In this selection from her pet behavior advice column in The Roanoke Times, Dr. Megan Maxwell discusses strategies for rewarding calm, attentive behavior on walks to replace reactive behavior in dogs.
As spring blossoms, we all feel the urge to get outside and make use of the warm days and sunny skies. How better to share in the joy of spring than with your canine companion on a walk with you! Yet, for some people, walks with their dog are more of a nightmare than a daydream. Many dogs are reactive to passing people while they are on walks. An otherwise pleasant jaunt is quickly ruined when your dog is pulling and lunging at the end of a leash or barking and growling when people pass by. I’ve had countless owners report that they either no longer walk their dogs at all or sneak out at odd hours to avoid other people (or other dogs or vehicles, as these can cause similar reactivity in many dogs.)
To change this behavior successfully, you must teach your dog an alternative, more acceptable behavior for her to engage in when she sees people on walks. Begin working with her on leash in the neighborhood at times without heavy foot traffic at first. Bring along some highly valuable rewards. For many dogs, tiny bits of chicken, hot dog, or liver treats will do the trick. First, teach her to look up at you when you say her name. Say her name in a happy, upbeat voice and hold a treat up by your face. She should look up at you, and you should praise and treat as soon as she does. If she does this reliably (8 out of 10 times) when no one is around, try bringing her into view of a person at a great distance (e.g., at the end of the block). You may need the assistance of a volunteer. As soon as the person appears on the horizon, use her name as a command which really just means “Look at me”, and reward her with praise and treat when she looks up at your treat-bearing hand.
If she looks at you in response to her name over several repetitions like this, move her a few steps closer to the person and repeat, praising and treating each time she looks up at your face and hand when she hears her name. Your goal is to provide her with lots of practice on this basic response first at a distance from people where she is successful at least 8 out of 10 times. If you reach a point where she is no longer able to look at you and instead becomes focused on the other person, you have moved too close for her skill level, and you should move her back a bit to provide more practice at a distance where she can be successful 80% of the time.
If she successfully looks at you when people are moving about at a relatively short distance (e.g., the width of a street), you can begin asking her to target your hand with the treat in it as you walk past people. Say her name merrily as you have before and when she looks at you, bring the treat hand down to her nose and keep it by your side as you walk with her. While her nose is busy poking at your hand to get the treat, deliver it with praise just as you pass the person across the street and continue walking. Then turn around and try passing the person again, using the treat in your hand to keep her nose focused on your hand rather than the passerby. Practice this with a volunteer who can stand casually or walk past you on the opposite side of the street multiple times, so that you and your dog can get practice.
To use this skill on everyday walks, combine the skills of having her look up at your face when you first see a person and having her target your hand as you pass the person. When she can pass people across the street at least 80% of the time with her nose toward your hand, begin to decrease the distance even further (e.g., passing along the same sidewalk, allowing just a few feet between you and the passerby). Once she can reliably focus on you at this stage, you are ready to begin fading out the use of treats by continuing to provide the hand prompt and her name as a cue each time, but delivering the treat only intermittently (e.g., 75% of the time rather than 100% of the time) as you pass.
In doing this, you are teaching your dog, first, that the appearance of other people predicts positive things for her (praise from you and the delivery of yummy treats) and, therefore, that people on walks are something to look forward to rather than to become threatened by. Second, you are teaching her that she earns these rewards through good behavior – in this case, by focusing on your face or hand rather than on the person passing.
If your dog continues to respond aggressively during these training exercises, you should contact a board-certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or board-certified Veterinary Behaviorist for further individualized assistance.