Reactive Dog: Foundation Exercises for Your Leash-Reactive Dog

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By Dr. Sophia Yin
1966-2014
Download the poster with the Focus Exercises here.

My dog knows how to walk on leash but when he sees a cat that he wants to chase or a dog he doesn’t like, he goes bonkers, lunging and barking, and I can barely control him. I try to use treats to get his attention but it doesn’t work. Is there anything else I should do?

You might think the answer is that if you try treats and they don’t work you should move to a method that’s more severe, such as yanking with a choke chain or pinch collar or something so aversive that it makes the dog want to stop. What you really should do is improve your technique and work at the distance from the distraction where you can keep the reactive Rover focused on you. That means not only rewarding the dog for appropriate behaviors to replace the unwanted ones, but also rewarding quickly enough (within 0.2 seconds). It also means making your body cues clear, and leading the dog to perform exercises in rapid succession so that it’s easy for him to have fun focusing on you rather than finding you boring compared to the environmental distractions. You’ll want to learn to guide your dog through exercises in rapid succession the way a dancer would lead his partner through a series of different steps. No time to pause and figure out what move you should do next or fumble around trying to get the rewards to Rover. You need quick and clear treat delivery technique, to move in ways that provide clear guidance, and to be able to flow right from one exercise to the next fluidly. The more you pause the more you allow your dog to wonder what you want and then lose focus and pay attention to something else.

The following is a set of ways that you can combine simple exercises of repeat sits backwards, heeling, changes of speed, and repeat sits on the side.

Changes of Direction

 

Pattern 1: Repeat sit backwards, change direction by turning 90°-180° and continuing with repeat sits backwards.

In the following exercise, perform repeat sits backwards 3-5 steps, ideally backing up at a speed of about 140 beats per minute (use a metronome) and rewarding your dog on a variable schedule for sitting when you stop. Then after 1-5 repeat sits, change directions 90° in a backwards L or to a backwards U turn and continue with the repeat sits backwards. Backwards exercises are especially good for keeping your dog focused on you. Remember that the goal is that your dog is focused and looking at you while catching up and while sitting.

Pattern 2: Repeat sits backwards, then change direction by turning 90, 180, 270 or 360° and heeling forward.

If your dog heels on your left side, then you should turn clockwise. If your dog heels on the right side, turn counterclockwise. Make sure that when you walk forward, your dog is at a comfortable trot. For most dogs, your pace will need to be 135-140 beats per minute (bpm). You’ll know if you’re going too slowly because your dog will switch between walking and trotting or your dog will just amble. In cases where there are distractions, traveling that slowly allows him to be more interested in other things.

Pattern 3: Heel forward, then change directions by switching to repeat sits backwards 90° (L pattern) or 180°.

The L pattern is simple. Just heel forward and then back up 90° in repeat sits. The 180° turn is trickier because it requires a complete change of direction on your part. You heel forward at a brisk pace (135-140 bpm for most dogs) and then suddenly back up in the direction you came from, ideally at 140 bpm. He should be watching you when heeling forward and he should be used to following quickly after in repeat sits backwards. So this change of direction should be fun and exciting for him.

 

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Pattern 4: Heel forward, then change directions by turning 90°-180° and heel in the new direction.

The exercises involving backwards movement are generally required for the more highly reactive dog and dogs earlier in their stages of training. Exercises where dogs can heel forwards and focus on the owner around distractions should be used only when you know you can keep the dog focused heeling forwards. You can heel forward and then do a 90° turn away from your dog or an about-turn.

Pattern 5: Heel forward and change directions by turning towards the dog either 90° or 180°.

Similar to pattern 4, in this case you’re turning towards the dog. The 90° turn is simple. The 180° turn requires your dog to walk up and down the same line and you to walk up one line and down a separate parallel line.

Pattern 6: Changes in speed—speeding up.

Another method for keeping dogs engaged with and focused on you is with changes of speed. Go from regular focused walking (135 bpm) to a sudden jog of 180 bpm for just 3-5 steps. Then decrease back down to a regular walk.

Pattern 7: Changes in speed—quick stops with repeat sits in heel position.

This exercise works best if you’re walking at 135 bpm and even if you sometimes jog 3-5 steps and then stop. Make sure that you lean backwards when you stop as that motion is the clearest indicator that you are slowing down. If you accidentally lean forwards, your dog will actually walk past you before he realizes he should stop.

Now that you know the patterns, intersperse them into your regular walk with the goal that you can keep your dog focused on you the entire time you work on these. Once he can do these with low distractions, work with him around higher distractions on the walk. In other words, if you see a dog that he might react to, work at a distance from the dog where your technique is good enough to keep him focused on doing the exercise with you rather than on the dog. As you improve, you should be able to graduate from doing more of the backwards exercises to using the easier forward heeling patterns more often.

Stay tuned for the next blog where you will learn how to incorporate these patterns when you need to get by a distraction or let a distraction pass.

Download the poster with the Focus Exercises here.

