Leash Reactivity – Why Does It Happen?

11114005_10152979326416765_8724177486997511075_oA lead or leash is obviously a very necessary walking tool to ensure our dogs remain safe and is even a legal requirement in some areas. It is, however, one of the more neglected aspects of dog keeping, and, because of this, it is a source of problems.

Many dog-dog and dog-human aggression and chase cases that I see have inadequate leash preparation as a major contributing factor in the development of the problem. Why is this? Well, I look at it from the perspective of the 3Rs and their consequences:

  1. Reduction = Anxiety
  2. Restriction = Frustration
  3. Restraining = Arousal

The first R - reduction - I came up with to encompass a key problem with being on a leash - that the dog has reduced ability and opportunities to implement coping mechanisms. Coping mechanisms are the set of behaviours animals implement when feeling stressed. It has been found that these reduce levels of circulating stress hormones and, therefore, contrary to original belief, serve a clear function to the animal. The obvious and principal one for most animals is the choice to fight or flight. Opportunities for both of these are reduced on the leash. This means that on a leash, dogs have a reduced capacity to cope with negative associations that they may encounter. Further to this, less problematic coping mechanisms like:

  • fleeing
  • hiding
  • seeking out owner
  • lip licking and other signals

are relatively ineffective in making the trigger disappear. This is where the animal must then get creative after exhausting the more typical responses and may lunge, redirect onto the owner or a canine companion, redirect onto the lead or even redirect onto itself. This is when they are often presented to me for “strange” problems, which relate to exhausting the limited potential coping strategies that are available and effective when on a leash.

The second R is restriction and relates to dogs not having access to the things that they wish to access. The more arousing these things that they want to access are, the more problematic this can be! This results in frustration, and frustration can cause a lot of problems:

  1. It can generalise from, for example, one individual dog to all dogs, creating a barking, lunging mess at the site of another dog
  2. It can result in redirecting and other inappropriate behaviours, putting you and your dog in harm’s way
  3. It can develop into a negative association, creating a dog that now, for example, doesn’t like other dogs from a dog that loved them too much.

We are sure you can see how this is then a very vicious cycle as these dogs then are also at the peril of the first R - reduction! Dog-dog aggression as a consequence of initial overarousal, exuberance and subsequent frustration is one of the least considered aspects of preventative dog training and a hole in many people’s dog training.0O6A0129

The third R is restraint. We have discussed how anxiety and fear responses can be perpetuated on leash and how frustration can develop. Now, the last thing you would want in this situation is to add some arousal in there! Let’s imagine a dog pulling ahead on its harness or collar, maybe with the owner screaming to slow down or “heel” behind him/her. Now let’s imagine another scenario, restraining for a race to a toy, restraining for agility equipment or restraining for a recall. Anybody see the similarity?

Restrains are used in dog training to build arousal into the subsequent behaviour or behaviour chain, but that’s the last thing we want when presented with a trigger of fear or frustration. Thats dangerous! But it’s exactly what happens when dogs pull ahead on the leash when they see a trigger - they restrain themselves for some very inappropriate behaviours that may include redirecting onto you! Not ideal!! It’s really important to remember that this “restrain” can be a result of the owner too. Tightening the leash because you are worried about how your dog will behave when presented with something means that the dog probably shouldn’t be in that situation in the first place and will only make it worse, increasing the arousal associated with the situation.

So these make up the 3Rs of the development of leash reactivity BUT what can we do about it? How can we negate the 3Rs?? I’ll discuss these in my next blog!

Read part 2 on stopping leash reactivity here. 

We have made a free video seminar including teaching and practical reward-based game demos as really want this quality learning to get out there to help reactive, distracted, overaroused, etc., dogs. Check it out at: http://nbn.absolute-dogs.com/blueprint

Dr. Tom Mitchell BSc BVSc MRCVS


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Positively Expert: absoluteDogs

Tom is a veterinarian, clinical behaviourist and companion and sports dog trainer, providing a unique perspective on all things dog.


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