• Liz MacHaffie

Leash Reactivity: Using 123 On Walks

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

Once your dog can play "123" on walks without dogs/people around, she's ready to start learning to associate this game with the thing she'd normally react to. (This might be other dogs, people, bikes, kids, etc. For this example, we'll use dogs!)

The Basic Plan

We're using this game to make seeing other dogs very predictable! Every time you encounter a dog you'll do the following:

  • Tell your dog about it! Say "Look at that", "There's a doggie", or any phrase that you prefer. Only say it once when you first see a dog.

  • Begin counting when your dog looks at the other dog. Even if she only glances, start counting with "one" as soon as she sees it. (Don't force her to look at it, just wait until it happens naturally.)

  • Give your dog a treat on 'three'. As long as she can calmly watch the other dog, you can continue to start counting each time she looks. Continue until the other dog is gone or your dog is ready to keep walking.

  • Stop playing once the other dog is out of sight.

Top Tips for Success

  • 123 should be done in your dog's “sweet spot” as often as possible. The sweet spot is the distance where your dog notices the other dog, 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 is staring intently for more than a few seconds, move away using “here” (if we decided together to use it) or walk her away from the situation, encouraging her with your voice as you move.

  • If your dog goes over threshold, use your exit strategy. Move away and out of the situation if possible.

  • Practice good timing. Try and start counting each time your dog looks at the other dog. Stop when the dog goes out of sight or she stops paying attention to it.

  • If your dog has a hard/stressful encounter, her cortisol levels (and therefore tendency to react to any more dogs) will be elevated for a few days. You can use shorter walks and avoidance of other dogs when this happens to help her do her 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 she reacts to.

  • You can help her 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 do 123 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 dog park. The idea is to be far enough away that she can see the other dogs, but they’re not coming towards her, and she’s not pulling/barking. 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!

The 123 Game was originally developed by Leslie McDevitt, and this is my own adaptation of one way to use it.

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