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On Lead doesn't have to mean Reactive


Thankfully, as I became more interested and involved in dog training, I started to read more about how dogs learn and discovered that there was an alternative to the nasty stuff I was being told to do to Wyatt. I had always wanted to use food in class, but had been accused of bribing my dog and “cheating”. It was such a relief to know that not everyone thought like this and that many people considered it completely appropriate to reward a dog with food. Finally, I had an option that didn’t involve either abusing my dog or just leaving him to his own devices and hoping for the best (which is essentially what I was doing on walks). Clicker training changed our lives dramatically and Wyatt eventually became my “remedial therapy” dog, because he was so good at communicating with other canines.


Despite the shift to positive reinforcement in much of the dog world today, which makes training so much easier and more user friendly (for dogs and owners) we are invariably left with some old attitudes and ideas which are resistant to extinction. One of them, which I think we need to address, is the idea that dogs are automatically difficult when on lead and it is therefore better to leave them loose and let them “sort it out” 99% of the time. What underlies this attitude seems to be an acceptance that on-leash reactivity is normal, so putting a dog on a lead causes trouble and the owner who does this is therefore the one causing the problem.


Now, before I go any further, I want to make a couple of things clear:


  1. I do not believe that dogs should be on lead all the time on walks – I believe that when it comes to SOCIALLY WELL-ADJUSTED, TRAINED DOGS, off lead is generally a better option for recreation, exercise and social interactions.

  2. I do not believe that people with SOCIALLY POORLY-ADJUSTED or highly reactive dogs have a right to walk in POPULAR AND BUSY OFF-LEASH dog walking areas and then get upset when any other dogs come anywhere near them. There are places that are simply not suited to dogs with social issues and it is not fair to spoil everyone else’s enjoyment (never mind the stress to your own dog), by expecting every other dog to be on lead all the time, because your dog has issues.


However, I also do not believe that a lead should by default turn a generally well-adjusted dog into a reactive and stressed dog. Yet, this seems to be what many people are afraid of and why they avoid leashing their dogs at all costs. It is this “leash phobia” (on the part of the humans) that I would like to address here.


On-leash reactivity is very real issue. Many dogs that do well with other dogs off lead cannot handle interactions or sometimes even the proximity or sight of another dog when on lead. There are reasons for this:


  1. Defensive aggression – dogs have three main options for coping with something they find stressful: flight (avoidance, moving or running away), fight (any display of aggression) or appeasement (flirt, fiddle about). When a dog is free, avoidance or appeasement is an easily available option. When a dog is on lead, these are not easily available options and so using aggression to try and make the threat move away, may seem like the only choice available.

  2. Frustration – frustration is the result of being denied an expected reward. Dogs that are used to being able to interact with every dog they come across, become frustrated when the reinforcement of social interaction is denied, because of the restraint of the lead. Frustration quickly escalates to anger, and anger can turn into rage (just ask any mom or dad who has tried to remove a toddler from the sweet aisle).

  3. Altering of normal body posture and signalling – if dogs are being forcibly restrained on lead, especially around their necks, this can alter their appearance to the other dog and create misunderstandings i.e. the dogs cannot signal or read each other correctly.


While these are all legitimate concerns and very real reasons why dogs may behave differently on lead, what we need to get away from is accepting that there is nothing we can do about it. Granted, there may not be any quick fixes once the problem has developed, but on leash reactivity can be managed better and the behaviour can be modified – most importantly though, we should be looking at how it can be prevented in young dogs.


Most puppies do not start off reactive on lead. In my experience, on-leash reactivity develops because of poor handling skills – things that we do subconsciously or things with long term effects that we are not aware of. It is not just owners who are guilty of this, but trainers and puppy class instructors as well – while I fully understand that clients do not always listen to instructions, I do not believe that there is enough awareness in dog training classes as to the effect that general handling of dogs in a group class situation can have on a dog’s perception and expectation of what happens when they are around other dogs on a lead. The main factors which contribute to problems on lead are, in my opinion:


An absence of choice or the absence of reinforcement for “good” choices: A common scenario in puppy class goes as follows: Puppy arrives for her first lesson and the owner walks her up to another owner and puppy to say hello. The new pup isn’t sure about all this and tries to move away, hide behind the owner’s legs or just sit and observe from a safe distance. The puppy already in the training area is a bit more confident and bounces up on lead to say hello to the new pup, who is now trapped on the lead and can’t go anywhere, because the owner is standing chatting and keen for their pup to meet her first friend. After trying to move away and hitting the end of the lead, or trying to hide behind the owner’s legs and having the owner step out the way and say, “don’t be silly”, the new pup finally snaps at the more playful pup. At this point the more confident puppy backs off smartly or his owner takes him away and the owner of the new pup, embarrassed, reprimands her. What has this new puppy learned? She has learned that when you are on a lead around other dogs, avoidance does not work, no-one is going to get you out of this situation and the only thing that works is using an aggressive display. On-leash reactivity 101. Let’s look at the more confident pup for a moment – what could he learn from the situation? Well, if he chose to back off and move away when the other puppy snapped at him, he could learn that walking away avoids further conflict. If his owner also praised and rewarded him with a toy or treat for voluntarily coming away, this would cement the lesson that walking away from conflict is a really good and highly reinforcing option. But how many owners do that? Unfortunately, very few – in fact, many will stick their dog back in the same situation again, saying: “He just wants to play” and hoping the new pup will be more receptive second time around. It may only be at the point where their own pup starts to retaliate, that they will finally take their dog away. On-leash reactivity 201!


