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Stopping Reactivity on Dog Walks

This is a topic I’ve personally been working hard on over the last six months with my personal dog Kaya. She’s always been excited (and a little nervous) when she sees other dogs on walks. Her reactions weren’t usually bad, some pulling and whining noises.

 

About six months ago, she started to really let her bark out when she saw other dogs. Why? For one, we used to live in a country setting where we would only hike trails and walk on quiet country roads. We moved a mile outside of a cute CNY village about two and half years ago and started walking in the village more. Kaya was so nervous in this ‘unnatural’ environment. To the untrained eye, she looked like a well-behaved dog, but in reality she was on edge and in a freeze response state. This barking ‘issue’ started once she felt comfortable in the village. In all honestly, I was excited to see it because her guard-down personality we see at home was now showing in an environment that used to scare her.

 

Her reactivity in this environment is dog-specific because dogs are the most comfortable outlet for her to express her energy. There is a lot of stimulation in a village setting; cars, trucks, people walking, dogs walking, dogs barking from their yards and windows, kids running around, bikers, shops, etc. Dogs need an outlet for all this energy they have absorbed, and for Kaya that outlet is other dogs. She wants to bark and pull against the resistance of the leash toward the dog. These are natural behaviors for a dog that I don’t want to suppress (suppressing anyone’s natural behavior always has a negative consequence). Instead, I teach how to channel that energy appropriately towards the outlet I want her to be most attracted to…me!

 

Here are the exercises I use with Kaya.

We initially taught everything at home first, then practiced in quiet parts of town where I was confident we could create enough distance from other dogs and anything stressful. As Kaya succeeded, we increased the difficulty of the environment.

 

  • Hand feeding- Kaya loves food, so if she won’t eat she’s too stressed. That says we need to move to a quieter spot or our session went too long.


  • Sniffari w/ occasional recall- I let Kaya sniff around to acclimate to the environment before doing any exercise. I will throw in an occasional recall to start building up her engagement with me. I also reward her for any organic check-ins.

  • Some dogs do better with structured exercises off the bat. I personally found this wasn’t helpful with Kaya, and she was way more engaged with me if I just let her sniff for a minute or two first.


  • Contact work- I walk backwards and handfeed Kaya while she follows me. I also ask her to “Hup,” and she will put her front paws on my torso to get the food while I continue walking backwards. When Kaya is stimulated by something, she wants to make contact with it. The more we practice contact work with me, the more we ingrain in her that I’m her pathway for contact. Fast forward through the process to where we are now, Kaya can walk nicely next to me past most distractions about 8-10 feet away (an excitable/reactive dog we give more space to), and once we are past, I’ll ask her to Speak and/or Hup and we continue on our way.


  • Speak- She wants to bark, and again, I want her to learn I’m her outlet. Kaya now looks at me as we’re passing distractions and is anticipating the speak command. She collects herself eagerly until I say “Speak!” and then she lets out a bark and we continue on.


  • Watching the world- We’ll periodically stop and just watch what’s going on in the environment. When Kaya is interested in something and disengages, I mark with “Yes,” and follow up with food. If a distraction is too much, we’ll move to one of the above exercises.


  • Direction + pace changes- We walk around and I switch directions as soon as I notice she’s out of the group mind and starting to tune into other things in the environment. I also switch directions randomly to keep her on her toes. I always pick up speed when I turn and keep that speed for at least a couple paces when she catches up, and then we slow down. Randomly changing pace is also great! We’ll sprinkle in a Hup and Speak too. All of this is great for her prey drive and helps to fulfill the predation cycle (a post for another time). In Kaya’s mind, she must stay tuned in to me because she doesn’t know what’s going to happen next.


  • Advocated for her space!! Kaya’s a cute, petite 40lb pitbull and I always get asked if people and their kids can pet her. She’s not aggressive, but I also know she doesn’t want to be pet. I say no, sorry she’s nervous of people/kids. She needs to feel confident that I have her back.


  • We don’t say hi to other dogs. Being confined to a 7 foot leash is not the time for play and interaction. If we want to have social time with another dog in that environment, we walk together.


  • My final strategy is PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE. I can’t tell you how many days I felt like we were missing something or I doubted my own methods. In reality, I just needed to give it time and keep up consistent practice. One day it seemed like the momentum just took off and all of a sudden our walks were amazing. Don’t get me wrong, we still have a day here and there that isn’t perfect, but that’s life. I now want to walk with Kaya all the time because of how enjoyable it is.

 

Struggling with reactivity on your walks? Interested in how you can start channeling your dog’s natural behaviors to you? Reach out to us! Info@sordogs.com


Happy dog hiking
Hiking past another dog while on a hike without reactivity.


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