Originally posted in June 2013
In my last blog about walking puppies off leash (https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/26/off-leash/ )I had a few comments on the Dogs in the Park Facebook page about how this made owners of reactive dogs cringe. One respondent said that my last blog was too nuanced for beginner trainers, and could lead to people letting their dogs off leash in places where they might encounter her large strong dog reactive dog. Let me just excerpt a couple of sentences from that blog to make certain that if you are reading about going off leash with your puppy you are clear about my intent
“The pinnacle of my relationship with my dogs is being able to take them off leash and walk with them anytime, anywhere. Being ABLE to do so is different from choosing to do so when it would not be in their best interest, but being able to do so is magic.”
In case people are not clear, being able to take my dogs off leash implies that I will take more into account than just removing the leash. Choosing to do so when it is dangerous is not my intent. There are a number of issues related to taking a puppy off leash, and the first of those issues is choosing to do so only when it is in your pup’s best interest.
“The more new places I can go, the better in my opinion, but I have to keep a bunch of things in mind. I don’t want to run into other dogs, especially dogs I don’t know. That could expose my puppy to diseases I don’t want him to catch, or to behaviours I don’t want him to experience. I also don’t want to run into the stools of unknown dogs because I want to protect my young pup from worms.”
Again, if you are unclear, I want you to steer clear of the dogs who might be reactive or who might carry diseases or who might be upset by your off leash puppy. If I don’t know your dog, I don’t let my youngster off leash. I am not as worried about what my pup might do to your dog in this case, but I am worried about what your dog might teach my puppy. If you have a reactive dog, I don’t want my puppy to learn anything from him, and so it is the responsibility of the dog owner to act in their dog’s best interest, which means not bringing my pup into a place where your dog might get upset and my pup might be frightened.
“I don’t want to run into predators either. Hawks and owls can easily take a young small puppy. Coyotes, wolves and bears are also a concern in some parts of Canada. Even foxes can be a problem and will take a small dog if they stumble across it. Water can be another natural hazard to be aware of. About four years ago in Guelph, a young pup was playing on the ice and fell in and drowned. Fast water, deep water, ice and hidden water are all things I keep in mind when I am taking my puppies out for their first excursions into the natural world.”
This advice could also include roads, cars, bikes, and anything else in the environment that could cause harm to my puppy. In the last blog I was very specific about the owner’s responsibility to keep their dog safe. Now I want to address that same issue with reactive dogs in mind.
When you live with a reactive dog, you have a huge responsibility to keep your dog below threshold. By keeping your dog below threshold, you are taking active steps to avoid situations where your dog is not going to go off and become reactive. If your dog is reactive to children, then please, don’t go to the local school yard or playground in the name of training your dog. This is neither fair to your dog or to the children you are exposing him to.
|Allowing your dog to get triggered is not only unfair and unsafe to the public at large it is very unfair to your dog. As the owner of a reactive dog it is your job to prevent this from happening by choosing your walk locations both on and off leash carefully. The more often that your dog is triggered, the more he is going to behave this way. Image credit: fouroaks / 123RF Stock Photo|
If your dog is reactive to other dogs, then taking him through a park where other dogs run is irresponsible, even if it is against the law for those dogs to be running there. If this sounds like I am condoning dog owners breaking the law let me assure you I am not. I would really like everyone to follow their local leash laws, but the fact is that people ARE letting their dogs run illegally and if you walk your reactive dog into that situation, then he is going to react. You are your dog’s advocate and he doesn’t know what the risks are when choosing your walking route.
In my opinion, off leash activities in natural areas are important not only for dogs but also for children. The child who has never set foot in a natural area is much poorer for the lack. As a former outdoor educator, I am keenly tuned in to what happens when we isolate ourselves from nature, and the results of children being isolated from nature are huge. This is also true for dogs. So what do you do when you have a reactive dog who is unable to get out to walk off leash in the natural world?
The first thing is to get out a map, or open up Google Earth and take a close look at your neighbourhood. What is the closest green area on the map? In many suburban environments, you will now find causeways between housing developments that allow water to run off naturally. These green spaces are often un-used and available to bring your reactive dog to for exercise and stimulation. The areas under hydro allowances are also often available. Then there areas of crown or state land that are open to the public but little used. When you look at Google Earth, you will find green in very unexpected places. One of the most common places that I find green in urban areas is abutting industrial basins.
Once you have looked at the map, go visit without your dog. Really. This is the important preplanning that you must do to avoid the puppies I am sending out to do normal off leash walking. When you go, spend time looking for evidence of other humans in the area. Yes, there are stray dogs and that is a risk, but you can often find areas in very urban settings where there is green space available to walk along, where few people go. You are looking for things like fresh litter (the semi decayed and crushed water bottle that is half covered in mud is not recent; the whole shiny chip bag that has been stepped upon is), footprints, bike tire prints, pawprints, and crushed vegetation. If you are finding a lot of fresh evidence mark that location as a possible, but not likely place. If you actually meet people there, then cross that location off the map. Visit several places, and if you find one where there is no evidence of people, you have scored a walking area. If you have found some places with some evidence of people walking there, visit a few times and see if you can determine when you can avoid people.
