Wild in the streets – managing reactive behaviour in dogs during outdoor walks

Summer is the season for outdoor living. After being trapped indoors by cold, rainy weather, for months, we emerge into the light to enjoy all that the sun and nature has to offer. And our dogs are probably more excited than we are to be getting back to exploring the world! There is nothing better than a summer walk with your favorite pup; nothing better, unless your dog is reactive to one of the things commonly encountered on a walk – other dogs.

Barking, lunging and growling, Oh my!

Dogs may bark, lunge and growl and be near impossible to control during walks, which can be difficult and embarrassing. No one wants to be the person with a wild, hysterical dog lunging at other dogs. The longer it goes on the harder it becomes, so management of the situation should be your first step through actions like the following:

  •  Adjust your schedule: Some people have had success with joining a night walking club or adjusting their daily walks schedule. You could try taking your dog for walks at times when hardly anyone else is out and about, or even go out between midnight and dawn. It may seem an extreme choice but if it fits your schedule then it can be a good first step before other management techniques.
  • Choose the right equipment: An Easy Walk Headcollar can be a great tool for reactive dogs. You can use the headcollar to direct your dog’s head, and therefore his gaze, away from other dogs and back to you. You may even want to consider double leads for an extremely reactive dog; leashes attached to both a headcollar and a harness provide more control and an extra degree of safety.
  • Keep your distance: Move as far away from the other dog as possible when passing on the path or street. You can also turn and head in another direction so your dog is no longer facing the other dog.
  • Consult a trainer: If you’re struggling to control your dog, then a professional trainer can help determine the cause and formulate a plan to best help them to learn new more appropriate behaviors, and advise you on how to support them.

Don’t label me

I don’t like to label dogs. We often assign labels to them which leads us to accept we can do nothing to help them. When I refer to a reactive dog, I am simply using the term to describe a dog who exhibits strong and negative behaviors to something in his environment. Specifically, I’m addressing those dogs that bark, lunge and growl at things that cause them stress, fear or anxiety or possibly just extreme excitement. They need our help, and the good news is we can help them.

Why does he act this way!

There are many reasons a dog may go crazy when encountering another dog. It may be that he’s super excited and wants to meet a new friend. Some dogs display extreme frustration when held back by a lead from the dog they want to approach. It could be fear or anxiety related. While each of these requires appropriate management, you and your dog trainer or veterinarian should consider the cause and formulate a management and training plan to help your dog.

Change their feelings

A first and very important step, after determining what triggers your dog to have such a strong reaction, will be changing his feelings about that trigger. This is when you will want to use classical conditioning. Associating something your dog likes with a dog or situation that triggers the wild response can change how they feel about it and so how they react accordingly. You need to use something your dog really loves and that trumps almost anything else. Some possibilities include the following:

  • Extra special treats – chicken, small amounts of meat etc.
  • A ball or toy and the opportunity to play
  • Tricks you have taught
  • A fun training session

The goal will be to provide one of these things your dog loves, preferably before your dog reacts, each and every time you anticipate an encounter with a dog. This will require you to be observant and keep distance between your dog and the dog he reacts toward. How much distance will depend on your dog. Staying far enough away so he doesn’t have a strong reaction is key. This is referred to as staying under threshold. By associating something really good when he has just noticed another dog, but before he reacts, you can change his emotional response.

Choice is powerful

You will need to keep your distance from other dogs and also provide for your dog to make some choices. Having the choice to move away from a dog that makes him anxious could make him feel better. It can be more powerful than the delicious treat you offer. So allow him to make that choice and if he does and moving away keeps him from reacting, then reward him with praise and /or treats for making a good choice.

Slow and steady progress

The progress you make in helping your dog may seem to come very slowly. When he is in a state of fear or excitement it can be difficult to learn. It’s the same for us when we are worked up – nothing gets in! That’s another reason keeping him under threshold is so important. You may be making good progress and then one day you come around the bend and practically run into another dog, before you know it your dog goes crazy and when you finally get away all you can think is all your work has been for nothing. Don’t fret, just keep helping your furry friend to learn and change and know that he would do the same for you.

A guest post by PetSafe® Certified Trainer & Behaviour Specialist Michelle Mullins.

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