Training Tip Tuesday – Leash Skills (Part 2)


By: Margaux Meyer

The Volunteer Trainers at Ruff Start Rescue have started a new initiative to post a quick and easy tip every Tuesday! Look for a new tip every Tuesday or use the hashtag #TrainingTipTuesday on social media to find them all!
We’re back with #trainingtiptuesday for my last installment on leash skills.
Many dogs struggle with reactivity during walks! This can mean they bark at other dogs on walks, lunge at squirrels, growl at dogs behind fences or are scared of bikes or loud vehicles. The best way to handle these issues is to prevent them from happening in the first place. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t walk the dog (although sometimes that is a recommendation), but it means your walk should be managed and vigilant. Training dogs to be desensitized to their triggers can take months or years. The first and most impactful step is reducing the times the dog has those big reactions.
First: Pay Attention— When walking a dog, you should aware of your surroundings. Keep your eyes peeled for any of the dog’s usual triggers and be actively considering a management tactic. When I’m walking a dog that lunges at squirrels, I’m constantly looking for where squirrels like to hang out (trees, bird feeders, that one yard) and adjusting as needed. If there is a house with a lot of trees up ahead, I cross the street before the dog has a chance to notice the squirrel party up ahead. If I’m coming to an intersection where there might be other dogs, I walk slower so I have time to look around the corner to scope it out. As well as looking at your surroundings, pay attention to the dog’s body language to see if they have noticed something interesting: did their ears perk up, are they sniffing the air or staring at something? Dogs typically have a physical tell before they over-react. See if you can notice what the dog does in the second it notices its trigger.
SecondAdd Space whenever you see a potential trigger. Dogs have a “threshold” for most triggers, meaning they can handle the trigger 10 feet away, but once its 9 feet away they get nervous or start barking. Whenever possible, try to maintain a distance from anything that might cause an undesired reaction. This can mean crossing the street to get away from another dog or squirrel filled yard. Sometimes crossing the street isn’t possible, so I will walk into a yard or a driveway to avoid a head on confrontation.
If crossing the street isn’t possible, try and put as much space as quickly as possible by running/jogging/moving quickly. For instance, if I didn’t notice a cat on someone’s doorstep and the dog’s ears perk up and they’re about to start barking. Then, I move away as fast as possible and give treats once I get away. It helps to practice this move away (as talked about in a different #trainingtiptuesday) so your dog knows there are treats at the end. Its okay if you don’t catch the dog before they start barking — continue to move away as quickly as possible and throw them a party once you have enough distance.
Third: Hide/Visual Barrier: Sometimes its not possible to add space or get away from the trigger. When that happens, try to add a visual barrier. For instance, if I’m walking and notice there is someone walking with a stroller and I can’t cross the street, I try and hide behind a car or a bush and let the stroller pass. It is helpful to have treats to distract them and keep them looking away while you’re hiding. When I’m walking a dog reactive to bikes and can’t get away, I will put the dog on the opposite side of me and try to hide behind a car or even a telephone pole so there are two things separating the dog and the trigger. If I am coming to an intersection and notice a dog walking across the street, I will turn around and walk the other direction for a few seconds to let the other dog move farther away before approaching the intersection.
Overall — one of the best ways to help the dog not be reactive is to prevent reactions and reduce the amount of time they spend reacting. They will learn to not be as worried about their triggers if they don’t practice their over-reaction on every walk. Lastly — don’t forget your treats! Bring treats and reward often.
Blog and graphic by Margaux Meyer, one of Ruff Start Rescue’s volunteer trainers, who focus on supporting our fosters and helping create successful dogs. She owns and operates A Better Walk Dog Training (