As a dog professional, I want to share a little secret with you. My dog is not perfect. Nor do I expect him to be, because, spoiler alert, neither am I. My dog has some traits that are less than desirable. He is sometimes more vocal than I would like. He is not shy about asking for yummies to be handed to him from the dinner table (thanks, husband for teaching him that neat trick.) He is, shall we say, an enthusiastic greeter when folks walk in the door. All of these “habits” work for him. He has been rehearsing some of the behaviors for years and years. Hello, enthusiastic greetings. He has been rehearsing others for less time. Hello, begging at the dinner table. The common thread that maintains all of these behaviors is his learning history that when he performs x, y, or z behavior, a consequence will very reliably follow. Sometimes it’s someone’s attention, sometimes it’s a tasty dinner morsel. There is really no mystery or magic to it.
As his guardian, I have to decide which behaviors are tolerable to me and which ones aren’t. If I decide that a behavior is tolerable, well that’s pretty easy. Life marches on. However, if a behavior is intolerable, then I need to get to work and decide on a course of action that is going to help both of us. Again, no mystery or magic. Just good old-fashioned strategizing, implementation, monitoring, adjusting, and then, (and here is sometimes the hardest part of all), reliably maintaining the new replacement or alternate behavior. Because I’m human and sometimes I get sloppy. Or I am feeling lazy. And sometimes, I just don’t want to have to think about it. I just want…………a break.
Can you please just stop yelling?
So, here is the most undesirable behavior my dog used to exhibit that I found intolerable: he used to yell at all of the dogs he saw on our walks. All………of………them. Loudly and with gusto. This inability to see other dogs while on leash (for some dogs it’s people or cars, or bikes, etc.) without telling them off is commonly referred to as leash reactivity. Typically, telling other dogs off looks like lunging at the end of the leash, barking, growling, snapping, and I would assume in my dog’s case, landing a bite if we were close enough (which I made sure of never being.)
This behavior was intolerable to me because it was not safe, it was not peaceful, and quite honestly, it was embarrassing. I mean to tell you, I got some looks. Actually, I got a lot of looks. It wasn’t my dog’s fault. He had been aggressed by an off-leash dog and so he thought he wasn’t safe. And just like his begging at the dinner table works, the dogs that he barked at always moved away from him because, rightfully so, people would always turn away from the snarling and snapping dog at the end of my leash. My dog’s behavior was being reinforced because it afforded him the distance he needed (other dog moving away) to feel safe. And even though the behavior felt intolerable to me, it served an important function for my dog. I knew I needed to help him find a more appropriate and peaceful way to keep the function of the behavior (increase in distance) that would also help maintain my sanity while I was helping him learn that other dogs on leash were nothing to be worried about. So, I did the only thing any reasonable dog parent would do. I taught him how to take flight.
Fly Dog, Fly
Ok, I didn’t really teach my dog to fly in the traditional sense of what it means to aerodynamically launch into the atmosphere and soar amongst the clouds. But I did teach him a new skill set that included choosing flight as an option as opposed to “fight” when he saw another dog on our walks. The flight that he was taught meant that he didn’t need to yell at dogs to get them to move away because he could choose to move away himself. He would have the agency to gain the distance away from other dogs that he desired in a more socially acceptable way. That was a Big Win for both of us! Because instead of dreading our walks I could now focus on teaching my dog that the sight of other dogs was actually a predictor of something great instead of the predictor of something awful.
This training took place a few years ago and I am happy to report that my dog has exponentially improved on our walks. He rarely ever needs to yell anymore. He mostly ignores other dogs on our walks. Every once in a while he will still have an explosion but there are almost always very valid reasons. Usually, it is when the other dog is being a little too intense with their body language or the dog appears around a blind corner and startles us both. There are not a lot of things I can do to control either one of those unfortunate situations but what I can do is give my dog his flight cue and away we walk in a different direction with fluidity and confidence. He gains the distance he desires and I have the peace I desire. Another win!
Flight training isn’t anything new under the sun (very little is when it comes to how learning and behavior works.) But it is a fairly simple thing to teach and more importantly to maintain. Because if you go back to my first paragraph, you will remember that I said a learned alternative or replacement behavior requires maintenance or it can be extinguished from our pets’ behavioral repertoire. And we can see a resurgence of the old, undesired behavior. I also admitted that I can sometimes be sloppy, lazy, or just want a break as a trainer. The good news is that my dog’s flight cue is so firmly ingrained in both my dog’s and my muscle memory, that I don’t really have to think about a thing and neither does he. Think of how you’ve reliably trained your dog to sit in a variety of situations. It’s kind of like that, only the desired outcome has bigger stakes. If my dog can continue to move away from his stressors without a scene, then our walks are more frequent and more enjoyable for us both. And that, my friends, is what it is all about. Enjoying time together and building a stronger relationship that benefits us both.
- If you’d like to learn more about Flight Training in general, check out Episode 16 – Flight Training Mini-Sode of the Enrichment for the Real World podcast
- If you have a dog with leash reactivity one of the skills to focus on is learning canine body language. I know we might sound like a broken record at Pet Harmony because we state the importance of this so often, but really all successful behavior modification starts and ends with being fluid in “reading dog.” I often tell my clients that the greatest skill set I can teach them has nothing to do with mechanics, timing, or the delivery of reinforcement. It is sharpening their observation skills and learning how their dog (and the species as a whole) communicates.
- Be patient with your dog and kind to yourself. Even though you might be on the receiving end of some judgemental and disdainful looks from other folks, I assure you that leash reactivity most often comes from a place of fear on your dog’s part. Teaching your dog that they are safe is paramount to improvement.
- If walks are too hard for you and your dog right now, Canine Enrichment for the Real World has a whole lot of information on ways to help your dog be the best they can be. You can also join our enrichment-focused Facebook group: Enrichment for the Real World
- Hiring a behavior professional to help you and your dog learn to “take flight” and feel safe can be a really great way to help you and your dog navigate walks in a more relaxing and enjoyable way for you both. Reach out to Pet Harmony if you need help with leash reactivity or any other troubling behavior. We are here to help in any way we can!
One thought on “How Leash Reactivity Taught my Dog Flight”
You basically described my dog Coffee.
Thank you for describing your feelings as a guardian and as a trainer. I do drop the ball at times with Coffee. Something I would not do with my clients. In a way having Coffee has given me more empathy and compassion with my clients. Love the flight cue. He loves the flight cue which is even better.
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