There are many different opinions on how to deal with reactive dogs. This will focus on counter conditioning as a means to start. It is important to note that most reactivity in dogs is fear based. In order to fix this problem the fear must be addressed and overcome. Fear based problems cannot be disciplined out of a dog, this will only cause a dog to suppress its warning signs and “pop off” without warning.
Many dogs experience on leash reactivity issues. The first thing to remember about owning a reactive dog is You are not alone! Many new dog owners struggle with this.
Many rescue dogs are new to a leash. The leash takes away the dogs option to run away from things that scare them. Many will say “the dog is fine at the dog park but not on leash on the street”. That is because at the dog park the dog is off leash and is able to run away from any danger. They do not have this option on leash with you. So in order to avoid conflict the dog reacts. They bark and lunge and make it seem like they are not one to be messed with. They react out of fear of what can happen. In order to stop the reaction, counter conditioning is needed. This is changing the dogs association of other dogs while on leash from negative to positive.
The first step to counter conditioning is establishing your dogs safe distance, or threshold, from other dogs. For different dogs it will be different distances but this is the distance between yourselves and another dog before reactions take place. This is the starting point.
It is always best to try and work within the threshold however sometimes situations will arise which make that not possible and that will be covered as well. But to start with the threshold it is best to use a park with lots of space available. As soon as the dog notices another dog, high value treats should be fed to the dog. Small treats work best so a continual amount of treats can be fed to the dog. If the dog will not take them, throw the treats into its mouth. No dog has ever choked to death on a treat. Shovel that food into its mouth. Do not stop until the distraction has passed. Do this every single time another dog is encountered.
This will teach the dog to associate other dogs with food rewards rather then fear. It will take time and patience. As the dog improves the distance between dogs can be decreased slowly. It is important to work at the dogs pace. Do not force the process.
In the event another dog is encountered too closely without warning, it is a good idea to try and move as far away as possible while feeding the high value treats. Use a driveway, a lane way, get behind a bush, anything to block sight lines.
Most dogs are less reactive when they are walking behind another dog. This can help the process, if an opportunity is presented. Walking behind a calm dog is a great way to test a dogs threshold and to slowly improve it. Starting at a good distance and then slowly closing the gap is a good way to build the dogs confidence. With treats and encouragement slowly close the gap and then back off again to keep the experience positive.
Setbacks can and do happen. Do not be discouraged, they happen to everyone and it is important to stay positive and confident in the process. Offleash untrained dogs present a large challenge. If an offleash dog approaches it is the handlers responsibility to protect the leashed dog. A bad experience of this nature can set a dog back to the beginning. Successfully protecting the dog by warding off the offleash dog will boost the dogs confidence in its handler as well.
Some dogs may require more then the positive association counter conditioning referenced above. There are many different opinions and tools available. Tools can be wonderful however all tools should be used under the supervision of a reputable trainer and must be used correctly to be of any use. Incorrect use of training tools can be very counter productive.
No matter what processes are used, to correct dog reactivity it is important to remember that the fear behind the reactivity must be addressed and overcome in order to be successful. This takes time and patience and usually high value treats. There will be setbacks and frustration.
Consistency and allowing the dog to work at its own pace will go along way towards success