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How can I safely walk my reactive dog?

You can walk your leash-reactive dog safely around your neighborhood, but she will need dedicated training and management. Many canines are sweet and happy pets at home, but when they step into unfamiliar territory with strange people and dogs, they bark, growl, snap, or quiver in fear, making a simple walk around the block into a scary, stressful situation. Learning your dog’s behavior triggers and her reactivity threshold can be challenging and time-consuming, but you can overcome her leash reactions with patience, training, and dedication. 

Enlist the help of a veterinary behaviorist

Your family veterinarian likely will refer you to a veterinary behaviorist for specialized care. A veterinary behaviorist can develop a behavior-modification plan for your pet that may include stress-reducing medications and supplements. Most medications for stressed pets increase serotonin levels in the brain, which makes the pet feel happier and more content, decreasing her anxiety. Behavior-modification training has a better chance of rewiring your dog’s response to scary triggers when stress levels aren’t in overdrive.

Train helpful behaviors

Besides the obvious “sit” and “heel” commands, you should widen your dog’s behavior repertoire and add Dr. Sophia Yin’s focus behaviors. The late Dr. Yin was a renowned veterinary behaviorist who set standards for low-stress handling and behavior modification. You will need to practice Dr. Yin’s set of behaviors at home first so you can help your dog by acting smoothly and giving treats quickly. Fumbling for treats or tripping over your dog’s leash while you wander too close to another dog or a cyclist only sets you and your pooch up for failure.

Take safety precautions

All dogs have the potential to bite, especially if they’re scared and feel threatened. Avoid the issue by investing in a well-fitting basket muzzle for your reactive pup. A correctly fitted basket muzzle still allows your dog to eat, drink, and pant, but prevents an altercation if an unleashed dog bounds up to her. A muzzle also sends a warning signal and helps deter people and their dogs from approaching.

Use a harness or head collar

A flat collar is not ideal for controlling a leash-reactive dog. Instead, your dog should wear a harness or head collar, both of which allow more control and security. Harnesses that clip in the front, or a head collar like a Gentle Leader, help you redirect your dog’s attention, guide her away, and keep her focus on you.

Relax

Dogs are intuitive creatures who will cuddle with you when you’re sad and snuggle under your blanket when you’re sick. They also quickly pick up on your anxiety, and a leash acts as a direct line that transmits your fear and stress. If you and your leash-reactive dog encounter a problem, you must take deep, calming breaths and avoid yanking on the leash to prevent a canine panic attack.

Be aware of your surroundings

Stay vigilant. If another dog, a cyclist, or a jogger approaches, consider crossing the road or taking another route to eliminate contact with whatever triggers your dog’s reaction. Stick with sparsely populated areas in your pet’s beginning training stages to avoid pushing her beyond her threshold.

Stay positive

Studies show that animals subjected to aversive training techniques are less likely to learn and punishment causes long-lasting mental trauma. Never punish your dog, especially when she’s scared, because you will increase her fear. If you plan on investing in the help of a dog trainer, be sure to ask about training techniques. Follow these tips from Jean Donaldson, one of the world’s leading dog-training and behavior experts, when choosing a positive dog trainer. Positive, fear-free training methods are the most effective way to set your canine companion up for success.

 

When battling her leash reactivity, walking your dog may seem like a neverending struggle , but many resources are available to help you and your dog enjoy a lifetime of stress-free strolls.