Is Walking Your Dog a Challenge?

We are blessed to live in a place where getting out for a walk with the dogs is a year-round activity. Now that the winds have died down a bit and the days are longer, I am seeing our clients and neighbors out enjoying the springtime mornings and evenings with their dogs.

With the increased “traffic,” it means that our dogs are asked to cross paths with others more frequently, leading to more stressful interactions for owners of a reactive dog. If your dog finds sharing the sidewalk, median or path with others stressful or has “favorite” places on the route to release their inner Cujo (usually where there is another dog behind a fence), then you know the drill.

I am the proud owner of two rescue dogs, one of which joined our family when she was about a year old. When we took her for her first walk I realized that we had a “project” on our hands, as she perceived every car, bicycle, skateboard, fire hydrant and four-legged creature a mortal threat.

For many dogs that are adopted as adults, their previous life experience, or lack thereof, sets them up to struggle with routine social interactions. It was clear to me that Lacey was one of those dogs and that I needed a plan in order to change her view of her new neighborhood and world. Having recently attended a conference on behavior medicine, I embarked on the journey of resetting Lacey’s go-to behavior patterns.

The first step for me was realizing that every walk with Lacey was a training session so expecting her to participate in our daily family walks was out for the initial period. I then went shopping for the most delicious training treats in Albuquerque to use as my reward/bait for our project. As she was not food-oriented, this was important, as I needed a high-value “paycheck” to get her to focus on her job.

We next started working on the command that I would use to get her to sit and look at me (I used “watch me”) when needed. We spent a week or so at home working on this command, first holding the treat out to her then moving it up to my face so that she was rewarded for making and holding eye contact. As with all rewards, I initially gave her a treat every time then gradually only rewarded her intermittently.

Next, I realized that I needed to have control of Lacey’s front end in order to be able to turn her towards me. Although a head halter (Gentle Leader) was an option, she did better with a harness with a front leash ring. The Easy No Pull Harness worked the best for her as it gave us multiple leash options and could be adjusted easily to fit her comfortably.

Once we had our treats, her harness and the “watch me” command mastered, we could start to go out for our training walks. I started by taking her out at times of lower traffic and initially would only do a block or two, always working to end on a success note. I would keep treats in my hand and watch for oncoming “threats,” stepping up into a nearby driveway to increase the distance from the street and to make it easier to get Lacey’s attention and focus.

If she would look at me I would give her multiple small treats as the threat went by, asking her to look at me/look away from the threat and instantly rewarding her for doing so. With time I was able to get her to look at me consistently, so the treats came less frequently, finally only rewarding her after the threat had passed and she had held attention. This didn’t mean that she couldn’t take a look but that she would quickly turn back to me.

Once she had the driveway maneuver mastered, we graduated to sitting on the sidewalk, then continuing to walk getting treats as we went by and finally getting treats only after we successfully passed without drama. This took us several months of consistent training with many steps forward and a few steps back as she became more comfortable in her new life. The use of anti-anxiety supplements and even short-term medication was helpful during Lacey’s first year in order to get her to a place that she was receptive to the training.

It is important to realize that your reactive dog is acting this way out of fear and that any verbal or physical reprimand only reinforces their fear that the perceived threat is a danger to them. Building an alternative behavior (“watch me, get a treat, nothing to be concerned about here”) and rewarding that behavior verbally and with treats is more humane and effective.

There are still times where I choose to change direction when a situation is too intense (“let’s go”) and I always cross the street or try to give other dogs a wide berth when possible. Overall however, Lacey is now a very good citizen when we are out and about, and we are able to take her to parks, local breweries and patios. Not all reactive dogs are as severe as she was, but I am grateful to have the tools to help her become a happy member of our neighborhood dog family.

For more information about unruly leash behavior see our website or give us a call. We are happy to send more information about general and specific behavior issues that you might be having with your dog, or we can schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to discuss more significant behavior problems.

Enjoy the lovely weather and, finally, always remember to “scoop the poop!”