Building an expectation of stressful and unavoidable events: If a dog is repeatedly put in uncomfortable situations by the owner and prevented from escaping because of the lead, the dog will learn that being on the lead around other dogs (or people) is a predictor of bad or scary stuff happening. This anticipation of something bad leads to anxiety and stress. An anxious and stressed dog can easily be triggered into reactivity even by low level stimuli. One of the main factors in any situation that contributes to stress in animals is lack of control. Being unable to escape or avoid something one finds unpleasant constitutes lack of control – if a dog finds that using aggression is the only way to regain control and stop something unpleasant, they will use this strategy and no amount of punishment can compete with the relief that they gain when they succeed in stopping the scary situation.


Use of aversive or invasive equipment: Unfortunately, many people still train and walk dogs on collars and chains (let’s not even mention more aversive types of equipment), as opposed to comfortable harnesses. Tension around the neck creates discomfort which alters the dog’s emotional state and makes them more likely to react negatively in any situation. (Creating tension around a dog’s neck is a prime means to wind a dog up instantaneously.) It also interferes with attempts at normal signalling and healthy canine communication. On the subject of equipment, I do want to issue a warning about a piece of equipment often seen as benign by positive reinforcement trainers, but which in my experience has an extremely negative effect on dogs - the head halter. Many people recommend these for reactive dogs, because they give people control over the dog’s head and seem to reduce reactivity. The head halter however, is highly invasive and restricts normal movement to such an extent that anxious and stressed dogs tend to become subdued and shut down. Yes, they may stop being reactive, but that is because they are simply depressed! Frustrated dogs, on the other hand, tend to flip straight into anger and rage due to the restrictive nature of these devices (physical restraint has a “direct line” to the areas of the brain responsible for feelings of rage – again, anyone who has tried to pick up a frustrated toddler can attest to this!). Be extremely careful about using head halters – they are far from ideal.


Creating an expectation of constantly available social interaction: At our training school we have a time for carefully monitored and managed social play in puppy class. This comprises 20-25% class time - the rest of the time, the puppies are working and playing WITH THEIR OWNERS and learning to IGNORE other pups. While many owners seem to view playtime as the highlight of the class, we try very hard to get across to them that building a relationship based on fun, trust and mutual enjoyment with their puppy is more important. Yes, playtime is great, and we want puppies to enjoy themselves with other puppies, BUT we do not want puppies to learn that EVERY TIME they see another dog it automatically leads to a play session. If you create this expectation by focusing on free play to the exclusion of everything else, you will end up with an adolescent or adult dog that cannot understand why they can’t always go say hello. By setting them up to expect the reward of social interaction every time they see another dog, you will set them up to experience massive frustration when they are on lead and cannot approach and create a reactive dog​.

Walking dogs in the street past barking dogs: Neighbourhood walks are a popular choice for recreation amongst dog owners, yet I honestly believe that they are one of the most detrimental activities for dogs. Imagine that instead of dogs barking behind gates, all your neighbours came out and started screaming, swearing and threatening you on your daily walk. How would you feel? Would this give you good associations with your neighbours? You might try to ignore them at first, but it is likely that at some point, you would lose the plot and start yelling back at them. Why are we then surprised when dogs do the same?


So, if you have a puppy or dog who is currently calm on lead, what can you do to prevent reactivity developing? Firstly, ensure that avoidance, escape or appeasement is always an option and always WORKS. If you notice that your puppy or dog is uncomfortable (they want to move away, are using a lot of appeasement behaviours or calming signals) call them away or allow them to walk out of the situation on a loose lead immediately and REINFORCE like mad once they are safely out the way of whatever was bothering them. Did you know that the brain picks up “safety signals” really quickly and that animals quickly learn behaviours that bring about safety signals? A safety signal is any event that is associated with the end of something scary and with feelings of relief. When a dog avoids something scary successfully, the dog automatically feels relief – if you then praise your dog and give them a treat, this additional reinforcement can act as a safety signal which your dog’s brain will latch onto as an “all’s well” kind of confirmation. This makes the behaviour very resistant to extinction. Ironically, waiting until a dog uses aggression and then reprimanding them has exactly the same effect – the aggression makes the scary thing go away and your reprimand acts as the safety signal. So, make sure you allow healthy choices to work for your dog and reinforce them every time! This means taking treats on walks with you ALL THE TIME!! My Rosie is 9 years old – I STILL reinforce with praise and food EVERY single time she walks past another dog calmly on lead or comes away from a dog after greeting them – especially if the other dog was not very sociable. We do the same with Cruz, except for him the reinforcement is praise and giving him his ball.


