Just walking dogs on leash poses anguish for many people and dogs. It’s no wonder dogs suffer from leash reactivity. It doesn’t need to be this way.
We have domesticated dogs and they have adapted very well to us and our environment, however, we do things with dogs that may perhaps not be in their best interest and then we wonder why dogs have issues. In a perfect world, dogs would run free, get along for the most part because dogs are essentially and primarily non-violent peace keepers and awesome communicators. When things go awry, we must look towards the human part of the dog-human relationship to see how much of dogs’ so called ‘bad behavior’ is due to humans failing dogs.
When dogs are on leash, they are vulnerable. That is to say that if they are stressed; anxious or fearful and can’t respond in a way that’s instinctive and natural to them; that is fight or flight, they often communicate in ways that we find undesirable. Their behavior is their way of communication their feelings of anxiety and it’s up to us to help them. And for heaven sake, don’t punish stressful behavior. They need our help not correction and punishment.
Once we recognize this important piece about behavior, being expressed emotions, we can then take the necessary steps to help alleviate the anxiety to whatever the triggers are that are causing the dog to be stressed. Some triggers are; other dogs, skateboarders, cars going by, other animals, children and the list goes on.
The next and most important piece to understand is when we are trying to help our dogs leash reactivity we need to ask ourselves; ‘Who are we doing this for? Our dogs or ourselves?’ I say this because I am not fond of snakes. No, wait, that’s putting it mildly. I’m petrified of snakes. They don’t have tails, ears, eyes with which they express themselves easily enough for me to know how they’re feeling. If someone comes anywhere close to me, in a pet store, any store, or on the street, I’ll flee faster than a hummingbird can fly. That said, I have no desire to overcome this fear so if you made the suggestion to me that you could help me overcome my fear of snakes, I’d say very politely. NO THANKS!!!
Why then do we assume that if a dog suffers some anxiety for whatever reason, do we feel it’s necessary to ‘fix’ this problem. Is it in their best interest to ‘fix’ this problem or do we find other ways to help our dog that doesn’t include continuously exposing her to something that causes so much anxiety. I recently read a fantastic thesis by a colleague of mine, Andrew Hale that is probably the most important piece of writing to date dealing with anxiety in dogs and our approach to helping them. It’s a long, yet worthy read.
Let’s take Oscar; my now 6 yr old Labradoodle who I got as an emotionally broken 5 1/2 month old puppy. He was afraid of dogs, people, sounds; well, honestly…. life itself scared the bejeezus out of him. I’ve done a ton of work to properly socialize him as a pup and he’s come a long way. Along the way in working with Oscar, I have always taken his perspective into account, giving him choices to engage or disengage in the socialization process. Today, who he is, is a dog who doesn’t like to engage/play with other dogs. He loathes the dog park, (so do I by the way), but I often go for training purposes and only to parks I know will be mostly empty at certain times of day so that I can talk to doggie guardians before I socialize any dog I have in training… to see where the particular dog I’m working with is, on the dog to dog engagement spectrum. When I do take a pup in training or my other dog who loves to play with other dogs; Oscar stays home or in the car. If he doesn’t like it, why should I force him to go?
Therefore, in thinking about your leash reactive dog, you must consider whether or not the stress of walking your dog on leash, is worth it for the dog, not you. Is it in her best interest to try to ‘fix’ this problem? If it’s simply frustration to meet other dogs because of improper socialization during puppyhood, then by all means, go for it. Use these simple steps outlined in this infographic to help alleviate your dogs frustration/stress and walking her will be more fun than you could have ever imagined.
But and this is a big BUT. If your dog is severely stressed with anxiety from fear and or aggression, then it would behoove you to rethink your enrichment program for your dog. Long term stress may cause biological responses that can lead to illness over time, just like stress does in humans.
There are plenty of ways to offer a dog who’s stress level may be beyond ‘fixing’. They are scent work in your home, setting up a portable agility course in your yard or basement for those cold winter months, hide and seek, puzzle games, teaching tricks, find one or two friendly dogs to play with in your own back yards or just a quiet companion to lay around with. Notice in my backyard agility course, I’ve used a blue mounting block that I use to get up on my horses, a mini-trampoline (off to the right in this picture) that I use as the platform for a down/stay. The bench next to the mounting block is sturdy enough for my dogs to jump from the mounting block to the bench then off to the first square jump, to the platform (mini trampoline) onto the next octagon jump and of course the blue tunnel. I purchased the portable jumps, tunnel and weave poles which aren’t set up yet for a mere $200 and it comes w/ an agility training book. And what fun we’re all having! 101 Dog Tricks is a great book by Kyra Sundance and is available on Amazon. It’s not just tricks but training tips and helpful tasks that are fun to teach and an incredible way to deepen the bond between you and your dog while keeping your dog happy, not stressed.
If we want to do right by our dogs, we need to seriously evaluate what’s best for dogs from their perspective not ours.
About the author: Jill Breitner, is a professional dog trainer, award winning writer and dog body language expert loving and living her life on the west coast of the USA. She is the author of Dog Decoder, a smartphone app about dog body language recommended and used by veterinarians, shelters, trainers, educators and guardians worldwide. Jill has been teaching gentle handling/basic husbandry skills to clients and their dogs for 40 years, to be your pets advocate for a happier and stress free life. Join Jill on her Dog Decoder Facebook page