Walking My Reactive Dog: Part 1

I’ve mentioned before that Alma has some on-leash reactivity when we see other on-leash dogs, but I haven’t gone into any great detail about it. Well, now is as good a time as any.

(Soggy) Alma

(Soggy) Alma

But first things first; if my philosophy degree taught me anything, it’s this: define your terms!

Reactivity as I use it here is an umbrella term for any behaviour that results from stimuli, whether the reaction is a result of anxiety, aggression, fear, exuberance, stress, excitement… you name it. If your dog’s behaviour routinely suddenly changes in a manner that you need to/should address, they’re reactive.

Important: reactivity ≠ aggressive! Reactivity is a popular dog training buzzword these days, thanks in part to our favourite TV dog trainers, lending itself to be misused and misunderstood. Aggression is just one form of reactivity.

Alma’s reactivity is more of the stressed/exuberant form. She sees another dog on-leash and she’s excited to go greet and frustrated that she can’t, with both dogs being confined to leashes. The lack of control of the situation and her inability to do what she wants generates a reaction.

She can get excited to see off-leash dogs, too, but if she’s off-leash, there’s no problem. If she’s on-leash and the other dog is off-leash, still less of a reaction. Leashes – a necessity and important safety tool, certainly, but also a complicating factor in dog behaviour.

Alma’s reactivity is limited to dogs. We’re lucky that way. Cars, bikes, skateboards, birds, squirrels, hares, people, she’s all cool with or ignores.

There are four stages (I’ve decided) in which Alma’s reactivity manifests:

1. Mild Notice: Alma sees the other dog and watches them; her ears will perk up (as much as they do) and she’ll close her mouth, but she’ll continue to check in with you, too. Her body language is still loose and relaxed.

2. Intense Focus: She’s no longer regularly checking in with you; she’s focused on the other dog intently and starts anticipating what might be next; her body language is stiff and she’s panting heavily; she might start creeping out of the standard heel position we walk in.

3. Bouncing: Alma can no longer contain her excitement/anxiety; she’s still panting heavily and starts bouncing up and down beside you, which, when walking a 100lb Newfoundland is both odd and ridiculous. Strangely, she usually still maintains a loose leash and heel position.

Alma, Stage 3

Alma, Stage 3

4. The Hail Mary: Alma decides enough is enough and she’s going to try to take the situation into her own hands; she lunges in the direction of the target dog. You’ve pushed your luck with boundaries and thresholds if you let it get this far.

In addition to Alma’s reaction scale is a proximity scale. The proximity of the other on-leash dog to Alma impacts the intensity of her reaction.

My assessment of proximity comes from experience and working on this with Alma – the scale is very specific to her and can shift depending on the environment. It’s also shifted as we’ve worked on reducing her reactivity. But this is where I’m at today on my walks with her.

Too Close: The same sidewalk, a single-lane hiking trail, or basically within 5 metres/16 feet of the other dog (the length of two standard 6 foot leashes and their dogs, basically; greeting territory). The point on working with Alma on her reactivity is to diminish what is ‘too close’ so that it’s barely negligible. We’ve shrunk it, for sure, but we’ve still got work to do.

Close: Directly across the street (streets are about 40 feet/12 metres wide on average) or an equivalent distance in a green space or park.

Not Close: The dog is visible, but still off in the distance a bit. I’d say about a block/50m/165 feet away. Anything further away than this really isn’t an issue at all.

My last scale is the level of the distraction. This is based on what the other dog is doing, because in conjunction with proximity, the intensity of Alma’s reactivity is also heavily dependent upon what the other dog is doing.

Low: If the other dog is relaxed and mostly ignoring Alma, her reaction is substantially diminished. This means the other dog has loose body language, a loose leash, and isn’t giving her a lot of eye contact. There aren’t many of these dogs in our neighbourhood. Dogs walking away from us also lowers their level of distraction.

Medium: The dog is staring at Alma/giving a lot of eye contact, has stiff/erect body posture, and is moving in her direction. Consistent eye contact/staring from another dog is a key factor in whether or not Alma will react. Basically, the other dog is giving Alma intense focus, as I’ve described on her scale above.

High: The other dog is reacting: barking, pulling at the end of the leash, for example. Another dog overreacting to stimuli definitely encourages a reciprocal response from Alma. Dogs headed straight for us in close proximity are definitely a high distraction level.

Now, working in the corporate world, I do like my charts and graphs. Because who doesn’t love a good matrix, amiright?

So I’ve decided to take all of the rankings I just did when thinking about Alma’s reactivity and put them into a visual.

Behold! Alma’s Reactivity Matrix:

Alma's Reactivity Matrix

There you have it. Pretty rad, right?

Sure, this isn’t useful to anyone but me (I think even the Husband’s Alma Matrix would look a bit different), but I actually found working through this very interesting when characterizing Alma’s reactivity, her triggers, and prompting objective consideration about the whole thing. It really puts on paper where we’re at and where we want to be, and forces some specific reflection.

If you’re an analytical thinker with a reactive dog, I recommend giving this exercise a try.

I was going to continue on to discuss my responses to Alma’s reactivity and what I do to mitigate situations, but I think I’ve gone on long enough for today.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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About ThatJenK
Writing from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. 90% pictures of my dogs; 10% miscellaneous opinions nobody asked for.

