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Taking the stress out of walks with a reactive dog

When working or living with a dog who shows reactivity towards people or other dogs, walks can become a stressful activity for everyone involved. Avoiding triggers and keeping your dog below threshold can be a daunting task, especially when it seems like every person and their dog is out to sabotage things! Although the suggestions below won’t “cure” your dog of their reactivity, they can be quickly implemented in order to make walks less stressful in the short-term.

The first thing to consider is reducing the frequency and/or the length of your walks. For a reactive dog, walks can be a highly stressful event. If they encounter a trigger and feel the need to react, the physiological stress effects can last for several days. Even if they don’t encounter any of their triggers, they may be on high-alert and expecting danger at all times during their outing, which must be mentally exhausting! Taking shorter walks can help to reduce this, as well as the likelihood of encountering triggers. Choosing to drop down to just one walk per day, or even every other day can make a huge difference to your dog’s overall stress levels. 

The idea of reducing walks is often met with a look of horror – but it doesn’t mean your dog has to miss out! There are a wide range of enrichment activities which can be done in the safety of your own home, and will provide just as much mental stimulation as a walk. Alternatively, hiring a private exercise field can allow your dog to let off steam outdoors, without the risk of meeting anyone they’d prefer not to. Remember that there is nothing wrong with totally avoiding your dog’s triggers outside of times when you’re able to actively work on their training plan.

Picking your walking areas carefully can also make a huge difference. It may go without saying that very busy environments with a lot of people/dog traffic are not going to be ideal for your reactive dog. Places with very narrow paths (such as canal walks) can force them closer to triggers than they’re comfortable with. Single tracks/lanes can lead to situations where you switch direction to avoid an approaching trigger, only to be trapped by another one coming from the opposite direction! Areas where other dogs are typically exercised off-lead are also best avoided, since you will inevitably end up being approached by a loose dog (and eventually their owner, when they saunter over to retrieve the dog). 

Some of the best walking destinations for reactive dogs in my experience tend to fall into two categories: 

1. Suburban road walks

Suburban or residential areas such as housing estates tend to be perfect for exercising reactive dogs, for a few reasons. Firstly, it is much less likely that you’ll encounter a loose dog here, compared to parks or rural areas. Secondly, it is usually fairly easy to avoid triggers if needed, since there is typically more choice in terms of alternative routes to take or roads to duck down. Cars parked along the road can also be strategically used to visually block your dog from spotting triggers! Often there are particular times of day which tend to be quieter, allowing you to pick and choose the best time to walk your dog – whether you’re wanting to avoid triggers completely, or encounter a certain amount of them as part of a training program. Crossing the road when approaching junctions/blind corners can help to avoid bumping into triggers unexpectedly! 

2. Wide open spaces

Depending on the distance at which your dog will react towards triggers, wide open areas such as moorland, open fields or beaches can be ideal walking spots. Again, there are usually particular places/times to avoid and you may need to go on a bit of an adventure to find the right spot! Although there will often be loose dogs in this type of environment, you’re usually able to spot them at a distance and take evasive action before they get too close. On some beaches and in some areas of moorland dogs are required to be kept on-lead, which can be even better.

It goes without saying that there are no quick fixes for reactive behaviour – we need to figure out what the emotional basis for the behaviour is, so that a positive and appropriate training plan can be put in place. As a dog owner, working with a suitably qualified trainer or behaviourist is the best course of action. However, the above changes can be made right away, in order to make walks more pleasant for both dog and handler.


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