Training versus management for leash-reactive dogs

leo smile

A few years ago, I decided we were going to cure Leo of his reactivity to bicycles. We planned to walk around the campus of the nearby university where Rob works, with Rob’s bicycle. We started with Rob walking beside the bicycle, and Leo was totally cool with that. Then, another bicycle whizzed past, Leo barked and I crouched to the ground and started to cry.

It all felt so hopeless because there’s no place where I can truly control the environment. We tried a few more times, then switched back into management mode. Since I can’t train Leo not to react to bicycles, I decided, I’m just going to walk him in places where we can more easily avoid bicycles.

However, there’s no place in town we can truly avoid bicycles, so what this really means is that I walk Leo in places where I can see bicycles coming from farther away, and guess what? I’ve been able to do more than manage him.

Fern Camacho of The Great Dog Adventure discusses the difference between management and training in a few of his podcasts. Most recently in this one about leash reactivity. I would add a caveat to his suggestion to stand in front of the dog to break eye contact with the trigger. If you have a redirected biter, like I do, this can lead to a bite on the leg. That’s why I use treats.

Leo has a very short scale of reactivity. He goes from mildly concerned about a stimulus to full-blown reaction very quickly. Rewarding him with food when he’s just past the concerned phase has led to actual progress in counter-conditioning him to the trigger. I carry string cheese in my hand on our walks, and when I can use a stimulus as a teaching moment, I let him see the thing, then say “Cheesy” to get him to look away from it to take a bite of cheese. I let him look, I give him cheese, until we’re past the thing.

As the stimulus (bike, jogger, dog) gets closer, he takes the treat harder and harder, which hurts my fingers, but lets me know how far past his comfort zone we are. That’s training, because he’s gotten more comfortable with triggers at shorter distances. Now, when he sees a scary thing, sometimes he looks to me for the cheese instead of barking and lunging at the thing.

Management is when I try to “distract” him by stuffing the cheese in his face and getting him out of there. It doesn’t always work.

But I’ve gotten so good at it that sometimes what I think will be management turns into a training moment.

The other day, while walking the pups around Rob’s parents’ neighborhood, an old man on a bicycle headed straight for us. “I don’t know what do to,” I said, as I turned and walked in the other direction. Leo looked over his shoulder, but didn’t bark at the guy, and somehow I timed it perfectly to lead Leo into a driveway and behind a shrub that didn’t block his view of the bike, but prevented him from lunging at it as it passed by. I was running low on cheese by this point on the walk, but still I cheesy-cheesed him until the bike was gone.

Unfortunately, my skills are no match for bizarre uncontrollable moments like the following.

While walking the dogs at night, adorned in their flashy Dog-E-Glow collars, Rob carrying a flashlight and me wearing a headlamp, we darted across the street to avoid a jogger. We darted back, and then saw what looked like a single light moving slower than a car. A bicycle. We darted back across the street into a driveway and hid behind some bushes.

The cyclist pulled over at the mailbox directly across the street and turned off his light. What the hell? What’s he doing? “I don’t understand what’s happening,” I said, not caring that the dude could hear me.

Since he wasn’t moving, we tried to continue on our way. Rob asked, “Are you just pausing?” as I stumbled over an uneven patch of grass and fell to one knee.

“I kind of live here,” the guy said, turning on his bright light, shining it in our faces.

Rob said, “Our dog barks at bicycles,” while I said, “Cheesy cheesy,” trying to keep Leo’s focus on me, but come on, how much can we expect a German shepherd to take? He started barking.

Since there was no sidewalk on our side of the street, and the guy said he lived there, and Leo was already barking, we crossed back over on the other side of the guy, and kept walking. Turned out, the guy didn’t live there, but next door to the house in whose driveway we had hidden. So the genius turned around and rode beside us (Leo still barking) back to his driveway, saying, “I saw two people lurking in the bushes, what was I supposed to think?”

Oh, I don’t know, we had two dogs and were wearing various accessories designed to make ourselves visible, what kind of malicious mischief could we possibly be up to? He was supposed to think, Those are two people walking two dogs, minded his own business, and ridden into his own damn driveway.

Okay, yes, I do see how we looked strange, and we do have some weird crime on our block. If Rob saw people hiding in our own driveway, he would have confronted them too, but not in our neighbors’ yards. We expect weird behavior in those driveways.

Lesson learned. The whole thing was very embarrassing, and sadly, makes me reconsider our fairly successful strategy of hiding in people’s bushes.

This post is part of the Positive Pet Training blog hop, hosted by Cascadian NomadsTenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days. Shout out to Rubicon Days for putting Bark and Lunge in her positive training toolkit. Also for the reminder that positive dog trainers should never feel like dorks for wearing treat pouches (or fanny packs) and doing weird things like chanting “Cheesy cheesy,” every time another person passes by, or you know, hiding in people’s driveways.

Positive Training The hop happens on the first Monday of every month, and is open for a full week — please join us in spreading the word about the rewards of positive training!

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Published by Kari Neumeyer

Writer, editor, dog mom, ovarian cancer survivor

15 thoughts on “Training versus management for leash-reactive dogs

  1. incidents that we can’t avoid. A prime one is someone coming our way while I’m picking up poop and I don’t have time to make a run for it. If things get really bad, I can pick Ruby up, and I’m so thankful she’s small enough to do so and also that she’s not a redirecter.

