Dogs are so lovely when they get excited about everything whether it is meals, playtime or walks. But sometimes it is just too much. Especially when your dog lunges or barks at people out of excitement, this is called leash reactivity.
People usually connect leash reactivity with an aggressive dog that wants to jump and hurt people but it may also come out of pure joy. My dog gets extremely excited when seeing people or other dogs, I guess we did a too good job on socialization. She would not bark but pulled strongly on the leash just to meet people and get pet.
We leash trained her early on but when it comes to humans or dogs, she will completely forget her good manners. Generally, it is a positive thing when your dog loves seeing people and animals rather than reacting aggressive or afraid towards them.
It is cute when you see a little wagging puppy tail coming at you to give some love but now that my Rottweiler is 11 months old and weighs 88 lbs, it’s not that cute anymore for most people. And trying to hold a pulling Rottweiler is not for the weak.
But after 8 months of consistent training, we are now seeing some amazing progress with her. Depending on your dog it might take a month or a whole year. Time is the essence here. The older your dog gets the less he wants to play or greet people and for some dogs, it might resolve on its own.
Excitement on Walks is Self-Rewarding
Any excitement that your dog has towards his environment is self-rewarding, meaning that the more he gets rewarded when being excited the more excited he will get over time. If you do not stop, it won’t resolve on its own and will get worse and worse.
We did the mistake to not pay enough attention to her when she was being petted by people. Anybody could touch her and any dog would greet her. Dogs quickly learn patterns and she got used to that. It’s like giving your child some candy every day and one day you simply stop. That’s hard to explain to a child and even harder to a dog. So depending on how long this self-rewarding behavior continued, you will need a certain amount of time to fix it.
Leash Training and Impulse Control
Before you can work with your dog on leash reactivity, he will have to learn the general leash manners of never lunging or pulling. If you have a dog that pulls even when no-one is around, then go through the steps here and train with your dog every day.
We never ever let our dogs pull us down the streets. We got her leashed trained right when she was a puppy because she would pull from day one. Every time she pulled in any direction, I would stand still and wouldn’t let her move anywhere. This way you will show your dog that pulling gets him nowhere and that you are the one deciding where to go.
Leash pulling is self-rewarding just like excitement. Your dog will remember that every time he pulls he will get quicker to where he wants to go. You have to be very consistent with this even when you have to stop after every single step.
It also helps to just switch directions quickly and often. Walks a few steps to the right then turn to the other side and walk in a square. If you suddenly change directions, your dog will start looking where you go as he is just used to walking straight.
Impulse control is another extremely important topic that will help you with so many other behavior issues. You can read the section on impulse control in this post which will also teach you some techniques to calm down your overexcited dog.
Detox Training to Control Leash Reactivity
What we did first was completely stopping any human or dog contact on walks because if your dog gets excited, pulls to a person and gets pet THIS is the reward, this is what he wants. So no pets or greeting other dogs when on a leash. I wanted my dog to make the association that the leash is never a place to pull. We visit 1-hour doggy play sessions two times a week at our local dog school so she gets enough dog contact anyways.
Try to avoid greetings with people or animals as much as possible until your dog has learned that only if he is calm, he can go. That means no visits in public places or overcrowded parks.
Choosing the Right Gear
Especially if you have a big and strong dog, controlling him is not easy. The right gear will help you stop your dog from lunging. For my dog, I have bought this strong front- clip harness and a gentle leader.
A front-clip harness gives you much more control over the body of your dog and will stop him from pulling. A back-clip harness actually reinforces pulling. The gentle leader helps to control your dogs head and where the head goes, the body follows.
Leash Training with Distance
While training your dog
If he gets too distracted, this means that you will have to build up more distance.
Having your dog’s eyes will ensure his full attention and I always use this before any training. Work on this and stay patient. Your dog won’t pay much attention to you the first time you get outside and if he continuously fails then you will need to build up distance.
Reinforcing Calm Behavior
When you strictly follow the steps from above, you will see some first results and your dog will start ignoring other people or dogs. Once he becomes calmer on the leash you can slowly reincorporate some contact to reward the desired behavior.
To still reinforce the concept of leash ≠ greeting, you will want your dog to experience the contact off leash. So if you are walking in a park where dogs are allowed off-leash and you see someone you know, you can then remove the leash and allow your dog to play or greet if he remains calm. If he gets too excited again, put him on the leash and remove him from the situation.
Realeasing and Permission
When letting your dog off-leash you do not just want him to run off the second you remove the leash. A well behaved dog will wait for his permission to go anywhere. This will help you in many situations and can also be a life saver and keep your dog from running outside the front door or jumping out of the car.
What I always do is letting my dog sit and stay while removing the leash. I will then take a few steps back, get her eyes on me and then giving her the release cue. If you do not know what a release command is, you can read the training steps here.
My release cue is “go” and I used it for everything. For example, before she gets her meals or before she can get out of the car. The release command is mandatory when teaching your dog “stay” as it needs to have a beginning and an end. And because every command has a built-in stay, the release command always comes in handy.
Calming down an overexcited dog on walks is all about discipline, leash training and distance. If you stay patient and consistent with your training, it will get much better. Share your experiences with leash reactivity in the comments below.