|This is an excellent site for working with a reactive dog. I can see if there are other people or dogs in the distance and take steps to avoid problems while allowing my dog the opportunity to walk in a very normal way. If I am concerned about my dog biting, I will muzzle him even if I don’t expect to meet anyone. Muzzling is more preplanning you can do to help your dog have a successful off leash experience. Preplanning is all about making sure that if it could go wrong, it doesn’t. I teach all dogs including non reactive dogs to wear a muzzle. In this case, Eco was wearing a muzzle because he was on our reactive dog walk where all the dogs wear muzzles as a safety precaution. I also teach a rock solid down at a distance so that I can put the brakes on if I need to do so. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander|
This link leads to the map of where I hold my reactive dog walks. http://tinyurl.com/jvpuy8e . Over the four years I have been walking there with dogs with behaviour problems I have never met a person or dog there, and yet it is right in a neighbourhood full of hundreds of people who could walk there if they wanted to do so. If you look at the “A” marked on the map, that is where Dogs in the Park is, so this is a short three minute walk from the training hall. I visited this location every Sunday for three weeks before moving my walk there; I wanted to be certain that I would not run into people with my crew of reactive dogs. Preplanning pays off.
Not only must you preplan where you are going to take your dog, but you must preplan what you are going to do. If you are the owner of a reactive dog, you have a responsibility to always attend to that dogs’ behaviour. If you are not able to attend to him at all times, then you may not be able to work with your dog off leash. While walking your reactive dog off leash, you need to be aware that on public property, anyone could show up at any time and you need to be aware of what is happening around you and be ready to call your dog back to you and leave if it is no longer in your dog’s best interest to have him off leash. Keep in mind this isn’t about your right to do this activity; this is all about your responsibility to YOUR dog. Being responsible to YOUR dog keeps my dog safe. This is not an activity to do with your kids, or when you have a head ache; this is an activity to do when you can give your whole attention to what you are doing.
|This is our off leash reactive dog walk called the Good Dog Walk. All of the dogs have behaviour problems of one sort or another. Everyone is paying attention to the dogs in order to assure that we can prevent any problems from happening. If you are unable to attend to your dog, then don’t take him out! Photo Credit: Sue Alexander|
If the area is not fenced and you think your dog might bolt, then dragging a long line is a great idea. 30 metres of long line dragging will allow you to catch your dog at any time, but allow the line to drag. Don’t try and hold onto it. Use a piece of bright tape to make off 10, 20 and 25 metres, so that you can see when your dog is getting far enough away that you should take action. Call first and if he does not come, step on the line. I like to call dogs when they are at about twenty metres and stop them by stepping on the line at 25 metres if they haven’t come. This teaches the dog not to stray, but doesn’t interfere with his normal and natural behaviour.
|Long lines are great tools to help your dog to stay close to you while he is learning to work off leash. Notice that this dog is calm and under control? This is the behaviour you want before letting your dog go and explore. If your dog is straining at the leash and staring at things, then wait till he is calm and relaxed before starting out. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander|
Just what do I want the dog to do? Pretty much whatever he wants. If he wants to sniff around, let him. If he wants to lie in a puddle, allow that too. This may be the first time that your reactive dog can just choose to do what makes him happy. Most of the time when we are working with reactive dogs we are micromanaging what they are doing to avoid them going over threshold. You see another dog in the distance? You ask the reactive dog to look at you and not engage in the other dog, and then ask him to sit or lie down. Every action that your dog does may have been micromanaged, possibly for years. This level of micromanagement may keep your dog from going over threshold, but it sure doesn’t help him to be relaxed and confident and that is part of what being off leash gives us.
|Although you want to have control over the situation, off leash walks should be an opportunity for your reactive dog to do things he wants to do; picking things up, sniffing and looking where he wants to look are all things that he cannot do when you are micromanaging a walk on a leash. Micromanagement makes reactivity worse, not better. If your reactive dog has dog friends, taking them for walks together is even better because your dog will learn through social facilitation what is safe and what is dangerous. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander|
The other thing that you must do is move. Your dog should get ahead of you, engage in the environment and then lag behind. You should encourage checking in, but you should also be checking what interests your dog. There is a huge difference between the conversation that you have when you have a reactive dog and you are orchestrating every little motion, and the conversation you have when you go over to look at the raccoon fur that is snagged on a branch that your dog has found. Developing a two way conversation with your reactive dog can go a long way to helping him to relax and enjoy himself. In my opinion, this is an essential step in success with a reactive dog.
In truly urban environments it can be very difficult to find a truly natural safe environment to explore with your dog. I have had good success with these dogs in taking them to places like blind alleys and allowing them to explore the local dumpster on a long line. The opportunity to be in a place where they are not going to be startled and be able to just smell things and explore things and toilet when they want to do so is essential to good mental health for all of us, and when we cannot get to a rural place, sometimes we have to compromise. Always we have to keep in mind our responsibility to keep our reactive dogs below threshold, not only because of the risk to others, but because every time that a reactive dog goes off, it is a penny in the bank account of anxiety and frustration, which only leads to more reactivity.
As a final word, I would like to mention that walking your reactive dog down the street on leash, through the triggers that will set him off is at best a fool’s errand that will never result in the relaxed companion you are aiming for. So where do you walk? If you have a vehicle, my best place for leash walking is a grocery store parking lot. You will see few other dogs, it is a large area where you can see people approaching and there are loads of places you can duck into in order to avoid triggers. Walking your reactive dog should be an exercise in developing confidence and relaxation for both you and your dog, and if you are constantly hyper vigilant to the things that might set your dog off, you are never going to teach him to accept his triggers; at best you are going to teach him to trust that you are his best early warning system. At worst you are going to teach him that hyper vigilance is the normal state of being.