21 Responses to Walking My Reactive Dog: Part 1

  1. Interesting post. Thank you for sharing. My one husky Mika is leash reactive. Although she doesn’t normally start until the other dog who is walking by her starts to jump or growl, then she returns the favor. We have been working hard with her for a little bit now.
    Have a great day!
    ღ husky hugz ღ frum our pack at Love is being owned by a husky!

  2. Will and Eko says:

    This is a very interesting and helpful way to break down any issue. Being objective and analytical is a valuable skill. I’m interested to see how you applied the data. Systematic desensitization?

  3. Love this – going to be a great series, I can tell. Shared on my FB page.

  4. Jan K says:

    I find it difficult enough to handle my 22 lb beagle when she’s being reactive (so far only to off leash dogs when she’s on leash), never mind if she was 100 lbs. I like your definitions and how you’ve analyzed everything. Knowing exactly what is going on…when, how, etc has to be a great step towards getting it under control.

  5. I have a question about reactive dogs – if their owners are aware of their penchant for being so reactive – why in the world, when they see another dog approaching on the trail do they not pull their dog over and let us pass? I feel like I am constantly having to be the one that pulls my dog to the side of the trail to let the reactive dog pass. Is it because these people are completely clueless? Do they believe that by ignoring the behavior and plowing ahead will eventually “cure” their dog?

    When I had my reactive foster dog (95 pounds and could pull me off my feet in an instant and knew it) and we were hiking or walking somewhere and I spotted another dog – I would always try to either a) avoid the other dog and head in a different direction or b) stop far enough off the trail to allow the other (usually calmer) dog pass.

  6. Jessica says:

    Silas is less predictable, alas. He will pull toward any other dog to greet, but it’s just interest. (His basic leash manners are two steps above terrible; he pulls toward anything he finds interesting.) If that dog has friendly body language, Silas will be friendly. If that dog barks/growls/snarls, Silas will bark/growl/snarl. Fortunately, what he really wants in that situation is distance, and I am not ashamed to turn tail and run.

  7. Alma looks like such a friendly dog. She is very lucky to have you to take the time to understand her. Bark More, Growl Less Barking from the Bayou!

  8. kimberlygauthier says:

    Fantastic post! We have a leash reactive dog – his trigger is bicycles, skateboarders – anyone going fast. I know that if I allow him to get to the point where he’s no longer noticing that I’m there, then he’s gone too far.

  9. Great info, and a great way to think about it. Sometimes recognizing it is half the battle.

    –Wags (and purrs) from Life with Dogs and Cats

  10. That is a wonderful chart! Very helpful to recognize the stages of reaction to try and prevent it from escalating.

  11. Excellent post! I’ve been out of the corporate world for a while now — thank the stars up above! — but I remember the days of charts and diagrams. (Don’t miss those days one bit!) your matrix is quite interesting. I’d love to see one on your own reaction to Alma’s reactivity.

    Looking forward to Part 2!!

  12. Jodi says:

    Delilah is a dog that reacts to other dogs. In the “don’t challenge me because you will lose type of way.” But typically I can redirect her with a treat, unless of course we are being stalked. Which does happen. She has gotten really much better.

    Sampson is reactive to people and dogs in the “OMG we must, we absolutely MUST meet.” He goes from being stiff and attentive right into the Hail Mary where he is lunging and pulling to get where he wants to be. He will not be distracted by a treat. Any good tips on working through this?

  13. Would actually kinda like to see Alma at stage 3. It sounds interesting! Rita is also reactive – but not in an “excited/gotta meet them” way. Her’s is definitely a worried reactivity. Not sure whether she is worried about what (she imagines) they’ll do to her or to me! But the rest is right on to our situation – proximity to the other dog and the activity of the other dog definitely impact what her reaction is! Looking forward to part 2! (Yeah Habs! Our stupid channel cut out to the Ducks game w/ only 2 minutes to go!!! So frustrating! Hubs was bummed out. But at least they won!)

  14. Pingback: Walking My Reactive Dog: Part 2 | Back Alley Soapbox

  15. Alix says:

    Great detailed post! I also have a reactive dog and enjoy following other reactive dog owner blogs. I look forward to reading all of your posts!

  16. You are so LUCKY that she’s only reactive to dogs. I think it might actually be impossible to “cure” a German shepherd of bicycle reactivity. Those things come from nowhere and move so fast.

  17. Is there a video of bouncing Alma? Would love to see lol :P

    Donna’s mother needs that chart. They can’t meet each other on walks without jumping around on their leads trying to make for each other’s throats. (- – !)

  18. Janet says:

    My Sammy is leash reactive. I either turn and walk the other way or go off the path if possible, but on occasions were we are stuck passing the other other dog I have distracted him with a handful of treats, but that only works if I have enough. Sometimes he will take out his frustration and attack my other dog (this makes it even more embarrassing). He has no problem walking past dogs in yards (ones that stay in their yards), just other dogs on leashes. It scares me when the other dogs run out of their yards and there is no owner in sight or the occasional owner that doesn’t come running to get their dog.

  19. snoopys@snoopysdogblog says:

    I love the graphic, that’s really cool and great you were able to pinpoint her behavior so you know what to expect! I’m really good with other dogs, but cats not so much, maybe my mum should do a cat chart for me? :)

    I hope you’re having a fun day,

    Your pal Snoopy :)

  20. 2browndawgs says:

    I think this is a very interesting way to look at the issue. I can see why it would help to define the different thresholds.

  21. Pingback: Bouncing like Tigger | Clowie's Corner

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