Secondly, give your dog choice. If your dog does not want to walk up to someone or is trying to avoid passing a particular dog, find a way around that situation, so that you do not drag your dog into an encounter that they clearly don’t want. I have found that Rosie is excellent at picking up vibes from other dogs and very occasionally she will give very clear avoidance signals when seeing a dog up ahead. I always make sure to respect that and allow her to keep her distance and find a route past the dog that is comfortable for her (and by the dog’s reaction, she is never wrong!).


Thirdly, ensure that you are using comfortable and non-invasive equipment. I don’t want to go into this too much, as there are so many different harness options available and so much debate about which are best, but find something that is comfortable for your dog and for you and try to keep a relaxed and loose lead, rather than tensing up and altering normal behaviour or making your dog feel trapped. Keep greetings with strange dogs to a maximum of a few seconds (the three second rule is a good one) and keep moving, reinforcing your dog for coming away from the interaction.


Fourthly, teach your dog to come away from distractions willingly. In class we include a huge amount of focus and orientation games and exercises, which help dogs to ignore distractions in the environment and learn that CHOOSING (the dog is never forced or dragged) to come to us is highly rewarding. Once they are ready, we literally work on teaching them to ignore and come away willingly from each other. We want dogs to learn that sometimes other dogs are just irrelevant – they don’t need to interact or even acknowledge them. They can just totally ignore them.


While we cannot control everything that happens, always be your dog’s advocate - speak up and stop any interaction that you don’t feel comfortable with, as quickly as possible.


What can you do if your dog is already reactive on lead? The first thing is to stop putting them in situations that you jolly well know they will react to! If you know that your dog is okay 3 metres from another dog on lead, but becomes reactive at 2 metres, you need to work extremely hard to avoid breaching that safe zone, even if it means changing where you walk or how you train your dog for the time being. Work with a force free trainer or qualified behaviourist to help you draw up a programme to gradually decrease that critical distance – this will take TIME. Check your equipment – is it comfortable? Are you reinforcing good choices, when they do happen, even if it is from a very large distance? Are you giving your dog any choice in the first place or are you forcing them into situations where you know they will react? Please just STOP walking in the street past every barking neighbourhood dog! Work on building focus and coming away from distractions. Create a strong bond with your dog through play and fun training games.


Putting a dog on lead is not something we should avoid at all costs, because of fear that it will turn our dogs into reactive monsters. There are times when the lead is necessary for safety or even for legal reasons. Having Rottweilers, I find that the lead is quite useful for making certain people feel more comfortable and relaxed around my dogs. The reality is that I cannot just allow them to wander up to total strangers to say hello – trust me, its just doesn’t go down well! Aside from reasons of safety, etiquette and law, there may also be health reasons for a dog to be on lead. Dogs may have injuries or be recovering from operations – they may require restricted exercise for a time, which would mean being on the lead.


While in no way am I advocating for healthy, well-adjusted dogs to be on lead all the time as a general rule and I will always advocate for having plenty of off leash dog walking areas, I would like to see owners feel more comfortable about leashing up when the need arises and not feel it is an evil to be avoided at all costs. Dogs can be comfortable and non-reactive on lead, but it is up to us to make this possible.


Over twenty years ago, I trained my first dog at a local dog training school. Wyatt Earp was a rescue collie x GSD x something, abandoned as an adolescent puppy. We found out later that he had spent the first few months of his life on a farm with a group of 13 other dogs and minimal human contact. He was HIGHLY motivated by social interactions with other dogs and became very frustrated when on lead and unable to interact or approach other dogs and would lunge, bark wildly.

Unfortunately, at that stage I was not yet twenty, knew nothing about dog behaviour and the trainer’s advice was to put a pinch collar or choke chain on Wyatt and give him a “level 10 correction”. As I failed miserably in implementing this advice, I chose instead to follow the conventional wisdom of “doggy people” at the time which was to leave him off lead and “let them sort it out”. In all honesty, this did “work” most of the time – Wyatt had pretty good social skills off lead and if other dogs were also off lead, there was no real cause for concern. In my ignorance at that stage, I did however find owners who insisted on putting their dogs on lead extremely irritating, as it would mean having to try and catch Wyatt before he approached and dealing with his frustration when I clipped the lead on – didn’t they know that if they just let their dog go it would all be fine and I could avoid all this fuss? (Yes, I am embarrassed by my stupidity!)

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