The Reactive Pooch
How Leash Training Can Stop Barking
by Kimberly LeMaster
As a dog owner, you will hear and read about the great importance of early socialization in a puppy. Dogs go through two fear stages in their lives, the first being between 4 and 12 weeks of age, in which a large portion of their socialization is imprinted into their little minds. However, in today’s society it is far more common to adopt a rescued adult dog from a shelter. In doing so, you inherit all the mistakes the previous owner, assuming there was one at all, made in raising your new canine companion. These dogs may come perfectly well mannered, or have no idea how to handle themselves in our human world. The lack of socialization these dogs have received can send them into a fear induce fit of barking while on your daily stroll. These triggers can be anything from a leaf blowing down the sidewalk or another dog across the street.
Despite what the trigger is, teaching your dog basic obedience is a fantastic start to building that trust and life long bond you will need to peacefully cohabit with your furry friend. One common obedience task that all dogs should know is also an essential key factor in ending your dog’s reactive barking; leash training! By following this technique, your dog will learn how to look to you for guidance, follow you and respect the leash. If he is obeying you and following you, his reactivity on leash may diminish on its own, as he learns to ignore his triggers with your helpful leadership. However, it does not always go away on its own, and in those cases leash training is a fantastic head start to show your dog that walking on leash, despite his triggers that are around him in everyday life, is a positive experience.
The most effective tool in leash training is teaching your pooch the “Let’s go!” command. This command signals to him that you may be turning, changing pace, or beginning to walk from a stop position and he is to follow you. Start by teaching this inside your home, in a room your dog is familiar with. Keep distractions to a bare minimum, and have your dog on leash with a handful of medium value treats ready to go. If you use a clicker, you may communicate more clearly as you can mark the exact behavior you are looking for when it happens, and let the dog know his reward is on its way. The behavior you are looking for is the dog catching up to your side after you say “Let’s go!” You will want to click or say “Yes!” and reward the second he is positioned by your side, even if he is on his way to walking past you. Mark the action of him walking beside you, as you will be rewarding him for both his position and the act of following you!
On leash inside your home, begin by walking backwards and calling your dog to you. When he takes a step towards you, give him a click or “Yes!” and a treat. After doing this a few times, he will get the idea that following you leads to a reward! Then, you can begin walking away from him with your back to him, and say “Let’s go!” When he catches up to your side, mark this correct behavior and reward him! As you increase the criteria by moving outdoors with more distractions, increase the value of his treat as well. Use something like real meat or cheese to truly create the positive atmosphere you need to guarantee the reliable behavior you expect out of your dog.
When you put the “Let’s go!” command into a real life situation, you will begin to understand why leash training is such a critical component to helping a dog overcome his reactivity to his triggers. For example, let’s say that other dogs make your pooch bark excessively and pull on the leash. If you see another dog across the street and your dog goes nuts, simply say “Let’s go!”, turn in a direction away from the trigger and begin to walk a short distance. This helps you gain more control over the situation and shows your dog that he does not need to attempt to handle it all on his own, that he has you for guidance. Once he complies, he should be rewarded handsomely with a high value treat. You can turn a few times with the trigger in sight, to fully get his attention on you and off of his nearby trigger.
Set him up for success!
To make your leash training around his triggers a true success, once he learns the “Let’s go!” command begin introducing his triggers in a controlled way, such as having a friend or neighbor stand a great distance away with their pet. They should be far enough away so that your dog does not react, but close enough to be noticed by him. Practice your command and gradually move his triggers closer. Slowly introducing his triggers in this controlled manner gives you a higher chance of success and raises the likelihood of his reactivity solving itself sooner rather than later!