Leash reactivity, leash aggression, barrier frustration, dog reactive, dog selective…these are all terms used to describe basically the same problem. And it is a problem that is so widespread that I rarely leave my house without witnessing this behavior. In fact, my very own dog exhibits this behavior in certain situations. 90% of my clients have dogs that engage in reactive behavior.

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Above:  Dogs Reacting

I know that these behaviors aren’t new, but they are becoming more and more common and it is time to work towards preventing reactivity rather than  only doing damage control to fix reactivity.

Almost every dog owner I work with has a desire of either bringing the dog when they eat at an outdoor café, brining the dog to the beach or park, or taking the dog on a camping trip. We want our dogs to be integrated into our families and be part of the family activities. But, if that is the goal, we’ve got to put in the effort! It isn’t natural for dogs to be confined by a leash in a crowded place. That is a scary situation for them without the right training.

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Above:  Common expectations of the modern day dog

Modern dogs are either under or over stimulated most of the time. Mental, physical, and social stimulation is not evenly distributed over their day. They are alone in a quiet house and then walking on a busy street or unleashed at a crowded dog park.

60 or 70 years ago, dogs had the freedom to wander the neighborhood, visit with the children across the street, follow their owner on errands and so on. They were able to fulfill their mental, social, and physical needs independently. They could seek out the social interactions they needed in order to feel satisfied and they could avoid the situations they did not enjoy. Now, we control access to almost every experience our dogs have.

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Above: Historical dog, free to make choices

I think a big contributor to the problem of reactivity is the push to socialize your dog. Most dog owners now understand that in order to integrate their dog into their daily activities outside of the house, they need to do something. They need to socialize their dog. But, I think that sometimes more harm than good is done when attempting to socialize dogs.

I am not saying that socialization is a bad thing, but rather that it is usually done wrong! For most people “socialization” = “go to the dog park daily” or “meet lots of people and dogs”. This is not socialization. This misunderstanding of socialization results in repeated exposure to stressful situations that the dog is unable to avoid. What does a dog do when they can’t avoid a stressor? (Hint: What does any creature do?) They aggress. They fight when flight is not an option.

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Above:  Pushy and scared dogs meeting on leash,
two unhappy dogs meeting

Sometimes this aggression is a lunge, bark, or snarl of frustration. But sometimes it results in a snap, nip, or bite. Even the (only…) lunging, barking dog is causing damage though. He’s screaming at the other dog! He is teaching other dogs he encounters that some dogs behave this way seemingly out of the blue, despite the passing dog’s efforts to communicate “I mean no harm!”. Now the passing dog has learned that his communication was not effective. With repetition he will find another way to say “stay away, you are scaring me!”. It might look like aggression. And this is how reactivity and aggression spread throughout our communities.

To socialize correctly, we need to be more thoughtful about what our dogs encounter and how to handle that situation. The need for this comes from the intensity that has developed in our living situations. Because it is so easy for your dog to be overwhelmed, you have to break down every experience into smaller pieces. We need to make every new experience 100% enjoyable for the dog. We need to give our dogs the freedom to say “no, I don’t want to go to the dog park today” or “no, I don’t want to go to the dog park ever”. And we need to provide structure for social encounters so that we can develop dogs who are safe, confident, and happy.

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Above:  Good social interactions between dogs, positive experiences and happy dogs

How can we stop the reactivity epidemic?

  1. Smart, structured socialization.
  2. Teach impulse control.
  3. Teach leash manners.
  4. Prevent pushy greetings.
  5. Let your dog’s body language tell you when he’s nervous.
  6. Don’t assume every dog wants to meet your dog. Ask the dog’s owner then, ask the dog by observing his response to your dog.
  7. LEASH YOUR DOG, to prevent unwanted greetings.
  8. Interrupt inappropriate interactions by calling your dog or leading away gently, and rewarding the behavior of moving away.
  9. Don’t punish aggression or reactivity. It will make it worse.
  10. Get help right away from a qualified, positive dog trainer or behavior consultant if you notice any sign of reactivity or aggression in your dog. Don’t assume it will go away on it’s own. It won’t.