The 2019 Midwestern Veterinary Conference once again provided exceptional sessions on a variety of topics from “Surgery in Pet Fish” (which I didn’t attend) to “Common Behavioral Problems in Working Dogs” (which I did attend). I spent two days in a special lab on “Aggression in Dogs: Defensive Handling and Training” and I attended several sessions offered by Dr. Christopher Pachel*, a veterinary animal behaviorist from Portland Oregon. His session on leash reactive dogs was great and he offered a lot of insights as well as practical solutions for dealing with canines who lose their minds while out walking.

The first thing he did was to define leash reactivity as “the term commonly used to describe a dog that engages in any combination of barking, snarling, growling, or lunging toward people, other dogs, or other specific stimuli when on leash.” Reactivity can result from a variety of reasons, including fear, frustration, or arousal. He also emphasized that it is “important to identify whether this is truly an isolated problem, or whether similar behavior happens in other circumstances as well.” If a dog shows similar reactivity  in various situations, then leash reactivity may well be a symptom of a more far reaching problem. If you are uncertain as to the pervasiveness of your dog’s reactivity, consult a positive reinforcement trainer, or a behaviorist who can help you to clarify the situation, as well as create an effective treatment plan.

Helping your dog to overcome his reactivity can be a pretty straightforward endeavor, but it is imperative to understand not only what triggers your dog’s reactivity, but the concepts (such as thresholds and recovery time) behind the treatment plan. Knowing how much and when to expose your dog to its triggers, and when and how to effectively avoid them, as well as building strong foundational skills, can make the difference between success and frustration or failure.

One terrific source for help with establishing foundation skills as well as reducing or nearly eliminating leash reactivity** is the Instinct Dog Training: Leash Reactive Dog Course. This FREE program is great, and a terrific place to start learning how to handle your dog in tough situations. It has 5 parts, and I cannot emphasize enough the importance of doing each part in order. If you want to change your dog’s behavior, then it will happen the quickest, safest, and most effectively if you follow their instructions and build your skills and your dog’s skills in a logical, systematic fashion.

Here are the 5 Parts:

  1. Part 1: Getting Started. 
    -Your Course Roadmap
    -Tools for Success
    -Rewards that Work
    Get a clear picture of what this course includes, how it works, and what you’ll need to get started.
  2. Part 2: Key Concepts
    -Leash Reactivity:
    What, Why, How to Help
    -Threshold, Frequency, Recovery Time
    Review important behavior concepts before you jump int0 hands-on training.
  3. Part 3: Foundation Skills
    -Unprompted Attention
    -Leash Pressure Cues
    -Loose Leash Walking
    Learn how to teach your dog the three foundation skills every leash reactive dog should know.
  4. Part 4: Defensive Handling for Everyday Encounters-U-Turn -Arc-By -Call-to-Front
    Learn three defensive handling techniques to use with your dog to reduce episodes of lunging and barking.
  5. Part 5: Changing Your Dog’s Emotional Response to Triggers
    -Understanding the Stress Response
    -Setting up Counterconditioning Sessions
    Learn to use principles of counterconditioning & desensitization to change your dog’s emotional response to triggers.

How long this process takes depends on several factors, but they estimate that it will take you 10-16 weeks. As they put it:

Remember, every dog is different. The timeframes included above are estimates. Your rate of progress will vary based on your dog’s starting reactivity level and learning history; the complexity of your environment; and the time you have available to practice.
As you make your way through the course, watch for positive trends in your dog’s behavior, and try not to get discouraged by the occasional bad day!

I have been working through the materials and videos and they are universally excellent, easy to follow, and encouraging to owners! I would invite anyone who has concerns about their dog’s behavior on leash to take a look at this program. Even if your dog is not leash reactive, there are some great foundation skills to learn and practice, as well as techniques that can keep you and your dog safe and happy on walks where you encounter an over the top canine. 

*Dr. Pachel joined Colleen Pelar and me on Your Family Dog for two episodes. You can check them out here:

Puppy Socialization with Dr. Christopher Pachel, Episode 1: Trauma and Your Puppy

Puppy Socialization with Dr. Christopher Pachel, Episode 2: Over Stimulation

**It is important to understand that behavior cannot be unlearned. If your dog has learned to react in a given way (such as barking or snapping at another dog), that particular behavior cannot be fully eliminated or cured. But, it can be reduced or greatly diminished, depending on the circumstances. As one veterinarian at MVC said, “Think of aggression like cancer, we hope to get it into remission.”