Dr. Yin passed away in 2014 but her legacy lives on here.

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8 responses to “Reactive Dog: Foundation Exercises for Your Leash-Reactive Dog

  1. I wish people would follow through with their dog’s training. It seems like a lot of work, especially for a person working full-time. Unfortunately, one reads too often of a dog (such as a pit-bull) attacking and killing humans and other dogs. I blame the dog owners.
    My own Portuguese Water Dog, who loves to play with other dogs, was attacked by a pit-bull on a local beach. The pit-bull was leashed, but the dog owner could not control the dog. The dog dragged the woman on the ground while the pit bull had my dog by the throat. A passer-by assisted by smashing the pit-pull in the face with a rock so he would release my $2,000, playful dog. I don’t think a leash on either dog would have prevented this confrontation. Dogs trained to kill in the ring should not be kept as pets under any circumstances.

    1. I’m assuming that you support the ban on bully breeds… “Dogs trained to kill in the ring should not be kept as pets under any circumstances.” How do you know that this person’s dog was used as a fighting dog? The fighting instinct has mostly been bred out of bully breeds, but in cases where the dog is uncomfortable, fight or flight instincts always come in. This is true with any animal, not just dogs. There are dogs who were part of Michael Vick’s dog fighting operation that were rehabilitated and went to great homes with no problem. I believe a couple even became therapy dogs. It depends each individual dog, not a whole breed. It comes down to proper training and socialization of the dog in a variety of situations. Labs and goldens who are thought to one of the sweetest breeds can behave just as terribly as pits if they aren’t trained properly. Ultimately it’s the fault of the owner, not the dog because the dog doesn’t know any better if they aren’t trained to know what is and isn’t appropriate. People should really do more research on dogs and be prepared to handle any behavioral or medical issues that may become a problem. I think it definitely would’ve helped if your dog was leashed because he/she might have gotten too close for comfort or startled the pit. My dog is also very playful and doesn’t understand personal space or boundaries so I always have her leashed. I’m sorry for what happened to your dog and you obviously care for him/her, but putting a price tag on your dog to gain sympathy is kind of pathetic. A dog is a dog, whether it is $20 or $2000. OBVIOUSLY people are allowed to have their own opinion, this is just mine. Have a good day 🙂

  2. I have this issue with a 200 lb. English Mastiff. I have learned to prevent it before it happens by standing in front of him and making him watch me. I had to learn not to let him walk point because he thought he was on guard duty. There are still things that set him off but I watch him for cues and redirect him. He hates when people have hoods on. Nothing worse than a agitated 200 lb. dog.

  3. I’m sorry your dog was hurt by a Pitbulm – but no. If your dog was leashes it never would have happened. YOUR dog was not in control, either. Never assume that because your dog loves other dogs, that other dogs will love it. Look up SINKs on Facebook, you may learn something.

  4. My dog has been reactive for two years, I have taking him to training, stalk dogs at pet store parking lots feeding him treats when he sees another dog. He is a great student, knows when there are treats, changed the energy in my walk and still him will take me down if he see another dog. Not many dog owners in my small town like my German shepherd.

    1. One thing that you can try with your German Shepherd is the distance method. I had to do this with mine, (I’m not saying what worked for me will work for you but worth a try). You start far away from the distraction “IE” dogs. Come in to where he notices them but doesn’t pass the threshold of no return. Reward for not reacting and continue to get closer and closer but do not rush it. It will take you time and patience as well as alot of effort to remember where you left off last time. These methods do work it just takes time and patience that most people don’t have.

    2. I have the same problem with my GSD! She is 9 months and I’ve been in weekly group and private training. My trainer keeps insisting on the constant treat/conditioning around other dogs but she goes beserk and I can hardly control her. It’s embarrassing and hard and I’m so frustrated. I’ve had several people tell me to move to a choke chain…

      1. we ended up hiring a behaviorist…I just finished watching the Reactive Dog training video by Sophia Yin and it was super helpful. I’ve been working with my reactive Aussie since she was 9months old. 1) we gave her a break from all interactions that caused reactions (windows covered, no walks around other dogs to give her brain a chance to calm down) 2) Train for attention- counter conditioning works, but if you watch the video, you see that treat speed and delivery can make or break you 3) Train a distance (I take her to school, keep her in a field far enough away from every distraction that she doesnt react because I know 3-4 dogs will walk by to pick up kids from school and I can move further away/hide behind my car if need be. Do not use a choke chain: get a gentle leader and a front snap harness for extra control. I use a leash splitter and adjust it so I have a great deal of control. Also, a doggy backpack seems to help. She just turned two and goes to doggy daycare and is working on joining a big pack walk. She still has trouble keeping herself from reacting at first when she meets a dog or person on a walk head on, but I can ALWAYS calm her down almost instantly. My last resort for emergency situations that I cant get out of is to crouch down by her and gently hold her muzzle down so she cannot see the other dog. Train her to look at you, focus on you, and trust you to take care of everything.

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