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Why Does My Dog React on Walks? Effective Strategies for Reducing Reactivity

“Walking with Leo is stressful and embarrassing! He randomly barks and lunges on leash. Otherwise, he is a great dog and we love him to bits!”

Why would a friendly, social dog act so aggressively? If this is your dog, rest assured you are not alone. On-leash dog reactivity is a common challenge in the city. Reactive behaviour such as barking, growling, and lunging can happen at any age. As if a switch flipped, the social butterfly becomes Cujo.

A simple explanation is not enough to account for the dog’s underlying emotions and the complexity of dog behaviour. It is in our dog’s best interest to try to understand the bigger picture. Behaviour is a fantastic mixture of genetics and environment starting before birth. Let’s look at why behaviour is more stew than potatoes!

Your Dog’s Unique Experience. Each dog is one of a kind. In the same way, you and your siblings are not the same, neither are littermates or dogs of the same breed or mix. Biologist Jakob von Uexkull, in 1909 coined the term, Umwelt to describe an animal’s unique experience of the world. How your dog experiences their world may be quite different than that of you or your neighbour’s dog.

We know that olfaction, a dog’s primary sense, is responsible for scenting abilities far beyond ours. Dogs are less attuned to visual detail but are extraordinarily skilled in seeing in low light and noticing movement. What you see as a dog or stranger approaching on walks, may not be what your dog experiences. Black dogs, for example, might trigger reactivity but how they smell, move or sound could be the attention-grabber. The fact they come directly toward your dog may be more upsetting, than for example the coat colour. Given it is the dog’s unique experience, we can not reliably predict what will be upsetting, attractive, or scary at any time.

A black and white dog is pulling frantically forward on the leash and pulling a woman who has an open mouth with one arm reaching out to the side, hand wide open and the other hand on the dog leash.
A stressed dog parent is being pulled by her reactive dog, who is lunging at the end of the leash.

Fear, a Big Ticket Emotion. While our understanding of dog emotions is in its infancy, we know that dogs generally display similar behaviours in emotional contexts. On-leash reactivity, for example, is behaviour that is consistently reported in similar contexts. While dogs can not tell us how they are feeling, they have brain areas similar to humans, so from a survival perspective, dogs who respond emotionally when threatened, have a survival advantage.

On a walk, your dog’s safety concerns will ebb and flow with the changing landscape. On-leash city dogs may not be able to freely change direction away from a perceived threat. With each step you take, your dog’s heart may quicken as their body prepares for action. Reactions happen fast and explosively. Barking and lunging is the dog’s attempt to scare everybody back and maintain personal safety. With rehearsal, dogs get very good at reactivity and it becomes a habit.

You may be wondering if all is lost, but wait. There is much we can do. Dogs, like all animals, learn in real-time. With a well-thought-out behaviour plan for new learning, we can change emotions and teach a new way for your dog to behave.

Pain has an Emotional Component. Dogs are generally very good at hiding pain but it is widely believed pain plays a role in behaviour problems. Researchers Daniel Mills et al, (2), found underlying pain in 28 to 82% of the dog behaviour cases they reviewed. Because pain can be mostly invisible, a veterinary pain evaluation is always a good idea.

Frustration is Frustrating. Dogs are motivated to reach their desired goals. Access to other dogs, and people, a chance to chase critters, follow scents on the ground, and scavenge for food are just a few highly sought-after rewards. When access is denied by a tightened leash, some dogs become frustrated and this can tip over into aggression. Consider a child’s temper tantrum or a screaming customer whose lunch order was missed. Frustrated people sometimes become aggressive, too. It comes from really wanting something that is out of reach and could be the source of your dog’s reactivity.

Stress Plays a Part. While good stress has positive effects such as the feeling a dog has waiting for the ball to be thrown, bad or chronic stress and trauma make it more difficult for dogs to regulate their emotions. Some dogs are just better in general at keeping their cool. Chronically stressed dogs tend to view the world with pessimism and anticipate poor outcomes while those who experience happy, positive experiences are more likely to be optimistic. How can we decrease our dogs' stress on walks?

Choose safe walking gear that provides a sense of choice and freedom. A well-fitted harness and a loose leash go a long way in making your dog feel free. A study of dogs who did scent work found they were more optimistic than those who did heel work, so give your dog lots of loose-leash sniffing time on walks. (1)

Happy, open mouthed English Bulldog looking up at owner with leash in her hand.
A happy dog is looking up to the dog parent in anticipation of a reward.

How to Make Sense of the “Reactivity Stew.” Reactivity has many ingredients from the dog’s internal chemistry and external experience. Your dog’s genetic makeup, learning history, internal state, and motivation are all mixed into the “stew” of behaviour. While we might not completely understand what causes your dog’s reactivity, it is safe to say that there may be many contributing factors. If you worry that it is something you did or didn’t do, let that thought go. Today is a good day to start changing your dog’s reactivity and look forward to happy walking adventures together!

Tips to Help Your Reactive Dog. When safe:

  • Give your dog the full length of the leash to sniff and explore.

  • Enjoy “guided tours” by the dog, where they choose the direction to go.

  • Allow the dog to move from one side of you to the other, following scent.

  • Keep a generous distance from triggers that previously led to reactivity.

  • When your dog notices a trigger, give yummy treats and change direction.

  • If you get too close and your dog reacts, drag further away. This is not the time for training.

  • Avoid areas where the dog has a long history of reacting. Choose new and less problematic locations.

  • Celebrate your successes by counting opportunities to react that were fine.

Ending reactivity takes time, training, and patience, but the change is worth it. Ocean Park Dog Training has helped people with dog-reactivity for over 10 years. Contact us to begin on a new and happier path with your amazing dog!

Bonnie Hartney CTC

Ocean Park Dog Training

1. Duranton, C., & Horowitz, A. (2019). Let me sniff! Nosework induces positive judgment bias in pet dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 211, 61-66.

2. Mills, D. S., Gruen, M., Klinck, M. P., McPeake, K. J., Barcelos, A. M., Hewison, L., Van Haevermaet, H., Denenberg, S., Hauser, H., Koch, C., Ballantyne, K., Wilson, C., Mathkari, C. V., Pounder, J., Garcia, E., Darder, P., Fatjó, J., & Levine, E. (2020). Pain and Problem Behavior in Cats and Dogs. Animals, 10(2), 318.

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