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Tips for walking a reactive dog

Dog on harness

Whether it’s other dogs, joggers, cyclists, or passing cars that set him off, walking a reactive dog isn’t easy. Leading UK Tellington TTouch instructor and practitioner Sarah Fisher offers a few tips to help you cope while you’re trying to solve the problem.

1 Get help!

Some people with reactive dogs end up resorting to extremes, such as walking at one or two in the morning in order to avoid whatever it is that triggers the reactive behaviour. Although this may be fine in the short term, it’s not much of a life for either of you and it will severely limit what you can do together and where you can go.

Don’t adopt a ‘head in the sand’ attitude, or hope he’ll grow out of such behaviour, as it’s unlikely — what may happen, though, is that he’ll get progressively worse and another dog or person could ultimately be hurt as a result. Don’t struggle along on your own either; finding a good trainer or behaviourist to help you is really, really important. Every dog is different and will need a special plan of action tailored specifically to him; one-to-one work will be necessary as training classes aren’t the place to try to sort things out. Ask your vet to give your dog a physical check-up too, as pain is frequently a factor in reactive behaviour. Discomfort, however low-grade it may be, can cause even the most sweet-natured dog to become short tempered and intolerant.

2 Safety in numbers

The presence of another person can have a calming effect on both you and your dog. You will often feel more confident and able to cope if someone else is with you (provided it’s a calm and sensible person), while walking with the dog in-between the two of you can be reassuring to him in situations which make him anxious. The other person can attach a lead to a side ring on his harness to help keep him in the middle and so he has a light and quiet physical connection to both of you. Only one person should guide the dog though, while the other person remains neutral, otherwise your dog will end up in the middle of a tug of war. This way of walking him can also be helpful if you have a large, very strong dog.

3 Cool, calm and collected

Adopting the right frame of mind applies as much to you as to your dog! He may be the one with the problem, but you can easily accentuate it if you’re not careful. You may be feeling tense and anxious and expecting the worst, but your dog will quickly pick up on this and will start actively looking around for the cause of your concern. If something does trigger him, it’s easy to behave reactively yourself, shouting at him and pulling on the lead, reinforcing his behaviour and maybe making it worse. It can be really hard to stay calm sometimes, but it’s absolutely essential, so whatever works for you personally to help de-stress yourself before a walk, whether it’s listening to some soothing music, having yoga session, using aromatherapy, or taking Bach Flower remedies.

Don’t underestimate the power of positive thought either; summon up an image in your mind of your dog behaving perfectly, rather than thinking about how he has behaved in the past and expecting trouble. 

Breathing is also really important, as when you’re feeling anxious you’re likely to take shorter, more rapid breaths, which will be noticed by your dog, as well as creating tension in your posture. Doing some breathing exercises can have a calming effect, and you can continue doing them while walking. Avoid taking your dog out immediately after playing a really exciting game with him as it may increase adrenalin levels, making him more liable to be reactive.

Do some TTouches instead to help release tension and stress, so that he sets out on his walk feeling mellow and relaxed rather than already in a high state of arousal. While they won’t stop him from being reactive, they can be invaluable in reducing the level and helping him return to a calm state more quickly. Using TTouch body wraps can also be very helpful when dealing with fear-based reactivity in dogs.

4 Slacken the lead

Being on the lead limits your dog's options; he can't flee, so is forced into a defensive position if he sees or meets anything he views as alarming or threatening. Keeping up a constant tension on it will make him feel even more restricted and increases the likelihood of him being reactive, so how you handle the lead is crucial. Hold it in a relaxed manner rather than a white-knuckled death grip, and if you need to signal on it, remember to release the tension and allow it to slacken immediately after. It helps considerably if you've already taught your dog how to walk nicely on the lead; if not, spend some time doing so.

5 Avoid confrontation

Although teaching your dog how to cope with things he’s scared of is likely to form an important part of remedial work, it needs to be done gradually, introducing the triggers very carefully in controlled conditions with the help of an experienced behavioural trainer. Keep your distance from things likely to prompt reactive behaviour, since if incorrectly done, continually exposing your dog to them can establish the habit more and more. You’ll soon learn what your dog finds a safe distance to maintain. This may mean finding somewhere different or quieter to walk until you’ve been able to do some work with your trainer or behaviourist, as it’s important that your dog still gets enough exercise; a lack of it can increase undesirable behaviours and increase frustration. If it isn’t safe to let him off-lead for free running, look at hiring an indoor riding school, safely enclosed paddock, or even a tennis court.

6 Keep everyone safe

Be responsible by using a muzzle to ensure the safety of yourself, your dog, and others around you; if your dog nips or bites someone it doesn’t matter that he was scared — he could still be taken away and destroyed. Remember though, that even if muzzled, a big dog can still inflict a lot of damage on smaller ones, so never allow your dog off-lead if you can’t guarantee his manners around other dogs.

Although you may initially feel you’re being mean putting a muzzle on, knowing that he can’t take a chunk out of anyone can actually take some of the pressure off and help you to feel more confident. As a result you’ll be calmer and more relaxed when walking him, which in turn will have a positive influence on his behaviour. It’s worth investing in a brightly coloured one as it makes it more immediately visible from a distance so that others are more likely to give you a wide berth, avoiding any unwanted confrontations.

As long as you introduce it properly — clicker training can be a good way of doing this — your dog won’t object and will develop pleasurable associations with it.

7 Harness up

Using a harness with one end of a double-ended lead attached to a ring at the front of the chest, and the other to the ring on the top of it, can make a big difference. Using two points of attachment on the harness makes it easier for you to contain your dog and control his body if he lunges forward. Pulling on the lead when it’s clipped to the collar can increase the state of arousal as well as increasing the risk of injury to the neck.

8 Get back

Try to avoid being in places where loose dogs can run up to yours, but if it does happen (or you meet one on a fully extended lead), teaching a 'Behind me' command can be helpful. It lets you put yourself in control of the situation so your dog doesn't feel he needs to, and use your body to act as a buffer between him and the other dog. It can also be handy in situations where cyclists or joggers are present.

9 Head on

Make sure all basic obedience is well established and try to fit in a couple of mini sessions each day to keep it up to scratch, including a good ‘Look at me’ command. You’ll need to teach this at home first, then with increasing be able to successfully use it in more stressful situations. When a dog sees something that causes him concern he'll often stare fixedly at it, and being able to break his eye contact with it in this way can help defuse a situation before it escalates.

You can also use a headcollar to do this, or to help to reinforce the 'Look at me' cue, but take care not to keep a vice-like grip on it or to keep the dog’s head permanently dragged around towards you. Take the time to introduce a headcollar gradually and create pleasant associations; it also needs to be comfortable, so you may need to experiment to find which particular make best suits your dog's head shape. Always use it with a double-ended lead, attaching one end to the headcollar with the smallest and lightest clip, and other end to a flat collar or harness.

10 Be positive

Don’t tell your dog off if he growls — stopping the behaviour won’t stop him from being reactive, but it will mean that you get no warning beforehand that he’s unhappy about something, so have no chance to pre-empt a problem.

Avoid shouting, shaking, smacking, or any form of physical punishment or aversive techniques if reactive behaviour is shown, as this can actually trigger a more violent response, and your dog may even turn on you. Clicker training can be helpful as it allows you to reward your dog for calm, non-reactive behaviour — safer and nicer for both of you, more effective, and making it easier for you to adopt a calm and positive approach to problem solving.

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