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Feisty Fido? Tips for Managing Leash Reactivity

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I love to hear about people and dogs unleashing adventures and harnessing fun together. But sadly, sometimes, dogs and people who love them aren’t able to enjoy a basic activity, like walking together, due to leash reactivity. 

We’ve all seen (or maybe even experienced) that pup who appears upset, barking, and lunging at the end of the leash, triggered by the sight of a person, dog or vehicle. These dogs – and their humans – are experiencing a real struggle in that moment. The frustration for the dog and embarrassment for the person not only increases stress on walks for both of them, but even worse, can strain the bond between pet and guardian.

Since I am on a mission to empower dogs and humans to have a deeper, more connected relationship, I want to offer some tips for successful, happy, enjoyable walks – even if your Fido can be a little feisty at times:

2 dogs walking on leash with owners

#1: Safety and Comfort are Essential.

One reason many dog lovers choose a harness over a collar for attaching the leash on walks is to protect the sensitive and vital structures of a dog’s neck from injury. Say, your dog reacts – to anything on a walk- by lunging. A dog in a neck collar is going to increase the pressure on these delicate structures, causing pain and discomfort. Now, the already tense situation just got worse.

And each time this cycle repeats, what may have started as a dog’s excitement and curiosity becomes more and more uncomfortable and negative for him. And, no surprise, the reactivity worsens. So, a comfortable well-fitting harness is an important part of setting you and your dog up for a more stress-free walking experience.

In fact, there is a growing understanding that pain and discomfort interfere with the training and management of pets. Positive reinforcement is safer, kinder and more effective. Which brings us to Tip #2.

#2: Use Food to Train — and Change the Perception.

You can use fun, rewarding training exercises to create wonderful associations with anything – even other dogs. For instance, you and your pup can play a game where the presence of another dog indicates to your dog that treats and happy attention will be flowing freely. However, when the other dog disappears, the flow of treats and all the fun stop. 

Be proactive and start practicing (playing) inside your home initially, with your dog on leash in front of a window, open door, or in the yard while waiting for other dogs to walk by. With association games like this, you are changing dogs’ perceptions of how they feel towards certain triggers.

To be clear, you are not rewarding the barking and lunging behavior. You are helping to change your dog’s emotional state from “I’m upset and frustrated” to “Wow! This is awesome!” You’ll know your dog ‘gets it’ when he looks at a passing dog, then looks at you for his treat! He is associating all the triggers with fun and games, instead of frustration. 

The next step is to gradually begin to generalize this training to more real-life situations, like walking on a leash and harness outdoors. With patience and persistence, eventually, instead of you and your pup tensing at the sight of another dog, you’ll embrace the opportunity to practice your new skills together with confidence.

leash walking dog

#3: Find a Force-Free Professional.

However, even with the best gear and best of intentions, managing and training leash reactive dogs can be challenging. And while there are many resources out there, your best bet might be to contact a professional, humane, ethical dog trainer to help you and your pup get more enjoyment and connection out of your walks together.

Working with a certified professional, you’re likely to also cover other important life skills such as Loose Leash Walking, Recall, and Leave It – all great skills to have for your adventures out and about.

Here’s to unleashing adventures, harnessing fun… and turning those challenging times into easygoing walks in the park!


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