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Leash Reactivity In Dog Training And The Patterns We Live By

In my last post I talked about some of the main ingredients in dog training.

One of the big ones is creating patterns.

Basically everything we teach dogs is through patterns....

I say something, they do it, they get treat

Something happens, they get treat

You walk your dog around the neighborhood, your dog sees another dog or person and........

The world ends right?!

You see that dog or person and run to the other side of the road. Why?

Because you are predicting your dog will have a huge reaction, because you've seen them do this numerous times and this is the best strategy you have at the moment.

No judgement, we have all been there, and sometimes this is absolutely necessary.

So what does your dog predict?

There are a few knowns and unknowns that I commonly see-


  • We know the dog is reacting at dogs or people on leash (often they are fine meeting dogs or people off leash)

  • We know we feel overwhelmed and a need to get away

  • We know the dog feels overwhelmed and/or panics when they see another dog or person on leash

  • Your dog knows you are also going to have a panicky reaction

  • We know our own previous history walking previous dogs and how that went

  • We might know the dog is reacting on leash out of excitement/frustration vs defensiveness. However for many people this reaction looks the same.


  • We stop breathing when we see the dog but our dog knows this

  • We clench the leash tightly and hold consistent tight pressure on our dog's collar which our dog notices and feels panicked or agitated by

  • We become stiff and tense

  • Our dog's previous history (possibly limited access to other dogs or people, developed without seeing many different kinds of dogs, had a bad experience with a dog or person, genetically inclined to over-react, etc) - This is less important because we can't change it. I focus on the things we can change.

So hopefully you can see some of the patterns here and how they can become intertwined. Your dog has a previous history that may cause some or all of the behavior you see, but you also have previous history that can contribute to how your current dog feels. Your dog's genetics can also contribute to how likely they are to over react to sudden changes, and how well they do around other dogs or people.

Your behavior affects your dog's behavior, and your dog's behavior affects you!

Can you see a vicious cycle beginning to start?

Let's improve that cycle.

So these patterns are PART of leash reactivity.

So bottom line, what we do matters!

Hopefully this empowers you to realize that you can change the pattern here by what you do!

However, what most people opt to do is to go practice walking their dog around their triggers without any different skills for themselves or their dog.

What's the definition of insanity?

Trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results...

Trust me I've been there.

So we need to change the approach.

The approach starts by teaching you and your dog skills in a neutral, calm, distraction-free, and SAFE environment.

No one, animal or human, can learn when they do not feel safe. When you and your dog are both having a panic attack no learning can take place.

So it is so important to give yourself and your dog the time and space to learn new skills that you can eventually bring to a more challenging or stressful environment.

And to be successful at every step before moving into that greater challenge.

Skills you and your dog will both need to learn to handle leash reactivity

  • Going from worked up to calm easily and quickly in the face of challenges (remember start with no challenges!)

  • Emotional regulation

  • How to properly handle a leash so that you can communicate with your dog rather than micromanage them

  • Create communication through the leash that speaks assurance and safety, vs restraint, anxiety, and further agitation

  • Communicate safety, predictability, and positivity to your dog through patterns (typically using food), and your body language

Easy right?.....

We cannot expect our dog to emotionally regulate themselves, when we are contributing to their panic and have no tools to help them or ourselves.

As a human feeling overwhelmed, out of control, or unsafe is a normal symptom of experiencing leash reactivity with your dog.

These emotions are merely messages that you need additional help to create real and lasting change.

A trainer who is already familiar with reactivity will be able to ground you, guide you, and break up what feels currently insurmountable into small, easily crossed bridges.

Leash reactivity from our dog amplifies the secrets that lie along our own nerves.

This "problem" teaches us about how we react in our own lives to overwhelm, a lack of control, and vulnerability.

If we can see our emotions as information for growth rather than a reason to judge or be angry it's amazing how we can change.

Admitting we need help feels vulnerable.

Not knowing the answer feels vulnerable.

Taking responsibility for the outcome feels vulnerable.

Feeling uncertain or plunging into the unknown feels vulnerable.

But these acts are also undeniably brave when taken.

According to Linda Kohanov's Power of the Herd

"Feeling vulnerable can cause panic, rage, or shut down and reveals that

something significant is about to change or be revealed."

The way we react to situations and then how we may judge our reaction is incredibly informative to our own growth.

In Power of the Herd Kohanov also outlines

"Feeling Anger reveals to us that a physical or emotional boundary has been crossed"

"Feeling Frustration is a message that the action we are taking is not effective"

I find it fascinating that all of these emotions-

Vulnerability, Anger, Frustration

underly the behavioral side effects rage, panic, powerlessness that both dogs and people experience during active leash reactivity.

The messages and therefore solutions they reveal are also the same.

We mirror one another for so many reasons and in so many ways.

I have always felt that our dogs come into our lives to teach us the lessons we most desperately need. Maybe you struggle with setting boundaries, believing in yourself, committing to things, or asking for help.

Our dogs don't judge these struggles. They react as they do for their own reasons and the way we respond to those reactions tells us a lot about ourselves and gives us information.

We can choose to judge, hide, wallow, or grow.

In the end there is always a choice.

If you want, you can use the training your dog is providing as a spiritual practice that allows you to work on setting boundaries, confidence, commitment, and/or asking for help.

I invite you to feel empowered by the challenges in front of you, because they are calling you to grow in ways you may have never realized you could.

Your dog will always believe the best of you.

They will always think there is no one in the world like you, and sometimes give you that crazy sensation that you really can believe in yourself and accomplish all the things you dared to dream.

Valerie Naegele & Lewen

Valerie is a dog trainer in the Southern Maine area and is dedicated to providing dog parents with compassionate, and effective training. She has worked with animals all of her life and has completed years of courses, shadowing with mentors, education, and hand on experience training dogs and horses. She truly enjoys working with people and very much considers her journey training dogs and horses as a spiritual practice. She feels that every dog, horse, and person has something new to teach and offer.

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