Hiking with a dog that has leash reactivity can be extremely frustrating. From owners who do not obey leash laws to those who allow their dogs off leash with no recall, finding safe spaces to enjoy the outdoors with your dog takes work, skill, and planning.
Other dog owners may tell you that your dog does not belong on the trail.
This is simply not true. If their dog is the one who has invaded your space, then that is on their dog, not yours. Unfortunately, the reactive dog takes the blame.
I have a special place in my heart for leash reactive dogs. I love working with them to overcome their fears and anxieties. They’ve taught me far more than I ever would have learned with a happy go lucky dog.
It’s not been an easy path, though.
Recognizing and understanding leash reactivity is the first step in creating a plan to work through your dog’s reactivity. With practice and patience, it is entirely possible to manage leash reactivity and even enjoy the trails with your pup.
Understanding Leash Reactivity in Dogs
Understanding what reactivity is and is not, as well as learning to recognize the signs and identify your dog’s triggers will put you ahead of the reaction and in a position to stop it before it gets worse.
Let’s first discuss the difference between a reactive and an aggressive dog.
Reactivity is often mistaken for aggression and knowing what to look for will help you identify what’s really happening.
When a dog is allowed to react to stimuli without intervention from the handler, it can lead to aggression. Learning how to manage the reactivity before it escalates is the key to prevention.
Reactive means that your dog is in a heightened state of arousal in response to a stimulus. Common triggers for reactive dogs include:
- Other dogs
Aggression displays when signs of reactivity are ignored or the stimulus has not gone away. This is most common in fearful and anxious dogs who are actively seeking space from the object that scares them.
The job of the handler is to learn to recognize their dog’s triggers and reactions and prevent the response from turning into aggression.
Common signals that a dog is going to turn aggressive include:
- Stiff body
- Intense staring
- Lip licking
- Baring teeth
- Erect ears and tail
If the aggression seemingly comes out of nowhere and is persistent, take your dog to the vet to rule out any medical issues.
Telltale Signs of Leash Reactivity
Typically dogs are reacting to stimuli out of fear or frustration. Fearful dogs react because they want to create space.
Frustrated dogs react because they want something they can’t have, such as saying hello to an approaching dog. They are essentially throwing a tantrum.
You may notice that your dog is only reactive on leash, but not when they’re off leash. This is because they have the ability to move away from the situation as they please.
A few signs your dog is displaying leash reactive behaviors:
- Redirecting frustration onto handler
Your job as the handler is to make a note of the stimulants that trigger your dog and work toward building tolerance of those objects over time.
Causes of Leash Reactivity
Often, leash reactivity is created unknowingly by the handler. Other causes of leash reactivity are a result of insecurity in fearful and anxious dogs. The list below includes some of the most common reasons for leash reactivity in dogs.
Fear-based Leash Reactivity
Fearful leash reactive dogs are engaging a fight or flight response. Because they are on leash, their ability to remove themselves from the situation is not available, so they are left with just one option: fight.
Insecure dogs are causing a ruckus because they are trying to create space between themselves and the trigger.
Allowing On-Leash Greetings with Other Dogs
It’s a common practice among dog owners to allow their dogs to greet one another as they pass by on trails and the street.
Doing so can create leash reactivity for a number of reasons. Dogs greeting face-to-face while restrained is highly unnatural and rude in dog language.
This is why I never allow on-leash greetings.
Again, the leash restriction doesn’t allow the dog to move away if they choose and creates tension, which sends a signal to the dog to fight.
The knee-jerk reaction when a dog starts to display signs of reactivity is to pull them away from the situation. This puts pressure on the leash and informs your dog that you are stressed, which tells them they, too, should be stressed.
Stressed dogs will react accordingly, and work to create space.
It may seem counter intuitive, but sometimes, dropping the leash is the best way to get out of a leash reactive situation. You can keep walking ahead while you call your dog and make yourself exciting.
Lack of Direction from the Handler
The job of the handler is to provide direction for their dog. Dogs who are allowed to sniff at leisure, pull on the leash, and essentially do whatever they want during walks tells dogs that they get to make the decisions.
This can result in leash reactivity because the dog sees it as their role to serve as the protector.
Structured walks give dogs guidance and a job to focus on instead of everything else going on around them.
