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Overcoming Leash Reactivity Through Exercise

Overcoming Leash Reactivity Through Exercise

Overcoming Leash Reactivity Through Exercise

It’s 4 a.m. and I can feel the sweat pouring down my chest, my heart pounding in my ears. The morning is near, and the familiar anxiety is creeping in again. Will I run into a dog on our walk? Will I get hurt? Will I even survive another outing with my reactive pup, Maddie?

Two years ago, my husband and I fell head over heels for Maddie while volunteering at our local rescue. She was a phenomenal dog – loved all the volunteers, adored children, and had a zest for life that was downright infectious. But there was one thing Maddie did not love – other dogs. She was labeled “dog reactive” in rescue speak, and we were told this was common in stressful kennel environments, assuring us the behavior would disappear once she was in a loving home. “She just needs structure, stability, and to learn to trust again,” they told us. Naive and hopeful, we trusted this assessment and adopted Maddie.

A year later, Maddie’s reactivity towards dogs had not improved. Love, stability, and endless exercise had done nothing to curb her intense fear of canine companions. In fact, the more my husband and I tried to shield her from dog encounters, the worse her reactivity became. After a personal injury caused by Maddie lunging at an off-leash dog, we resigned ourselves to 5 a.m. walks in the dark and late-night treks, one of us always on the lookout for potential triggers. Leaving our home became a full-time job, with one person watching for dogs while the other dashed to the car with Maddie. Our lives were consumed by a constant state of hypervigilance.

One morning, I woke in a full-blown panic attack, and a voice within said, “This is not sustainable.” In that moment, I knew something had to change.

Redefining Reactivity

That’s when I reached out to my friends Kelly and Richard, a local photography duo who are also active in the dog welfare community. I hired them to take photos of my dogs a year prior, and when I reached out for help with Maddie’s behavior, Kelly said something that would prove pivotal: “We will NOT be politically correct and say she is ‘dog reactive’; in our eyes, she is ‘dog aggressive’!”

This frank assessment let me know just how much they were struggling, and how hopeless they were feeling. I set an appointment to meet and evaluate Maddie, eager to learn how we could turn things around.

Meagan, our trainer, revealed that reactivity is a complex, multi-layered issue. Maddie’s inability to sit quietly around people, her barking and chasing of birds, her compulsive sniffing – these were all behaviors indicating deeper reactivity that had lodged into her neurological system. Suppressing these behaviors through commands, leash corrections, or bribery only pushed her fear and anxiety underground, where it simmered, waiting to erupt.

In contrast, Meagan’s approach to training was all about celebration and empowerment. She used positive associations, counter-conditioning, and fun games to help Maddie make good choices. Each session was filled with joy, and Maddie was learning that choosing to focus on me was where the greatest rewards lay.

Overcoming the Fear

The key, Meagan explained, was consistent training and a willingness to push past our comfort zones. In theory, the training wasn’t complex – reward Maddie for checking in, and set up sessions so she offered that check-in naturally. But it required practice, repetition, and a complete upheaval of old habits.

It also required Kelly and I to confront our own fears, embarrassment, and stress. Every time we stepped into a situation that had once felt unpredictable and out of control, where trust had been significantly eroded, our hearts would pound, and our bodies would go into autopilot. But Meagan taught us to push past those emotions and support our dog, no matter what.

Kelly practiced every day, and had she not been so committed, transforming Maddie’s behavior would have been impossible. But the real breakthrough came when Kelly willingly stepped into those fear-inducing areas, pushing through her own trepidation to help her dog. Even when Maddie had setbacks, Kelly dusted herself off and kept going, never letting the tough training sessions stop her quest to help Maddie overcome her reactivity.

The Dance of Teamwork

Meagan often reminds us that reactivity is a team sport, and this is what makes it so challenging. Not only does your dog have to change their patterns of behavior and the emotions behind them, but you, as the handler, have to change your own habits and overcome your fears.

If you’re constantly scanning the environment, heart pounding as other dogs approach, and you’re pulling on your dog’s leash out of stress and fear, you’ll be sending a message that there’s cause for concern. And that can make any formerly reactive dog revert to their old ways.

But Kelly and Maddie have come so far in their training together. Rather than avoiding other dogs, Kelly now seeks them out, seeing them as training opportunities rather than triggers. And while there are still some trouble areas to work through, Maddie is now consistently choosing (without any commands needed) to focus on Kelly over her environment – a profound transformation from the dog that would move through the world, nose stuck to the ground, alternating between deaf-like sniffing and scanning for triggers.

“Maddie is transforming from the INSIDE OUT as am I,” Kelly says. “She is engaging with me and looking to me for information about the environment and triggers, such as dogs. When Maddie sees a dog, she is learning to immediately turn and look to me for reward and confirmation.”

Maddie is calmer, less reactive, and more balanced overall. And as for Kelly, she no longer dreads the morning light. She looks forward to their walks and training adventures, knowing that while there may be setbacks, Meagan has equipped them with the skills to work through Maddie’s reactivity.

The Power of Community

The Everyday K9 community that Meagan has cultivated has been an invaluable part of Kelly and Maddie’s journey. It’s a group of people who are all there for the same goal – to have a better-behaved dog – and they support one another every step of the way.

The weekly pack walks have strengthened the bond between Kelly, Maddie, and the entire community. And Meagan’s unwavering support, both in and out of training sessions, has been a lifeline for Kelly as she navigates the ups and downs of overcoming reactivity.

If you’re struggling with a reactive dog, know that you’re not alone. Visit our website to learn more about the methods used to help Maddie overcome her reactivity towards other dogs. With the right training, support, and a willingness to push past your fears, you and your furry friend can achieve the calm, balanced relationship you both deserve.

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