Get your dog “leash-ready” for an active and healthy spring, summer
Spring is associated with renewal, rejuvenation and rebirth. And this notion is taking on a whole new meaning as the city comes alive again after the “dormancy” of both the winter and precautions brought on by a global health crisis. Vaccinations statewide are reaching new highs, surpassing the 10 million-mark. At the same time, the average number of new cases per week is plunging to new lows. This dynamic is fueling public confidence; the fourth phase of the state’s reopening plan is now underway. This “bridge phase” mandates greater capacity at restaurants, gyms, museums, and all of our old haunts.
Are you (and your pup) ready for the onslaught of sights, sounds and smells?
Even the most extroverted among us may feel anxious, awkward or overwhelmed by newly-busy surroundings after months of isolation, avoidance and hibernation. Consider how you feel when thrust into new or unfamiliar situations. Now, consider how your dog feels. After being so isolated for so long, your canine sidekick may feel as socially awkward, overexcited and apprehensive as you do. However, your precious pup is manifesting his emotions and taking in myriad sights, sounds and stimuli with undesirable behaviors that may be construed as “acting out.”
Dogs may not have the proper foundation for healthy associations with other dogs. Your pup may suffer from a lack of proper socialization, regardless of if he or she is on or off leash when engaging with another pup. This lack of socialization breeds reclusiveness and fear. If you adopted a puppy during the pandemic or shortly beforehand, he or she may not have been able to socialize properly. And it takes time to develop a dog’s sociability. This situation further breeds behavioral issues.
As the term suggests, leash reactivity arises when you add in a leash to the equation. The act of restraining your dog heightens the tension that he feels, and how he perceives the situation at hand. The dog responds in kind, by getting even more excited to a point of overarousal. The dogs are drawn to like, over-aroused pets.
“Overarousal can lead to aggression that is classically known as leash reactivity,” said Dan “Doggie Dan” Rubenstein, PUPS founder, CEO and a master trainer.
Dogs “speak” a very primal language. So, even the slightest, subtlest stimuli can set them off.
“If you have an overstimulated dog that is absorbing all of the city sounds, he may see another dog and start pulling intensely,” Dan continued. “He has a high degree of excitement or overarousal.”
While a dog’s temperament plays a role, all it takes is a single experience to trigger reactivity when the dog is leashed.
“A dog may be pulling all of the time, and aggressively trying to play with another dog,” he explained. “But the other dog doesn’t like that, and he turns around and snaps quickly. That experience will lay a foundation for the next experience.”
This experience augments the dog’s behavioral mindset.
“It’s just a matter of time before he becomes aggressive,” he said. “When you have a dog with a low degree of sociability, who is not well-trained and is very highly-stimulated, that can be a combustible [situation].”
“Read” your dog: What is Fido telling you?
Typically, leash reactivity is a fear response and indicative of a lack of socialization, frustration or insecurity. There are warnings that dogs give off before they switch to that highly stimulated state. By recognizing these warnings, pet parents can anticipate and respond to the dog’s behavior in an appropriate manner that de-escalates the situation (and prevents the overexcitement that fuels unruly or aggressive behaviors). Problem is, the “cues” that your dog is giving off are so nuanced, so subtle, that many pet parents may not notice them — even in their own dogs.
“All dogs have the capability of acting in certain ways,” Dan said. “Along the behavioral spectrum, there are dogs that are docile and submissive, and dogs that are aggressive and dominant.”
The latter, dominant and unstable dogs actively seek out conflict.
“Most dogs sit in the middle of the behavioral spectrum, and oscillate one way or another,” he said.
Indeed, even the most unassuming dogs have the inherent ability to become aggressive. Dan compares this capacity to genetic diseases, which may lurk dormant until a stressor or crisis event brings the condition to the surface. And, just as each dog resides somewhere along the behavioral spectrum, there are different levels of social “cueing” or warnings that each dog may communicate.
“You can see dogs triggering,” Dan explained. “They may have certain behaviors, such as lip licking or awkward stiffening of the body. Their hackles may be raised and they could be in a low, hunched-over position where they are looking between their shoulders.”
Since most pet parents don’t speak the language of “canine” (like our trainers and behavioral consultants do), they misinterpret repeated lip-licking and think, “Oh, Fido’s thirsty.” Unfortunately, Dan noted pet parents don’t associate this seemingly innocuous behavior with specific situations or environments.
“They don’t think, ‘He’s uncomfortable here,’” he said.
And, among leash reactive dogs, that discomfort could be triggered simply by an approaching leashed dog.
“It could be your own dog just not having the familiarity with what it is like to be social with another dog on the leash,” Dan said.
When that uncomfortable dog’s subtle cues are missed by you, the pet parent, your dog’s initial response to that trigger may escalate to more overt signals. These signals are the hard-t0-miss behaviors, such as biting, barking and lunging.
“You want to counter-condition,” Dan said. “You want to take the dog right up to that threshold, or just below it, to achieve a higher tolerance level.”
But, we beg of you, if your dog has a low tolerance level, do not expose him to a pack of leashed dogs in busy, high-trafficked areas such as the neighborhood doggie park. We don’t run before we walk. So, why rush things, especially if your dog is becoming reacquainted with crowds?
“Keep it simple first,” he said. “Expose your dog to one other dog on the leash. Measure his response.”
Evaluate responses at different distances. Your dog may have a low threshold at closer distances, or he may have a lower tolerance to the leashed dog at greater distances. As those thresholds and tolerances increase, reward your dog accordingly.
