Leash reactivity is one of the most common behavior issues that dogs experience – at least here in the United States, although I can’t speak for the rest of the world – and one of the reasons it can feel so frustrating for pet parents who are trying their hardest to help their dog through it is that they have no control over the environment and how many stressors are going to show up on any given walk. What makes it even more daunting is that, if your dog encounters several stressors in the first half of the walk, the stress of those encounters can deplete their ability to cope. So even if they handled all of those encounters well, they can “run out of gas” and their behavior can deteriorate. Watching your dog unravel in real time when you’re still far away from your house or car or some other point of safety can be absolutely miserable, and yes, sometimes even scary.
There are several ways that we can prevent or address that problem, but one strategy that I started offering to my clients several years ago is something I call “rubberbanding”. So let’s talk about what that is and how to do it.
If we want to create opportunities for our dogs to practice walking in the presence of stressors, but we want to have a little more control over when to end the training session, one of the easiest ways we can arrange that is to make sure that we’re never too far from home. And the easiest way to do that is to not walk too far from home!
So I started encouraging my clients to temporarily suspend their walks-as-exercise mindset and move into a walks-as-training mindset instead. We would start with short, simple walks and gradually build back up to full walks again.
Walk as far as your next door neighbor’s house, then turn around and come back home. Check in with your dog: if they’re good, walk to the next door neighbor’s house on the other side, then come back home. If your dog handled that well, walk two houses down on one side, then return home. Then walk two houses down on the other side and return home. Then three houses on each side, then four houses, and so forth and so on. You can gradually increase the distance you and your dog walk from your house until your dog is able to handle a full walk around the block. Or two blocks. Or three. You get the picture.
I would tell clients to imagine that they were tethered to their house by a rubber band, and the rubber band would keep pulling them back home. They’d have to gradually stretch out the rubber band to allow them to walk farther away from the house. Thus, the term “rubberbanding” was born.
The advantage of rubberbanding is twofold:
- Because you’re only walking a short distance from your house, if your dog encounters a stressor and you have to practice whatever training plan you’re working on to address the reactivity, you have the opportunity to check in with your dog when you’re back home to assess if they are still ready, willing, and able to go back out and practice again, or if they need to be done with their walk for the day. Having this level of control over the length of the training session prevents them from getting too stressed out to cope and then practicing reactive behaviors as a result.
- You’re increasing the number of times your dog gets to practice returning home to safety after a stressful event. By a lot. By so much, in fact, that many of my clients reported that their dogs just started leading them home whenever they’d reached their limit for the day. One client even reported that her dog got startled by a loud crashing sound and bolted so quickly that she dropped the leash and he ran away. She ran home to get her car so she could drive around looking for her dog, but by the time she got home he was waiting at the front door for someone to let him in!
As I explained this to one of my clients, his eyes got wide and he said, “Oh! I get it! It’s like taking your dog on a thousand successful mini-walks instead of a handful of long walks that are filled with mistakes!” I thought that was such a clever way of putting it that I’ve been borrowing that explanation from him ever since.
Ok, but what about…
Nothing is a panacea, and there is no procedure on earth that is going to be perfectly appropriate for every dog or every dog guardian. For that reason, rubberbanding may not be for everyone. That said, a lot of times when someone thinks they can’t do something, or it doesn’t work, or their dog doesn’t like it, it’s because they’re missing a few important details.
So let’s talk about those nitty gritty details, because you know what they say about the devil and details! And like any procedure, this one can be disappointing if we’re not getting them right.
Every dog is different, which means they’re going to respond to rubberbanding differently. Some dogs will absolutely hate the idea of having to turn around and head back home when their walk has only just started, while others will be more than happy to do so. For this reason, we need to figure out the right timing for turning around and heading back home. Does your dog think it’s fun to do an immediate about face? Would they prefer to stop and take in the scenery for a bit before turning around? Would they benefit from a short session of “find it” in the grass before turning around? Play around with what happens when you hit the end of your invisible tether before heading back home to see what your dog will both enjoy the most and what will be the most successful at keeping them cool like Fonzie.
In or Out?
At this point I’ve mentioned “going home” several times, but what exactly does “going home” look like? Well… that depends! Again, every dog is different, so do some trial and eval to figure out the most effective reset button for your pupper. Is pausing on the driveway good enough? Do we need to actually go inside and take a breather? Do we need to go into the backyard to roll around in the grass and shake it off? I don’t know! Only your dog can tell you what they need to do between sessions before heading back out again.
Does Home Have to Be Home?
Ok, but what if the areas where your dog struggles the most aren’t anywhere close to home? Yeah, ok! So attach the rubberband to another safe space that’s closer to the area you want to practice in! If your car is a safe space for your dog, drive to your desired location and rubberband to the car. If we need to practice in Grandma’s neighborhood, rubberband to Grandma’s house. Homebase doesn’t always have to be your literal house, it can be any safe space that is surrounded by the stressful spaces that you’re working to make less stressful.
What Does Consent Look Like?
How do we know that a dog wants to go back out for another round of rubberbanding? This one might be a little tricky to assess. Some dogs are pretty great about throwing out really huge, obvious “LET’S GO” or “HELL NO” signals. Other dogs have a long learning history of “going along to get along”, so it can be hard to tell if they really want to do something or they’re just doing it because they think they have to. This is where reading body language can be really helpful. Look for signs that your dog is engaged: either looking at you with a smile and a wag, or looking in the direction of your next walk. Alternatively, look for signs of avoidance: a blank stare looking at nothing in particular, or looking overtly away from you and/or the direction of a walk. I ask my dogs, “you ready?” in an upbeat tone. If they wanna do the thing, they get super excited when I ask that question. If they don’t wanna do the thing, they look at me like I killed their mom. By asking them that question consistently before opening the front door, they’ve learned that my question is actually a cue for them to either opt in or opt out of the activity.
When Do You Stretch the Rubber Band?
One of the most frequent questions I’d get from clients was, “How do I know when I can go farther away from the house? When do I know we’re ready to go all the way around the block?” The answer is, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, it depends! Does your dog want to go farther? Do you want to? Has your dog developed skills for moving away from stressors, observing them, and investigating them, and do they know when to do each one? How comfortable and fluent are they in those skill sets? How comfortable and confident are you in those skill sets? And here’s a big one: how risk averse are you? If the idea of breaking the rubber band and going on a full walk makes your stomach drop into your shoes, you’re probably not ready. But if both you and your dog are rarin’ to go, or at least you feel ready to face the challenge head on, go for it! Your consultant can help you come up with some clear criteria to help you determine when you’re ready to increase distance and go on a full walk, if you need help with that decision.
I am sure there are other details that aren’t covered here – in fact, I can think of some specific clients who had unique challenges that we had to brainstorm together – but hopefully this gives you enough info to get started, if this procedure sounds like something that might be helpful for you. But if rubberbanding sounds terribly boring and repetitive to you, that’s ok, too! The beauty about behavior change is that there are many paths up the mountain, because there are many different kinds of folx who have to climb it. Remember that your needs are every bit as important as your dog’s needs, so you get to have a say in which path you take, too!
- If you have a leash reactive dog, you may want to ask yourself first and foremost whether they actually need to go on walks at all. What are they getting out of the walks, and are there other ways to meet those needs?
- If walks really are necessary, or you’re at a point in training where your dog is ready and eager to start reintegrating walks into their routine, identify some strategies that are going to be the most likely to be fun and effective for you and your dog. Try rubberbanding out and see how it feels for you!
- And as always, if you need help navigating these issues, we’re here to help! You can schedule a session to work with someone on our team here!