“When I see a dog, I tell my dog to sit, and we wait for the dog to walk by.”
“When I see a dog, I turn in the opposite direction to avoid any conflict.”
“When I see a dog, I start feeding my dog their favorite treats to distract them.”
These are common answers that we get when we ask people how they are trying to manage reactivity, aggression, or even overexcitement. While these may seem like good strategies to manage the issue, it is ineffective and can even make the problem worse. To understand why this is a problematic solution, we have to look at why a dog would react strongly to a trigger.
Some dogs are very social and will be interested in people and dogs that they see on walks. This can build into behaviors like pulling on the leash, lunging out at someone, or barking and whining. These behaviors are symptoms of a dog being frustrated that they cannot get to the object of their interest. Having them sit off to the side only builds their frustration and does not address the issue’s root.
A better strategy is to start with giving these dogs an outlet for their mental and physical energy. This could be a mutual game of retrieve, obedience training, or other productive activities. Your dog also needs to find you more interesting and fun than the other things in his environment. When he does see a trigger out in the real world, you need to remind him of his job on walks (heeling) and put his mind on something other than the distractions around him.
Reactivity is often an escalation of the overexcitement issue and is displayed as a seemingly aggressive response. This is typically the case when a dog is very social off-leash but acts aggressively when she is on a leash and sees a trigger. The “sit and wait” strategy fails here for the same reason that it does for dogs with simple overexcitement. Also, we never recommend that dogs meet on the leash, but that is especially true for dogs that show this type of behavior. Restraint and confinement build frustration and can prevent dogs from showing their natural body language.
Reactivity can also stem from insecurity and nervousness. Many puppies start relatively social but are easily overwhelmed by bigger dogs or people they see as intimidating. These puppies will give off signals and signs that they are uncomfortable, but these usually go unnoticed because they are subtle. When the dog’s warning signals are ignored, she will start to try harder and harder to get her point across. She might start by just woofing at something or by letting out a growl. The trigger moves away, either because it was intimidated or just because the person or dog continued on their walk. Either way, the dog sees that their actions made a perceived threat go away.
This behavior is continually reinforced, and the dog has learned that looking aggressive will make people or dogs leave her alone. Now her default has changed from a more passive response to one that is potentially dangerous. Having this type of dog sit off to the side of the path and wait for something to walk by makes her a sitting duck. You are taking away her escape route and making her have to deal with something scary walking up to her. It also isolates things that are really not a big deal in real life. If your dog is reactive toward other dogs, and you walk past every person the same but make your dog wait when a dog walks by, you are making the dog different. Heeling your dog past everything the same way, with slack in your leash and confident handling, will instill confidence in your dog. She can trust that you are in charge of the situation and that she has nothing to worry about.
This group of dogs are less common but are an awful fit for this strategy. These dogs have the intent to harm or kill another being seriously and do not want to co-exist. These dogs need lots of structure to safely be out in public, which comes in the form of reliable obedience, and frequently also includes the use of a muzzle. Having these dogs sit and wait for something to walk by allows them to focus on the trigger and can lead to an even worse obsession. These dogs need to learn how to walk on by and ignore the things they do not like and heel with you even if something they would normally react to is in their range of vision.
A Final Note
Dogs are masters at reading body language, both in other dogs and in people. People with the best intentions will frequently handle their dogs in a way that causes behavior problems to worsen. Holding your dog back on a leash when a trigger or threat walks by conveys tension, and most people are nervous or irritated in these situations. Having confidence in your handling and your dog’s obedience will make a huge difference for you, and your calm handling will help improve the animal’s reaction on the other end of the leash.
If you are struggling with a dog who gets overstimulated or leash reactive, contact us to help you get your dog through this prevalent issue.