice Do We Need?
Keep it short and sweet, especially at first! Just a few seconds or a minute of practice that goes well is fabulous! Gradually build up the time your dog can cope over time.
Most dogs need a "Goldilocks" amount of exposure to your target stimulus: Too little and they will have a hard time making progress, too much and they can be overwhelmed. For most dogs, having a few exposures a week is great. (If it's not practical to get enough exposure, you may want to come up with a management plan instead! Let your trainer know and we will help you figure out what a good plan is.)
Progress is gradual, but should be very noticeable! Over time, you should notice that your dog is more comfortable closer and closer to the dog (or other stimulus!). Progress won't be better and better every day (we all have our bad days!), but you should see an obvious upward trend!
Most dogs take several months to reach their full potential! Even after your program ends, you'll likely still be working toward this. The difference is you'll have the confidence and tools to finish up!
Most dogs will need lifelong management to help them stay at their best. This means they may still need treats and/or exits on occasion. Every dog is different.
If your dog isn’t making the progress you would expect, let us know! There are more ways to help them be successful!