Group walks are a great way for dogs to get used to the excitement of seeing a dog. They entail a lot more than just going on a dog walk together, though. The basic tenants of group walks are:
- This is a WORKING walk. That means everyone involved should be actively paying attention and training.
- The most reactive dog starts off in front so they aren’t constantly stimulated by the view of the other dogs. Depending on their training level, the dogs in the back may pull on the leash to try and get closer to the lead dog. For a normal dog, this is often no problem. For a reactive dog, straining on the leash can make them more and more anxious.
- Give lots of SPACE! You don’t want your reactive dog to be over-threshold. The goal is to have them react as little as possible. In the above photograph, the dog in the foreground is stressed and a little too close to the dogs walking behind him (his face looks tense and his ears are back, focusing on the three dogs in the back). He is obviously stressed but is still heeling and not out of control. At this point in the walk he was still looking up at me when asked and responding appropriately. You are going to have a hard time finding a distance for most reactive dogs where they won’t (at least initially) feel a little stressed. Do your best but don’t worry too much if your dog is still a little too intense when you are 90 feet away. A little bit of stress is necessary to learn and practice helps. Over the course of the walk you can often get closer and closer.
- Communication. If the front dog has to stop to sniff something, let the people behind know so they don’t keep getting closer and closer.
- Don’t let the dogs interact. You can get close enough for them to sniff each other’s rears, but as a general rule the dogs should just be getting used to walking at the same time and not worried about actually meeting.
- Switch it up. If your dog seems comfortable with the other dog when they are in front of them, try walking to the side or behind. Different vantage points are often exciting all over again.
- Limit outside concerns. If you know there is a neighbor dog that rushes the fence and barks–take a different route. If you see a dog (or a kid or a bike or anything else the reactive dog might be too interested in) coming your way, change directions. If you absolutely cannot get away, throw a handful of high value treats on the ground to interest the dog before they can focus on the distraction.
Over time, you may be able to walk a reactive dog with a dog they are very comfortable with (In the above picture, the two dogs on the left live in the same household. The German Shepherd is dog-reactive and not comfortable with the black dog). Be careful. Dogs can re-direct when they are overstimulated. That means that they can turn and bite their trusted friend (or you). Make sure you are in control and can keep the dogs under threshold. If you can’t–don’t walk them together. You don’t want to ruin a good relationship.
The above picture is the result of about 3 years of consistent (but not intensive) training. It took that long for the shepherd to remain focused and attentive on her handler with the strange little black dog (LBD) so close. She was not crated and rotated with the LBD and no effort was made to integrate her with the LBD, who was a friend’s dog and an infrequent visitor.