Helping a dog to be less reactive to other dogs on leash is a tough assignment on a good day. Often, the dog has lunged and jumped at dogs while on leash many times over. This is a behavior that obviously needs to be corrected in order to have a pleasant experience on a walk.
So where do you start? The first thing you need to accomplish is loose leash walking. Why is this important? If your dog is walking ahead of you, he is in charge of the walk and he is (in his mind) assessing the situation for potential threats. By having your dog at your side on a loose leash, he has deferred his in-charge role to you and will be less likely to react without checking in with your first.
To walk your dog on a loose leash, you need patience as well. If your dog is used to being out front, pulling, or walking willy nilly, it will take time to teach him the right place to be. Using positive method training, you will need to walk with high-value treats in hand and reward him often when he is not pulling and is at your left side. Should he get out ahead of you, you need to say “let’s go!” and promptly turn around and walk in the opposite direction. Inevitably, you dog will start to pull ahead again, which should prompt you to, again, turn around, say “let’s go!” and walk in the opposite direction again. You will start to look like a crazy person not only to people around you, but also your dog! That’s OK, it may take a hundred walks in the opposite direction but eventually he will realize that the pulling is what is causing his walk to be interrupted and he will begin to walk with a loose leash by your side. All this time, as a reminder, you are rewarding him constantly for when he does walk at your side on a loose leash. Be sure to either use a clicker or the word “yes!” to mark each time he behaves the way you want him to, prior to giving him the treat.
Body language: Often a dog’s handler tenses up when other dogs approach or are nearby. That signal of tenseness travels down the leash and into the dog’s brain. You must work on being calm at all times.
“Look At Me!”. This is a command rarely introduced to your dog but is very important in training him to turn his focus from whatever stimulus he is reacting to back to your eyes. Teaching “Look At Me!” is easy and only takes a few minutes a day to practice. Simply take a treat, hold it out to your side so your pup focuses on it, then move your hand to in front of your nose (your dog’s eyes will follow), and say “Look At Me!”. After a while, you can just use your finger to move from your side to your nose and say the words. And eventually, you will only have to say “Look At Me!” without any hand gestures to get your dog to refocus on you. Remember, any time you are doing a command such as this, you need either a clicker or the word “yes!” to mark exactly when the correct behavior happens, PRIOR to giving him the treat.
Every dog, and I mean EVERY dog, has a threshold (an imaginary line) whereby on one side (away from the stimulus) they are not reactive at all and will focus on you and take treats, and on the other side they are redlining and unable to be reached with words or treats. Find a dog park or an area that has lots of dogs walking and locate a field or place at least 50 yards away from the action. Find that threshold and work with your dog behind it away from the stimuli (other dogs). You will need lots of high value treats for this. It’s better to work with someone who can hold the leash but if not, tether the leash to a tree or something solid. Now, every time your pup looks at the stimulus and remains non-reactive, immediately/instantaneously mark the behavior and give him a treat. You’ll need a lot of treats as he will be looking at the stimulus a lot. In time, he will look at the stimulus and then look at you before you even say anything. That is what you want. When this happens, your almost ready to move a little closer to the threshold. Continue with the process for a while longer and when it’s clear your dog is not going to react from this location and he is regularly checking in with you when he looks at the stimulus, you can move forward. How much you move forward is discretionary but in general, 5 feet is a good number. Once there, rinse and repeat the process as aforementioned.
It is up to your dog to let you know when he is ready to move forward toward the stimulus. It may take 20 minutes, or it may take a week, but it will happen. You just need extreme patience, and time to carry out this process. Eventually, you will make it up to the fence of the dog park, or up to the path where dogs walk by. Now you’re ready to make some introductions. See my blog “Introducing Your Dog to Other Dogs On Leash” to learn the next steps for successfully eliminating his leash reactivity to other dogs.