My Latest, Greatest, Slightly Unorthodox Approach to Leash Reactivity

Disclaimer: I am NOT recommending that anyone try the method I describe in this blog. In fact, please DON’T!

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know that I’ve been up to my hackles in reactivity issues. When we first got Bodhi, he would lunge and bark on leash like a madman at other dogs. Actually, he behaved like an adolescent dog who hadn’t had much socialization or training and was rescued from a shelter at a year of age, which is exactly what he was. Off leash, he was a bit reactive—hackles raised, some barking—but it was more of that insecure adolescent thing rather than aggression.

Then there’s Sierra. Off-leash, she’s got an obnoxious play style (hence my decision to stop allowing her to play with unfamiliar dogs), but she’s most definitely not aggressive. On leash, however, she gets frustrated if she’s not allowed to go up and greet the other dog, which sometimes results in a flurry of agitation. Complicating matters is her preternaturally strong prey drive. She will spy another dog way off in the distance and go into prey drive mode, upon which I could dangle sardines in her face and she wouldn’t notice. If Bodhi is unfortunate enough to be walking alongside her at the time, she will turn and snarl and snap at him repeatedly. It’s almost as though she’s guarding the dog at a distance from him. (She does guard things from him that are at a distance—but that’s another blog.)

Because Bodhi’s issue had been the more obvious one (actually, Sierra’s behavior hadn’t become troublesome until we got Bodhi), I’d been concentrating on classical conditioning with him on our walks around the park. Because my husband was in the habit of taking one dog hiking while I park-walked the other, this afforded me ample opportunity to work with Bodhi alone. After a few months, we got to the point where he could walk fairly calmly past other dogs at semi-close range. Well, it worked most of the time; some days we’d have to give the dogs a wider berth, but still, definite progress had been made. But it’s now the season where foxtails and rattlesnakes are everywhere, and hiking is out until the winter. Some days my husband goes hiking without the dogs, which is great for maintaining his health—but it also leaves me with both dogs together about half the time. And so Sierra, Bodhi and I have been walking around the park in the early mornings. Can you imagine how difficult it is to prevent reactive behavior when it’s triggered by your dog spotting something a mile away? Because of Sierra’s redirecting on Bodhi, which amps him up, too, his behavior had begun to backslide. This called for desperate measures.

In my blog entry “The Off-Leash Crowd: An Alternate Universe” I mentioned the group of owners who walk their dogs off-leash around the park in the early morning hours. These are nice folks whose dogs are fairly calm, and are non-reactive with other dogs. Two weeks ago, I got to the park early and parked in a lot that’s set way back from the street. As I hopped Bodhi out of the car, I spied the group coming toward us. Here’s the unorthodox part—I let Bodhi off the leash. Yeah, yeah, I know. But he has a decent recall, plus he’s pretty much a Velcro dog. I knew he wouldn’t take off. He ran a few steps toward the other dogs, all bluster and woofing as usual…and then realized he wasn’t on leash anymore. He turned back toward me, a big exclamation point over his head, and then turned back toward the dogs. He ran up to them and barked. The dogs were not impressed. When Bodhi got too close to Moe, the Vizsla, Moe showed Bodhi his teeth—good for him. Young whippersnappers need to learn manners! We walked along with the group for a short stretch, with Bodhi still barking and bristling here and there along the way.

In the last two weeks, we’ve walked with the group a few more times. Bodhi’s behavior quickly improved, as long as treats didn’t enter the picture. If someone went to give their dog treats, the dogs would crowd around them and Bodhi would try to nose his way in, which could have led to skirmishes. But we’re all careful about that now. Besides, my plan was not for Bodhi to keep walking off leash; I only wanted him to remain free long enough to get comfortable with the other dogs without the leash restraint complicating things. Once that happened, he went back on leash, which is how we spent the last few sessions walking with the group, and Bodhi’s been fine. Yesterday was the second time I brought Sierra along. Because I could allow Bodhi to go right up to the dogs, I was able to allow Sierra to do so as well, thereby avoiding her erupting in lunging and barking. I was able to walk them both calmly on leash next to the other dogs together. This is huge! Here’s a video. If you didn’t know how much work went into getting Bodhi and Sierra to that point, you’d think it was just a bunch of calm, friendly dogs out for a nice, pack walk.

My overall plan had been to use a sort of backchaining to address Bodhi’s behavior issue, with the goal behavior of encountering other dogs while on leash and remaining calm. If Bodhi walking with the dogs off-leash was Phase I and his walking on-leash with them was Phase II, today was Phase III: encountering the other dogs at a distance while he was on leash. Fortunately, we arrived at the park when the group was still winding their way toward us on the dirt track. Bodhi, Sierra and I started walking toward them. Both dogs were pulling, but there was no vocalizing. (I did bribe Bodhi with two treats along the way to help him maintain his composure.) We were able to join the group and keep walking along with them without incident.

