By Marcy Eckhardt
La Plata County Humane Society
Dogs need practice to keep their socialization skills in tune. They need opportunities to play with other dogs, interact and even ignore. Many dogs do well off-leash with other dogs but struggle on leash.
When a dog greets a dog they don’t immediately recognize, they take a second to ascertain the situation, gain some footing (set themselves up for an easy get-away), then engage.
When dogs are on a leash, they’re stuck. They’re forced to engage in an imperfect situation, and when some dogs feel stuck, they erupt. It’s not that they don’t like other dogs, they just don’t like the situation.
But we can help them through this. Our dogs love to do stuff for us, even if that stuff is something we don’t want; like protecting us from someone or something. People with a reactive dog are on heightened alert, constantly looking for an upcoming threat. This alone signals to your dog that they too need to be on guard.
Keeping tension out of the leash is key to helping your dog get over their issues. Take a second to breathe. Realize that your dog is using your reactions as a guide as to how they should react.
Another way to help your pup is to be sure to position your body between them and whatever they perceive as the threat. Doing this every time signals to your dog that you’re aware of what’s going on and that you have their back – they don’t need to react.
Also, don’t slow down. Get past the situation, then take a second to check in on your pup.
When you and your pup are standing still, it’s imperative to give them something to do. Practice behaviors they already know – the key is to distract them with exercises, allowing them to deal appropriately.
If your dog won’t take a treat they would normally devour, they’re too close to the other dog. Take a couple of steps back and try again. Getting distance is a great way to get your dog to lower their defenses and let them know you understand they’re struggling.
Dogs are notorious for making associations; when you pick up their bowl, they know they’re going to eat. But be careful about making associations you don’t want. If every time a dog sees another dog, their neck is pinched, they’ll quickly associate other dogs with pain. Training and outings should be centered around fun, encouragement and learning, not pain.
Most of all, be patient. Changing a dog’s behavior takes time. Note weekly or monthly progress in order to see changes in your pup’s demeanor, reactivity and responses to you.
Marcy Eckhardt is director of pranaDOGS Behavior and Rehab Center and is a behavior consultant and trainer for La Plata County Humane Society. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.