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Walking a reactive dog: Tips and tricks

January is Walk Your Pet Month, a great time to get outside and exercise with your pup. But what if your dog needs space from other dogs or people? Don’t resort to walking your dog at midnight. With patience, ongoing training, and expert advice, you can successfully manage your dog’s leash reactivity.

“It's easy to get overwhelmed with all the information circulating out there about what to do with your reactive dog and how best to help them improve,” said Scott Raymond, MS, CPDT-KA, a certified professional dog trainer with Synergy Behavior Solutions in Portland, Oregon.

Misleading information can also result in the development of even more significant behavioral issues, he said.

“Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to punish a dog to make them act better,” Raymond said. “Having a consistent management plan and a solid rewards-based approach to training can help a lot.”

According to animal behaviorist, ethologist, and adjunct professor in zoology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Patricia McConnell, PhD, CAAB, it is important to gain confidence walking your reactive dog to build resilience—the process of adapting well in the face of significant stress.

“Exercise and time outdoors have a profound effect on dogs and people, both on healing from drama and building resilience,” she said.

Below are great resources and tips you can put to use right away to help correct and manage reactive behavior—and create a better walk for you and your dog.

Setting your reactive dog up for success

  • American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB): Need a veterinarian who specializes in behavior? This directory is a great resource for owners who need some additional assistance with their dog's reactivity.
  • Dogs in Need of Space (DINOS): This website provides helpful tips and resources for “DINOS” owners, including recommendations for harnesses, vests, and collars that promote important messages, such as “I need space.” This additional communication can be especially helpful in areas where dogs are frequently walked.
  • The Yellow Dog Project: This global movement is also aimed at helping identify dogs who need space. A yellow bandana or ribbon sends the following message: “Please do not pet me or approach me with your dog.”

Training ideas

  • Games: Two games that work well with reactive dogs are the “Look at me” game and “Go get that treat!” Training your dog to look at you and take treats when there is a dog on leash nearby is a great distraction. High-value reward treats, such as hot dogs, are important.
  • Nosework and dog sports: These are great for reactive dogs. Walking is still important, of course, but these activities are outstanding outlets for high-energy dogs when walking is challenging.

At the veterinarian

Living with a reactive dog also presents challenges when it comes to veterinary appointments.

AAHA-accredited Frontier Veterinary Hospital in Hillsboro, Oregon, created special corrals that keep reactive pets separate in the waiting room for this very purpose.

“Our biggest tool, however, is our workflow,” Frontier's practice development director, Sara Fleissner, said. “We room clients as soon as possible upon entering the building. Sometimes, the customer service representative sees [clients] in the parking lot and greets them the moment they walk in. Then, everything happens in the room: taking of history, doctor exam and communication, and most importantly, checkout. This minimizes the interaction between patients in the building.”

This is important for all patients, whether they are fearful, reactive, or excited, Fleissner added.

Many dogs need space. If you live with a dog that has leash reactivity, there are many solutions and tools at your disposal. Remember that walking a reactive dog at midnight is one option, but not the only option.

As a certified veterinary technician, longtime PR veteran, and content marketing expert, Christy Caplan brings her unique understanding of social and digital media to connect dog lovers to brands both on and offline. She lives with three hounds—two doxies and a beagle/basset hound mix—who constantly teach her about life and companionship. Christy is a member of the Dog Writers Association of America and writes for Spot Magazine, City Dog Magazine, and regional animal publications. Follow Christy at mylifewithdogspdx.com

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