    I’ve had people with dogs *keep coming* toward us when it’s really very clear that we’re having a problem – I just don’t understand it. You do such great work with your dogs, and I think part of being a positive trainer is not caring what other people think!

    1. Weird – only part of my comment posted – but I said something to the effect of “The things we do for our reactive dogs” and that I rely heavily on management with Ruby because her reactivity is so widespread – sometimes it’s all I can do to watch for and avoid triggers, let alone do any training. We have been working on some DRI (sitting) with cars, since those are the lowest intensity.

  2. Okay, you have to admit, hiding in people’s shrubs is kinda funny. Having fostered a really reactive dog and on a couple of occasions having to hang on to her AND a boulder to keep her from lunging at a passing hiker and his dog – I get that it isn’t too funny at the time. I can laugh about it now though, even though it’s a frustrating thing to have a reactive dog. I too spent a lot of time just doing my best to avoid situations where I knew other dogs would be around. Most of the time it worked.

    I feel like I am guilty sometimes of not recognizing a reactive dog. When I am in a place like the (people) park – I figure if someone has a reactive dog, there is plenty of time for that person to head in a different direction rather than straight at us. How am I to know until it is too late? I don’t purposely lead Blueberry to other dogs because she doesn’t have any interest in them unless she knows them and they know her. There’s one woman at the park with a really reactive dog that actually yells at other people with their dogs to move out of the way because she is coming. I’m sorry, but if she knows she has a reactive dog, then it’s HER job to veer off course instead of trying to bully everyone else out of the way. Maybe I’m wrong in that thinking?

    1. We do tend to see the humor in these things. This time, since it led to a semi-confrontation, I felt more frustrated than usual.

      You’re right, the reactive dog owner is responsible for getting out of the way. I don’t agree with the lady at your park. What’s frustrating is when we go to such lengths to avoid people who unwittingly derail us by getting in our way.

  3. That’s good you’re making progress! It sucks that people have to be so weird, though!! I had a similar situation with an old lady who thought she was “playing” with Phoenix. She kept bending over (Phoenix is really freaked out by people bending over and leaning into her space) and the lady kept doing it. Phoenix would bark and jump around her and back up and the lady just kept bending over and moving in an odd way. and towards her. I was at the big off leash park and Phoenix was off leash.. and barking. That was the first major reaction we’ve had in a very long time and I could not get the lady to just stand still. I’m yelled “She’s a rescue dog and she’s freaked out! Let me get her!!!” and the lady yells, “OH no!! It’s OKAY!! We are just PLAYING!!”.. Sigh.. Luckily there was no nipping (and never has been any) and as soon as I got there and told Phoenix to go find Zoe everything was fine. Phoenix took off and ate some grass and it was over. So embarrassing but also extremely annoying.

  4. Proper management leads to training. This is true for humans too!

    The weather has been so nice I have had the stroller (with cat and cockatoo) out which means I definitely do more leash reactivity managing and less actual click and treat training. Well, after chillin’ a while at the park, we were about to leave when I saw a dog and human approaching on the path. I left the stroller near the bench where we’d been chillin’ and stepped onto the grass with the dogs. I had treats ready and we did some focus exercises while the dog and human passed. I should say while I thought he dog and human passed. Instead, they had stopped just past the stroller and were both just staring at us. The dogs noticed this invasion of space a split second after I did. They went nuts. I cursed (sort of at the human but hopefully only I knew that.) But seriously, why?!? I had the situation SO well handled… I guess a dork with an arsenal of training tools clipped to her Poopac, praising her dogs like crazy at the park next to a stroller containing a cat and a parrot is deserving of an audience? Yeah. Just like a couple with dogs that look like they just walked out of Burning Man hiding in the bushes should be studied. When we humans with reactive dogs figure out a way to manage other humans, then we will finally get somewhere with training our dogs!

    Thanks for joining the hop again this month. It is always a pleasure to have you, even if you are sharing sordid details of your criminal trespasses.

    1. I’m waiting for people to hang up signs around the neighborhood: “Beware of dangerous couple with dogs dressed for a rave. Crazy woman will give a command to her dog, named Cheesy, to attack you.”

  5. Lol. Some people think Mr. N’s name is “naughty!” I’ve found that if I pick up Mr. N and cover his eyes and he is still under threshold, I can walk him past the dog without him reacting. I do that sometimes if we’re on a narrow trail or something where there aren’t good hiding places.
    I’m planning on writing a post soon about good places to walk reactive dogs where there are hardly any triggers.

  6. I’m lurking and learning, just wanted to thank you, this post especially makes me not feel so weird any more. We have a dog-reactive dog, and try to avoid meeting other dogs, and also reward non-reactive behaviour. We hide in bushes, too, and when it gets close, but not too close, I keep telling my dog ‘we’re not interested, we’re not interested…’ and walk briskly away, doing the ‘watch me’ in-between. We get a lot of strange looks. Some people don’t get it at all, they deliberately come closer when we walk out of the way, stand, and stare. With their dog. We’ve increased our weirdness by being known as those who yell, ‘just keep going, don’t stand there…’
    Despite it all, there is small progress, and reading posts like yours keeps me going.

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