Lack of Proper Socialization
As with allowing on leash greetings, lack of proper dog socialization creates situations that foster leash reactivity.
When owners allow other dogs and people to approach a dog any time and allow on-leash greetings, very social dogs will react out of frustration when they are not able to greet a dog or person. This can result in leash reactivity toward humans as well as dogs.
Anxious and nervous dogs will react because they are being forced into a situation that makes them feel uncomfortable, engaging that fight or flight response.
Tips for Hiking with Your Leash Reactive Dog
Those of us with leash reactive dogs understand all too well how much anxiety hiking can bring. I constantly run into other dog owners whose dogs have no recall, while some just simply refuse to listen when we ask for space.
Encountering off-leash dogs or owners who allow their dogs to greet other dogs on leash is inevitable.
Every dog is different and some tactics may or may not work. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t and make that part of your hiking plan.
The following is what I have learned to do over 10 years of hiking and trail running with my dogs.
Anticipate the Triggers
Keep an eye out for other dogs, squirrels, people and other triggers that spark reactivity in your dog. Spotting them before your dog does, gives you the opportunity to prevent your dog from reacting to the stimulant.
Take the time to learn your dog’s reactivity signals. Common signs that a dog is about to react include:
- Perked head and ears
- Looking quickly in all directions
- Lip licking
- Stiff body
Clearly Communicate with Other Dog Owners
It took me a long time to really feel comfortable asking other dog owners to manage their dogs, but after a few incidents, I’ve learned that it’s my job to protect my dog and speaking up is part of the gig.
A few phrases I use, depending on the situation include:
“Would you mind leashing your dog?”
“Please recall your dog.”
“Please do not let your dog approach.” (this one seems to have the most success)
“We are training and I don’t want our dogs to interact, please.”
No, they won’t always listen, and will often reply with phrases like:
“It’s ok! My dog is friendly!”
“My dog is fine! He’s a puppy!”
“My dog just wants to say hi!”
We know the phrases. We’re familiar with them. They make our blood boil. That’s where the next steps come into play.
Move your dog to the outermost side of the trail, placing your body in between your dog and the other dog.
If both dogs are on leash, just keep on moving forward. Stopping lets your dog focus on the other dog.
Manage the Loose Dog
If the oncoming dog is off leash and the owner is not doing anything to manage them, then you need to do it for them.
Put your dog in a sit or down (and make sure you have that sit and down nailed. You need your dog to stay put) and make yourself as big as you can and put one hand out in front like a “stop” signal and say “NO” in a firm voice.
This works a lot of the time. Overly friendly dogs may require some dancing.
You can use sticks, trekking poles, your legs, and other pole-like objects to keep the dog away.
For reactive dogs, I bring along Pet Corrector. It’s canned air that will startle the dog (so make sure to train your dog to the sound). I’ve not had to use it yet, but I’ve come very close.
Muzzle Your Dog
Muzzles have a bad stigma, but they are really amazing tools that keep both your dog and other dogs and people safe. They also send a message to other dog owners to keep their dogs away from yours.
They require some training in order for your dog to get used to them, but with a few sessions and regular practice, your dog will learn to love their muzzle.
Hike during Off-Peak Hours
If you’re not a morning person, then you might have to learn to become one if you want to enjoy a hike with your dog with reduced fear of encountering other dogs.
Another good time to hike is in the middle of the day, in between lunch and dinner, if you are able to swing it.
Sunset can also be a nice time to enjoy a quiet hike, but I find the evenings to be more crowded than the morning.
Skip the Trails
I personally love taking my dog for hikes along Forest Service roads. I spend hours looking at maps (my favorite mobile mapping app is Maps.ME) searching for roads that look like they see little traffic.
Consider an E-Collar for Leash Reactivity
I personally use an e-collar and balanced training for my leash reactive dog and have had a lot of success. These tools are incredibly effective in providing consistent communication for leash reactivity when paired with gradual socialization to his triggers.
I understand that that method is not for everyone, and that’s totally fine! Do what works for you, but don’t limit yourself if what you’re doing is not working.
Avoid using harnesses and flexi leashes with reactive dogs. They offer little control when your dog goes ballistic and they are poor communication tools that cause confusion in dogs.
If your dog is highly leash reactive, then I absolutely recommend finding a trainer to help make reactivity a thing of the past.