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It’s Just a Walk in the Park

By Veronica Rigatti, VSA-CDT, Canine Behavior Specialist

One of the many highlights of dog adoption is taking your new best friend for walks. The activity allows both of you to bond, exercise in the fresh air and explore different areas. For some though, walking a dog—especially a reactive one—may be stressful.

Dogs are considered reactive if their response to something or someone in the environment is disproportionate to the trigger—that is, they overreact. Reactivity is often confused with aggression, and the two can certainly look alike. However, reactivity is primarily motivated by fear or frustration at being restrained on a leash or tethered behind a fence, while aggression is motivated by a desire to inflict injury. We can think of reactivity as a dog’s attempt to eliminate scary or upsetting triggers.

Dogs who are in a reactive state have become so aroused by something that they have a much more difficult time processing information or managing their own behavior. At this point, we describe these dogs as being “above threshold,” or above their tolerance for these triggers. Our job as handlers is to keep dogs under threshold by managing their arousal levels and environment. We can do this by being more aware of our dogs’ environments than they are, and proactively avoiding anything that might trigger reactive behavior. Simply turn around if you know a trigger, like another dog, is around the corner. Avoid high traffic areas or times when there are going to be a lot of other dogs potentially out walking, too. Reactive dogs are best managed by proactive handlers!

If your dog does start reacting, move away and maintain distance from the trigger. Do not try to ask the dog for a behavior like “sit” or “watch me.” When a dog is reacting, they are using their emotional brain, rather than thinking brain, so asking them to perform a behavior cue is useless. The best thing to do is leave the area. You can also use a visual block. Duck behind a car or corner if you see a trigger ahead and wait there with your dog until the trigger has left before continuing the walk. You may also follow this method if your dog begins reacting and creating distance is not an option. Scatter treats on the ground to distract them until the trigger passes. You may also follow this method if your dog begins reacting and creating distance is not an option.

Even if your dog is not a reactive dog, you should still use proper etiquette when out walking. Make sure your dog is always on leash. Even if your dog reliably responds when called, your dog should never be off leash when out, unless it is in a designated off-leash area. Do not let your dog approach another dog, whether on-leash or off-leash, unless given specific permission by that dog’s owner. Just because you have a friendly dog, don’t assume the same about other dogs. If someone tells you to stop approaching and move away from their dog, there is probably a reason! Always ask an owner’s permission before introducing your dog to theirs.

With these helpful tips, we hope you and your dog can enjoy stress-free walks!

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