What is reactivity (and what is it not)
Reactivity, defined by the AKC, is overreacting to certain stimuli or situations. Genetics, lack of socialization, insufficient training to learn self-control, a frightening experience, or a combination of these can cause reactivity, and fear is typically the driving force. Read more from their article here. Reactive does not mean aggressive, however, it can escalate to that point.
Reactivity can look like the following:
Barking, growling, yelping
Snapping (even in non-aggressive dogs)
Lunging (leash-reactivity is very common, more below)
Redirecting (nipping it's handler, the leash, or another dog)
and other signs of anxiety.
In our house our reactive dog is Rey, our 16 month old Amstaff mix who is the friendliest little girl with zero signs of aggression, but has developed leash-reactivity towards other dogs. She first started showing signs late spring of 2020, barking at a dog who had first barked at her (another reactive dog). This progressed to not being able to have a dog in her eye sight without her losing her mind. Off-leash visits she is super friendly and very playful but still a little pushy and rude so we are avoiding encounters with strange dogs as we work on her social skills (another blog perhaps)
Leash reactivity is unfortunately a very common behaviour in dogs that many owner's are trying to work out (or are learning to live with the behaviour).
I understand the frustration with leash reactivity and how much easier it is to avoid high-traffic areas, turn around at the sight of a dog (miles away) or avoid a walk altogether. I have also spent years trying to work it out with Reese, who was also fear-aggressive, and now for the past few months trying to train Rey's leash reactivity.
While on a walk, the sight of a dog will cause Rey's ears to move forward, her hackles raise and she begins whining. As we come near the dog she would ignore any command from me, break her heel and begin pulling/lunging toward the other dog while barking (or shrieking more like...). As we finally pass the dog she would continuously look back and for the remainder of the walk be on high-alert.
I'm still uncertain if her reactivity becomes worse when we have Riley, our Golden boy, with us. She seems to be a bit protective if the dog approaches Riley but it's not always consistent; sometimes she behaves worse and sometimes she does very well (now with our increased training).
Causes of Leash Reactivity
Where Rey's leash reactivity comes from I am also uncertain but my guess is frustration, it may have began as a learned behaviour from our boy Reese as well. We limited their walks together but she had seen him react once or twice and she may have felt his frustration (and mine) and thus hers began. [I am most definitely not a behaviourist and this could be so very incorrect].
I was very eager, since Rey was a pup, at teaching her heel and I may have done things wrong creating the frustration for her as well, I now admit to myself. Despite her pulling and apparent unawareness for what I was asking from her, I would keep her close to myself 'in a heel' until she learned how to walk on a loose leash. Her heel is now fantastic, which is cool, but did I teach her to be frustrated on the leash? I can't beat myself up for it now, just move forward.
Leash reactivity can also be the result of fear. Dogs go through fear stages as they grow and it's so important to introduce them to people, dogs, children and life (In an appropriate and responsible manner) so that they develop good social skills and confidence. Reese, before coming home with me, was abused by his male owner and he also lacked socialization. Because of this he would react to both men and dogs on our walks and even through the window of our house. Reese lacked confidence that we worked very hard to build in our two years together. Confidence in himself and trust in me as his handler.
Another cause could be aggression - not rooted in fear or insecurity. Aggression in cases like Reese was fear based/ out of insecurity. Either case is scary for all parties involved (handler, the dog and anyone else) and would require professional help.
Working with Leash Reactivity
With Rey's reactivity I would try to get her focus on me using treats and praise. I would wait for the behaviour to stop and reward. However, she would grab the treat from me in a hurry and just go back to reacting. We were crossing the street to avoid close encounters with other dogs, or jumping into the woods on trails, and for the most part putting up with her reacting until the dog was out of sight.
A few weeks ago we began training with Mango Dogs and in one session we were already making incredible progress.
Dogs give us signs (body language) and we have to be aware of them. Reactive dogs are likely scanning for their trigger, always overly aware of their surroundings. At this point redirect your dog; ask them to look at you and offer a reward! When Rey sees a dog her eyes lock in and her ears move forward, and I call her again. The goal is to get Rey to ignore the dog approaching and maintain her focus on me. I will throw her a treat or allow her to sniff.
Rey maintains her heel for the majority of our walk, however, while she struggles with it in the presence of other dogs I give her a 'free' but only to sniff the grass. I don't allow her to pull and I redirect her if she is staring the dog down. I am trying to get her to make the right decision. Once she has improved tremendously we will go back to heeling as we pass dogs. (This is a personal preference and what is working for us)
The goal is to catch the reactivity at the lowest degree (or better - before it occurs), not to wait until it has exploded. Our walk for me is completely focused on Rey, her behaviour and body language. I pack on the treats and I'm completely aware of my surroundings at all times.
I don't want to give Rey the opportunity to react and I need to advocate for her so that I don't put her in a position where she feels overwhelmed. I want her to trust me and look to me for guidance every time.
At this point Rey does better with greater distance between her and the other dog. It is beyond her threshold to pass a dog on the trail and I refuse to set her up for failure. If we go on the trail I still jump in the woods when we pass another dog, but I keep moving. I don't ask Rey to sit there and uncomfortably watch the dog, I either keep her in a heel and walk through the woods or give her a free to sniff (but never stare at the dog). When we walk on the street we get off the sidewalk when it is safe to do so.
All of our dogs are ecollar trained but I was uncertain how to use the ecollar with Rey's reactivity, concerned with escalating the situation. Mango Dogs gave me better instruction on how to use it to communicate with Rey while working on the steps above.
For Reese the ecollar saved us thanks to our training at UPK9. Prior to our ecollar training when Reese was reacting he would refuse to focus on me and ignore all commands and I had zero control over him. By using the ecollar it allowed me to communicate with him in a way that he understood. I was in no way punishing him for his behaviour. Our trainer explained it as a 'poke' to say "hey, I'm talking to you". I was in full control over the level of stim that I used and when he would have otherwise been completely ignoring me and losing his mind over the dog/man he would stop and look at me and I was able to give him direction. This truly helped our relationship and he began to trust me and know that I would take care of him.
We are still working through this - and this is what has been helping us. Seek out a trainer if you are struggling. There is no one-size-fits-all for dog training and your dog is just as frustrated as you.
Stay strong and keep trying. Most of all - advocate for your dog. Do what is best for the two of you at all times.