I debated putting pen to paper on this one for a long time... A really long time! I finally am putting this out there.
Leash reactivity drives me up a freaking wall. It's relatively simple to fix with classical conditioning (appearance of stranger in a place... at a distance below threshold) allows an association of scary thing with full on reward. It's also pretty easy to fix with operant conditioning. This is more of "do this" (sit, look at me, down, etc) and I will reward you while the scary thing walks by. That's somewhat of a management technique. Also, bribery works really well if you find yourself in a situation where your reactive pup is in sensory overload and a stranger walks out of some dark alley 3 feet from you... I find a steady stream of roast beef or cheese will get us through this situation as long as the stranger doesn't reach for the dog to pet them- or anything silly like that. This is also the reason basket muzzles were invented and should be normal, I think!
But long term, I often wonder "where does this come from?"
I don't mean where does this come from like "I don't understand how this starts". Surely, it can come from many sources- An introverted "non-dog" dog being put into busy situations, a dog who has had a bad experience on a leash, or a dog whose leash is used as a "seatbelt" strapping them in to situations they are not ready for time and time again. (Well, they can't hurt anyone... So what harm is it doing?... I hear...)
We forget, our dogs aren't robots. We cannot and should not have robotic expectations of them. If your dog is showing signs of stress on a leash again, and again, they are going to start associating being leashed with those stressful situations. You can easily and readily create anxiety on a leash as you can creating anxiety at the vet.
I've had this foster dog, Elton. He's an incredible dog. He snuggles on the couch. He looks to you for answers. But I noticed from the first time that I met him he has heightened anxiety on a leash. Not heightened anxiety like-- lunging and growling. Nothing crazy... For a pittie especially, he's just a big ole scaredy cat! To be honest, he's so emotionally in tune and sensitive, he'll know the second you are having a bad day (he's on your lap)! Or, if you are training with him, he'll pick up that he's moving in the wrong direction with just a look. He's incredibly trainable. He was my foster pup for months!
It took me about 2 months to find the original story; Elton was tied to a pole on Elton St in Mississippi and abandoned originally as a pup. It makes a lot of sense. The second he was stressed (base level anxiety from being leashed in the first place), he remained emotionally heightened for the week- resulting in mild resource guarding with other dogs, generalized anxiety (chewing something), being "on edge" with other dogs, and not listening/cueing in to his human handlers. His anxiety would remain amped up for the duration of the week. It wasn't that he was generally bad at anything - He wasn't a dog with these behaviors when he was living a low anxiety lifestyle overall. Easily, these behaviors could amplify if he was not allowed to settle back down (have the same routine, seeing the same people for a week or so).
Alternatively, I quickly learned with Elton, that leashes (and crates!), my typical management tools for dogs, caused and ramped up generalized anxiety for him. Also, we spent a lot of time on my property at home- off leash, happy, running around with as many other dogs and new people as he could. He was super stable with changes in his environment as long as he stayed put (from 3 new dogs in and out every day), to visitors. I taught him a goofy version of a non-militant "place" cue. Every time someone came in, I told him to "go to his couch". I could tell he was cueing from me whether he should be anxious and greet the stranger or not. When he was off leash at my house, he had the ability to "make his own decisions". He could, for example, flee a dog that was making him uncomfortable outside. He could wide-eyed stare at the other people, and settle/play as soon as he felt comfortable. And that moment of "comfort" came faster and faster.
In this situation, and when I tell people of Elton's problems (including families he'd trialed with), they'd say "we just didn't know how he'd be so we kept him on a leash". This was the problem right there! With heightened anxiety on a leash, and the addition of new stimuli, along with Elton not being able to make his own choices, Elton wouldn't know how to handle himself, or his interactions with other humans and dogs. When he knew he could wander into the woods, or be safe on his couch, he no longer had any interest in the "fight" response that comes with stress. He'd choose reassurance. He'd choose non-confrontation. He'd choose to self-sooth with a toy, or he'd choose to hide on his couch or distract himself by sniffing in the woods.
Off leash for this pup was critical. As founders of a rescue with so many strays and runaways, the girls who had assigned him to my care as his foster Mom were nervous. Elton had been returned for running away many times down South. But, rebuilding his confidence around people and other dogs surely would teach Elton to default to relying on his human, not on his own responses and triggers.
Elton doesn't want to make his own decisions. He wants to be one of a group of dogs, off the leash, with the ability to move himself away from danger.
I like to think of anxiety like a cup. "Triggers" for any particular dog add to the cup, and positives like the freedom to move away from the trigger removes a bit of water from the cup. For Elton, anxiety inducing things (like being on a leash) fills up about 80% of this cup. Right away. In one fell swoop. Being crated or contained or always leashed outside, adds about a 20% base level of water to this cup. These "containment" things that are typically safety measures for other dogs will just fill his cup right to the top, so the first new stimulus that happens will just push him over the edge. On a normal basis, this would be a "flee" response for goofy Elton. But, in extreme cases, this results in more of a "fight response" for him. As long as this cup is empty, he is GREAT with other dogs, humans, children, and absolutely anyone he comes across. He loves car rides, dunkin donuts, and things he's associated as positives.
To the careful, type A person, they always believe in a dog being leashed or being the one controlling the situation. If this is you, Elton is not at all for you. He will take kindly to cues, working for his food, and light direction, but forced containment will cause Elton a boatload of anxiety. It will trick you, as being on a leash will not make him lash out uncontrollably the second it is put on... But it will make him anxious internally. And anxiety leads to reactions. He'd be a great dog for someone who wants to leave him home on his couch for 12 hours a day, and enjoy laughing at his zoomies outside for only 30 minutes. He promises to never make you exercise too hard, or have an abundance of energy. He doesn't need 2-4 hours of aerobic exercise a day like a vizsla. He doesn't care if you go out for a drink after work. He probably hasn't even noticed he hasn't been out to go to the bathroom since the morning, as he sleeps so soundly. Fortunately, if you want the lowest key/routined dog on the planet, then Elton is for you.
Elton is searching for his forever home. Reach out if you think these circumstances could be a great match for your home, and I will connect you with his rescue.