Sometimes you need a little tough love and a new plan.
I recently did an in-person consult with a client who has been struggling with her dog’s leash reactivity for years. Yes, years. She has been through no less than 5 trainers. And in many respects has made good progress. But not long ago there was a setback, in which the dog was so explosive on his leash, he redirected on her. Biting her leg. She still had a bruise about 4 weeks later. Yikes.
First, I admire her commitment and persistence. Many people would give up. She’s in it for the long haul and he’s one lucky dog.
You might say why not just avoid walks with the dog if he’s leash reactive. It’s not that simple. He’s explosive in his yard, out the windows the house – everywhere. She has her blinds and curtains closed so he can’t see out. She walks him in the fenced yard on a leash.
I was hard on her. Yes, I do that sometimes, if it’s what they need to hear. They usually don’t like it very much.
Why did I do this – because probably no one else has, and it’s not going to change if she doesn’t.
The dog was darn near perfect for me. Off leash in his yard with another dog at an adjacent fence. With Poppy walking the fence line. With a biker riding by. None of that is typically possible.
So here’s what I observed in our consult:
Her language is soft with signs of weakness.
“in the house, he’s pretty good, but outside…”
‘If I have a treat….”
“If I open the windows, I can’t keep my eyes on him while I work…..”
“he’s so sweet…”
“most of the time….”
“Hey, <dogname>, sit, sit, <dogname>, snap snap…..”
And I get it. I really do understand. She’s lived with this experience and stress for a long time. There is some defeat in her voice and some expectation that it just can’t be changed. But if we’re going to fix this leash reactivity once and for all, we have to do a lot of things differently.
The dog’s obedience is not consistent. And certainly not proofed under distraction. Even in the house there was a bit of negotiation, repetition to get it done, and not a lot of duration.
His state of mind doesn’t take her seriously. She’s got ahold of the leash, but she is not leading.
Praise is inconsistent as well, even when he does something right.
I’m sure she’s exhausted and fatigued with the experience. But she loves this dog and he’s a great dog. He knows many tricks and is very sweet.
She’s not demonstrating confident leadership.
So here’s the homework I left her with:
Go after the small stuff. In a big way. Consistent word choices. Non-negotiable rules. Sit means sit. Come means come. First time, every time or there is a consequence for not doing so. No nonsense in the house. No charging the fence. Doorways and threshold are respected. Etc.
Open the Windows and let the light in! Recall the dog if he’s misbehaving, do down stays and place at the windows until the distractions are no longer exciting.
She’s ecollar training him now, so the collar needs to be used 100% of time on corrections – not crazy levels, they really aren’t high levels at all, just consistently used at a level sufficient enough to change his behavior and encourage him to do it right the first time.
Variable reward systems with food, and always with praise.
Primary affection and engagement is going to be outside. If he wants to be nurtured and love – it’s for being calm and well mannered outside. Inside, be quite aloof. For now.
Engage the dog in game play, toys, scent games and other activities that you participate in with the dog — outside.
And here’s the big new change I recommended.
For as long as she has been working on this issue, physical restraint of some kind has been used. Cinch up on the leash, rush him away, correct him with a prong (not that they are evil). But everything has been about restraint and stress from the humans.
Now, I have had tremendous success with our leash-reactivity protocol. But with years of bad behavior, we need a completely new approach. Something he’s never experienced before.
I recommended that we tether him to something immovable in the yard on a standard leash and a reliable (unbreakable) collar. I want him to realize that his nonsense doesn’t change anything. Nothing happens. And to be defeated by his own nonsense. He will have to stop and reprocess things differently. Because we humans aren’t behaving the same.
Be sure to let him decompress for a little while after any incident before removing him.
Now there is some theory that the barking and nonsense sends scary thing away – ie the dog thinks he made it happen – but we’re going to move to part two quickly.
In a couple of days, we’re going to shift to he’s tethered outside on place or in a down-stay and he will be corrected for breaking the command. If he blows up, use the ecollar at a sufficient level to interrupt the behavior, correct the command and put him back in the down stay…. For a long time.
This is a great exercise to do while the family is grilling out, sitting by the fire, watching the kids play, or just relaxing on the deck.
The point is – do things you enjoy and expect your dog to hold a down or place command while you relax.
Add NO drama to the reactivity. You stay neutral and let the ecollar do the work.
Around this time you’re also going to shift to your normal leash in the front yard (no fence), and eventually to a tether in the front yard.
Then you’re going to start practicing by walking down the street to the house next door or driving to the park and working in the park lot. Meaning – don’t get too far from your escape route so that you can create success, give time for decompression and not linger too long in high pressure situations at this phase.
Progress to a long line and eventually even longer so that he can reach the edges of the yard if he breaks command and rushes the fence – but you’re going to practice your recall and correction.
Progress to where he is NOT in command and has room to mill around the yard – yes freedom! And you are going to practice recall under arousal and correction for disobedience.
Remember you have practiced recall a million times by now with no and little distractions….. don’t go for the big stuff until you can do the small stuff.
And because you have been consistently going after the little stuff like sit and down with first time accuracy, not breaking place command, etc – it’s going to be much more successful.
There is no black and white – you have to read your dog’s body language. Check his response to the stimuli and to your timing, expectations, and your energy. You have to change your expectations to change the results.
When your dog starts doing things right – even subtle changes in thinking about doing things right – reward and praise that – every – single – time. No exceptions for a while.
If you dog doesn’t believe you with the small stuff, he will never believe you when the stakes are high.
It took years to get here, it’s going to take time to rewire the dog’s brain for new behavior. And, you may even have some setbacks – his or your own.
You can do this!