5 Tips for Walking a Reactive Dog
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If you’ve landed on this article, then you probably have a reactive dog (so do I). Walking a reactive dog can be challenging thing because so many people will tell you that you shouldn’t walk your dog in public if he barks and lunges.
I’m here to tell you that’s a load of bull.
I want to commend you, first off, for seeking out tips, tricks, and advice on how to make walking your dog easier! As the saying goes, “Practice makes perfect.” Your reactive dog will never get better at walking outside if you never do it.
TIP #1 – STOP WORRYING WHAT OTHERS THINK
I know, I know. I’ve been in your shoes with my own dog, so I do know this is easier said than done. I promise you though, if you can master this one thing, it does truly make everything easier.
When you’re walking a reactive dog and they bark or lunge, so many people immediately scan around them to see who saw and then immediately feel embarrassed and sometimes apologize. So what if the old due in the red shirt is looking at you with a judging face? What does that matter? You’ll likely never see him again. So what if you see Sally from the hair salon walking her dog and your dog starts reacting? Why are you worried about what Sally thinks? Maybe next time you do see Sally, you can talk to her about your dog reactivity and educate her instead. Then, maybe the next time she’s out and sees a dog barking and lunging, she won’t be so judgmental.
The point is, you will likely never see these people who are judging you ever again. Or if it is somebody that you do happen to run into on a daily basis, or semi frequent basis, then you can take that opportunity to talk to them about it the next time you see them, and spread awareness and educate them. Either way, just stop worrying about what they think, because it’s not worth your time. It’s not worth your energy. It’s only hindering you and your dog and your training progress.
You’re already doing the right thing by getting out with your dog and trying your best to train him so that he’s not reacting. That is what matters. Don’t let other people change that for you. Just keep on doing what you know is right and doing right by your dog.
TIP #2 – TEACH YOUR DOG AN EMERGENCY U-TURN
This is most useful when you’re walking on a trail and see someone with a dog, or whatever your dog’s trigger is, coming towards you. You immediately cue your dog to turn around with you and follow you and stay focused on you, instead of looking back and reacting. If you’re walking quickly, this will buy you some time to either get the trigger out of your dog’s line of sight, or you can get to a safer, wider space where you can let the trigger pass you.
TIP #3 – ALWAYS CARRY HIGH VALUE TREATS
Using low value treats or even your dog’s kibble at home is perfectly fine, but when you’re out and about, actively working on a reactivity protocol and not sure if you will run into triggers, you absolutely must carry high value treats with you, just in case.
I typically carry a baggie of regular treats and high value treats on me. That way, if I just want to reward my dog with a regular treat, I can. Then, if a trigger comes up, I can use the high value treats.
Some ideas for high value treats:
- cubed cheddar cheese
- plain (not seasoned) meatballs
- cooked plain beef or chicken
- spray cheese
- peanut butter in a squeeze tube
TIP #4 – MAKE SURE YOUR DOG IS WEARING GOOD GEAR
You should always inspect your dog’s gear before you put it on. Look got ratings like tears, cracks, fraying. If something isn’t in good repair, don’t use it. No walk is worth risking your dog’s safety.
I recommend using a well-fitted, non-restrictive harness with a standard, 6-foot leash attached to a back clip (and of course a collar with identification tags). For an extra layer of safety, you can also attach a safety strap from the leash to your dog’s collar.
My harness recommendations are:
- Ruffwear Flagline – My own dog wears this one, and it has an added strap for extra security.
- Ruffwear Front Range
- Perfect Fit harness
- Blue 9 Balance harness
For leashes, I use custom biothane leashes from High Tail Hikes. I love the quality and color options, and they have options for locking carabiners which is the only thing I use. I’ve seen far too may regular leash snaps break.
TIP #5 – TEACH YOUR DOG TO HEEL WITH ENVIRONMENTAL CUES
This is complex and something I teach my private clients, but the premise is that you want to teach your dog that his trigger is actually an environmental cue to perform a behavior (like a nice heel). This is good for a couple reasons:
- It takes some pressure off you. You don’t have to worry quite so much about scanning the environment for triggers. If your dog sees the trigger before you, they perform the behavior themselves.
- If you opt for the behavior to be a focused heel like I do, then your dog is atomically right by your side and focused on you. This makes it easier to start rewarding your dog and to reel him in close to you so you can step off the trail if needed.
I did leave this one purposefully at #5 because this is a learned skill that can take quite awhile to teach, but it has been the single most helpful thing for me in working with reactivity. It also translates nicely off the trail to things like interactions with strangers at the vet or around the neighborhood.
Now that you have some tips for walking with a reactive dog, I encourage you to get out on the trails! Remember, above all else, forget what everyone else thinks and just do what is right by your dog.