The human response
We’ve talked quite a bit about how your dog responds to being restrained, and how leash reactivity may be exhibited; however, your response matters when it comes to reconditioning your dog. There is no single “magic bullet” technique to reinforce healthy behaviors and to dissuade unwanted patterns. Many tools are available, which are not limited to “positive reinforcement.”
“Negative reinforcement has got a bad connotation,” Dan said. “But any tool can be used wrong by a bad trainer.”
Due to its negative associations, this term may seem curious or even somewhat alarming to some pet parents who are unaware of what negative reinforcement really means. The truth is, a trainer or parent who uses this technique is simply imposing his or her will on the dog. The correction is forced, without exception.
“The mindset is negative reinforcement is just bad for dogs, and that’s just not true,” he said. “Negative reinforcement can be introduced to eliminate undesirable behaviors, such as your dog barking at another dog.”
Since leash reactivity represents the precursor to leash aggression, there is an opportunity to take corrective action before the dog “busts through that threshold,” as Dan puts it, and reaches an arousal state that is not controllable. Corrective action must be taken quickly to “flip the switch,” de-escalate that overly excited or aggressive behavior.
As your dog responds appropriately, your response should also flip – from negative reinforcement to positive punishment. With the dog just below that aggressive threshold, you as a pet parent are correcting the behavior through subtle cues, and redirecting toward desired behaviors. Again, negative reinforcement arises as a tool once the pup has punched right through that threshold.
From the human perspective, this response during a tense situation is not second nature. It is not uncommon for our PUPS trainers to see parents who, to avoid conflict and get out of a potentially flammable situation as quickly as possible, simply remove the dog.
“They drag the dog out of there, rather than just giving them the stern correction,” Dan said.
In the city, this avoidance of incoming dogs at all costs presents a tremendous safety hazard. You can’t be dodging errant taxis on Columbus, with attention paid more to the approaching dog rather than to the approaching car.
Another big mistake that pet parents tend to make is to apply their soothing, maternal instincts at the most inopportune of times. By cooing the likes of, “It’s OK. It’s OK” over and over again at your panting and pulling pup, your tone and approach is actually reinforcing the negative, volatile, aggressive behavior. You are unknowingly rewarding the dog for acting out.
Commonly, Dan sees that parents don’t manage interactions well; they are quite literally “behind the leash” (and behind the eight ball when it comes to anticipating and responding appropriately to dog-to-dog interactions). For instance, how many times have you seen a seemingly friendly, unassuming furball approach your pup and thought to yourself, “They’re going to get along famously”? You stand back as the two newfound pals sniff and get to know each other.
Instead, you should be assessing this dog. Is she leash reactive? Could she get aggressive?
“What I always recommend,” Dan said, “is to take a ‘triangulated’ position. The other dog is the ‘stimulus.’ Your dog is the ‘responder.’ So, you need to get in between the dogs. You read the other dog, and your read your dog. You need to see if this situation is good for your dog.”
No matter how friendly or cute little Fifi may be, the risk of “mis-reading” another dog is considerable, especially when pet parents may not be able to accurately read their own pets that they see every day and know so well.
“This is where trainers come in,” Dan said. “They understand canine language and the signaling.”
The power of professionals
In addition to attaining fluency in reading and translating the canine “language,” trainers are also well-versed in the scientific process of counter-conditioning. This process merely adds another layer of difficulty to the “uninitiated” (non-trainers).
“With counter-conditioning, sometimes the behavior is so intense that is requires a more intense approach,” Dan said, adding that the training program should match the dog.
At PUPS, we take a three-tiered approach to training levels. Level 1, “Rising Star,” applies to well-socialized, yet easily distracted dogs. “Skilled Performer,” Level 2, is suitable to dogs who are highly proficient in leash obedience, yet are novices when it comes to off-leash obedience. Level 3 is reserved for the “Star Performer.” This well-adjusted, calm and confident canine demonstrates competition-level obedience.
“If the dog has problems with one particular type of dog, such as German shepherds, that problem is not as hard to solve,” Dan said.
However, a dog may be reactive regardless of the other dog’s breed, size, color and so on. Such general reactivity requires a different approach to training and behavioral modification. Over time, our professionals have accrued the knowledge and understanding of the science of counter-conditioning to clearly break down the mechanics, timing and the art of the “read,” to effectively recondition and modify your pup’s behavior.
In our increasingly digital world, Dan notes that it is really difficult to master these life-changing responses to behaviors by simply reading a book, or listening to a podcast. As many people are visual learners, and dog training requires so much physicality, there is no better “visual aid” than a professional trainer who is actively “proving out” counterconditioning techniques.
This approach also requires patience. Instant change or spontaneous behavioral modification in dogs is a rare phenomenon. Routinely, changes arise over a period of time and over many reps and experiences that ingrain desirable behaviors.
“Trainers are going to help you develop the appropriate process or protocol,” Dan said. “People try to do this themselves; for instance, they may take treats and redirect the dog’s behavior. They use a completely positive reinforcement approach.”
Problem is, applying the above example, the parent is feeding his or her dog when they’re in an over-aroused state. All you have done is distracted the dog with a (tasty) lure for a few moments.
“They haven’t brought down their dog’s reactivity level,” Dan said. “He is still overstimulated. So, you’re rewarding the over-stimulation.”
And, while Dan said you can effectively counter-condition a dog by exclusively using positive reinforcement, the path to better behavior and favorable results will take much longer. He recommends a “balanced approach,” which is open and flexible to other techniques.
“In my experience, this approach will best serve the dog,” he said.
We look forward to unleashing your dog’s full potential, and the changes that foster the healthiest, happiest relationships – between people and their dogs, and between your dog and his fellow puppy kind. In the meantime, contact us or check out our training options here.