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I am intimately familiar with leash reactivity because Yankee exhibits this behavior (as did Rocky). He is fine off leash with most dogs, but when out walking, if he spots another dog, he initially starts by lying down, but then as the other dog gets close to us, he lunges.
Interestingly, he only does this in my neighborhood. When I take him to places like Lake Eola, he’s fine.
I don’t know what caused this behavior, Yankee has been this way since he was young. Behaviorists say causes range from lack of early socialization or training, or perhaps due to a traumatic event that happened to the dog.
The reactive dog is usually afraid of the approaching dog, and the leash essentially takes options away, restraining your dog and forcing him to get closer than he would like to the other dog. The barking, snarling, and/or lunging are the result of taking away your dog’s option of keeping his distance.
When you walk your reactive dog, you can actually add to the problem. This is because you anticipate his reaction, tense his leash and stiffen your body posture. This alerts your dog that there’s something coming that he needs to be concerned about, which worsens his reaction. It then becomes a vicious cycle.
Victoria Stillwell, celebrity dog trainer, says that punishment makes the behavior worse because the dog begins to associate punishment with what he fears. She recommends counterconditioning and desensitization to change a dog’s reaction to other dogs.
Using high value treats while working over time getting your dog closer and closer to other dogs is the best way to overcome this problem. Your dog will begin to positively associate treats with other dogs approaching, reducing or eliminating the fear.
Leash reactivity is an unpleasant behavior for both you and your dog. However, through positive reinforcement, you can change that behavior for the better. If you would like information on how to do this step by step, visit Care for Reactive Dogs.