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My Latest, Greatest, Slightly Unorthodox Approach to Leash Reactivity

Disclaimer: I am NOT recommending that anyone try the method I describe in this blog. In fact, please DON’T!

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know that I’ve been up to my hackles in reactivity issues. When we first got Bodhi, he would lunge and bark on leash like a madman at other dogs. Actually, he behaved like an adolescent dog who hadn’t had much socialization or training and was rescued from a shelter at a year of age, which is exactly what he was. Off leash, he was a bit reactive—hackles raised, some barking—but it was more of that insecure adolescent thing rather than aggression.

Then there’s Sierra. Off-leash, she’s got an obnoxious play style (hence my decision to stop allowing her to play with unfamiliar dogs), but she’s most definitely not aggressive. On leash, however, she gets frustrated if she’s not allowed to go up and greet the other dog, which sometimes results in a flurry of agitation. Complicating matters is her preternaturally strong prey drive. She will spy another dog way off in the distance and go into prey drive mode, upon which I could dangle sardines in her face and she wouldn’t notice. If Bodhi is unfortunate enough to be walking alongside her at the time, she will turn and snarl and snap at him repeatedly. It’s almost as though she’s guarding the dog at a distance from him. (She does guard things from him that are at a distance—but that’s another blog.)

Because Bodhi’s issue had been the more obvious one (actually, Sierra’s behavior hadn’t become troublesome until we got Bodhi), I’d been concentrating on classical conditioning with him on our walks around the park. Because my husband was in the habit of taking one dog hiking while I park-walked the other, this afforded me ample opportunity to work with Bodhi alone. After a few months, we got to the point where he could walk fairly calmly past other dogs at semi-close range. Well, it worked most of the time; some days we’d have to give the dogs a wider berth, but still, definite progress had been made. But it’s now the season where foxtails and rattlesnakes are everywhere, and hiking is out until the winter. Some days my husband goes hiking without the dogs, which is great for maintaining his health—but it also leaves me with both dogs together about half the time. And so Sierra, Bodhi and I have been walking around the park in the early mornings. Can you imagine how difficult it is to prevent reactive behavior when it’s triggered by your dog spotting something a mile away? Because of Sierra’s redirecting on Bodhi, which amps him up, too, his behavior had begun to backslide. This called for desperate measures.

In my blog entry “The Off-Leash Crowd: An Alternate Universe” I mentioned the group of owners who walk their dogs off-leash around the park in the early morning hours. These are nice folks whose dogs are fairly calm, and are non-reactive with other dogs. Two weeks ago, I got to the park early and parked in a lot that’s set way back from the street. As I hopped Bodhi out of the car, I spied the group coming toward us. Here’s the unorthodox part—I let Bodhi off the leash. Yeah, yeah, I know. But he has a decent recall, plus he’s pretty much a Velcro dog. I knew he wouldn’t take off. He ran a few steps toward the other dogs, all bluster and woofing as usual…and then realized he wasn’t on leash anymore. He turned back toward me, a big exclamation point over his head, and then turned back toward the dogs. He ran up to them and barked. The dogs were not impressed. When Bodhi got too close to Moe, the Vizsla, Moe showed Bodhi his teeth—good for him. Young whippersnappers need to learn manners! We walked along with the group for a short stretch, with Bodhi still barking and bristling here and there along the way.

In the last two weeks, we’ve walked with the group a few more times. Bodhi’s behavior quickly improved, as long as treats didn’t enter the picture. If someone went to give their dog treats, the dogs would crowd around them and Bodhi would try to nose his way in, which could have led to skirmishes. But we’re all careful about that now. Besides, my plan was not for Bodhi to keep walking off leash; I only wanted him to remain free long enough to get comfortable with the other dogs without the leash restraint complicating things. Once that happened, he went back on leash, which is how we spent the last few sessions walking with the group, and Bodhi’s been fine. Yesterday was the second time I brought Sierra along. Because I could allow Bodhi to go right up to the dogs, I was able to allow Sierra to do so as well, thereby avoiding her erupting in lunging and barking. I was able to walk them both calmly on leash next to the other dogs together. This is huge! Here’s a video. If you didn’t know how much work went into getting Bodhi and Sierra to that point, you’d think it was just a bunch of calm, friendly dogs out for a nice, pack walk.

My overall plan had been to use a sort of backchaining to address Bodhi’s behavior issue, with the goal behavior of encountering other dogs while on leash and remaining calm. If Bodhi walking with the dogs off-leash was Phase I and his walking on-leash with them was Phase II, today was Phase III: encountering the other dogs at a distance while he was on leash. Fortunately, we arrived at the park when the group was still winding their way toward us on the dirt track. Bodhi, Sierra and I started walking toward them. Both dogs were pulling, but there was no vocalizing. (I did bribe Bodhi with two treats along the way to help him maintain his composure.) We were able to join the group and keep walking along with them without incident.

Despite what’s shown on television, simply tossing a dog in with a well-behaved pack of dogs doesn’t translate to the dog behaving well on leash in real-life circumstances. My hope is that by using this unorthodox method to get Bodhi and Sierra walking with other dogs on leash, their behavior will generalize to behaving better around new dogs while on leash. I am continuing to use classical conditioning as well, and after we walked with the off-leash group today, Bodhi and Sierra were able to sit 25-50 yards away from two beagles they’d never met before—and they kept it together. Our plan now is to just keep putting one paw in front of the other and keep working on it.

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