Despite what’s shown on television, simply tossing a dog in with a well-behaved pack of dogs doesn’t translate to the dog behaving well on leash in real-life circumstances. My hope is that by using this unorthodox method to get Bodhi and Sierra walking with other dogs on leash, their behavior will generalize to behaving better around new dogs while on leash. I am continuing to use classical conditioning as well, and after we walked with the off-leash group today, Bodhi and Sierra were able to sit 25-50 yards away from two beagles they’d never met before—and they kept it together. Our plan now is to just keep putting one paw in front of the other and keep working on it.


7 Responses to My Latest, Greatest, Slightly Unorthodox Approach to Leash Reactivity

  1. Places and Pets says:

    Nicole, my rescue girl (now 2 1/2 yr. old) is a combination or your Bodi & Sierra. Her lunging has reduced down to a posture, pulling and much barking, but has taken a year to get there. After reading your books on Agressive and Fearful dogs, I was greatly helped in the understanding stage. She does not have a fenced yard, so anyone walking by is seen as a threat to Mom. So her protective side may be what comes out. But her gun-dog mix causes her to scan for anything moving, and she too growls at any dog way up ahead of us. So, I also read Control Unleashed, and trying the “look at that” (followed by treat) helped. But, my frustration, like yours is getting her to not react at all, and to behave without constant lures. At the dog park, she did fine unless a dog got near to me, then she would get between us and growl. She is totally different with my neighbors dog (very small sweet girl) and drags me over so they can play. It is great to know you live it, then search for solutions too, and then teach what works for you. Thanks for keeping all of us posted on your progress. Perhaps more time at a dog park will help my energetic girl to socialize better.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Places and Pets,

      Your rescue girl sounds challenging, but kudos to you for hanging in there with the behavior mod. It really can take a long time and be frustrating, but we (meaning me as well) have to remember that these dogs have had these problems for a while, so we can’t expect them to go away quickly. (Okay, do I feel better now? )

      I’d be wary of more socialization at the dog park, unless you go at a time where there are very few dogs and they’re ones you know, and you leave if you see an unfamiliar dog going to enter. Of course play dates are the safer option all around. Nice that she plays with your neighbor’s dog!

  2. Congratulations Nicole! Only someone with your depth of knowledge and experience could juggle two dogs with multiple and different issues. I genuinely enjoy reading about your continuing journey with Sierra and Bodhi. After my terrifying experience with my own dog at the Oregon Coast last week, I came out of denial about my Aussie’s prey drive. Planning on writing about predation recalls any time soon? 😉

    When I evaluate dogs for leash reactivity, I usually lump them into 3 categories: Woo Hoo’ers (love other dogs more than any food in the world), Fearful and Anxious Woo Hoo’ers (love other dogs but conflicted when on leash): Sometimes the fastest and easiest way to make progress with Woo Hoo’ers and Anxious Woo Hoo’ers is to let them have access to off leash dogs prior to working them on leash. Works like a charm (but I don’t know why).

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Christine,

      LOL I’m waiting for YOU to write up the one on predation recalls! Surely we must both be experts by now…oh wait, the only experts seem to have four paws and a tail. 😉

      I agree, sometimes allowing the dogs access can be a shortcut. You just really have to know what you’re doing (obviously you do, I’m referring to the general public and even trainers), or things can go seriously awry. I like your categories. I believe I am a Pizza Woo Hoo’er. 🙂

  3. Heather Trainor says:

    Very nice Nicole!

  4. I’ve done this exact same thing before and it really did help. I think that frustration build-up is even worse than the possibly outcome of being off leash, when you know it is leash frustration/reactivity. I would NEVER suggest doing this if a dog was truly dog aggressive. I’m glad to know I’m not alone on this! 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

  5. jltooks says:

    Wow, that’s do cool! This is sort of how I imagined abandonment training. I’ve never tried it; is it similar?

    I’ve added a new mutt to our home in the last year, a very anxious, extremely active girl that was coercively trained previous to coming to us. Wow, it’s amazed me how much she’s changed as she’s found her personality, and how the dynamic between the 2 dogs changes as she matures. I’ve enjoyed your blogs tremendously and have been comforted by your struggles, in the kindest way, of course! 😉 It’s reinforcing for me to be reminded that it takes TIME with these damaged pups, but it’s always worth it in the end, so, thanks!

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