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Why is my dog friendly in Daycare but reactive on leash?

Why is my dog reactive on leash?

We’ve all heard the phrase, usually striking terror into the hearts of even the most veteraned dog handlers - “Don’t worry! They’re friendly!” Typically the phrase is accompanied by a dog either pulling on their leash to approach you, or the dog is already loose and making a beeline towards you and your own companion.


When this happens, it almost never spells good news for either party. The dog who is approaching has no boundaries and approaches you and your own dog as if they were long-time friends. Your dog, who regularly attends daycare, reacts and snaps towards the approaching dog. But why? Your pup is so friendly in daycare, they’ve never had any complaints, in fact they’ve been praised by the staff! Why is your dog that is so sweet and plays so well in daycare acting so over-the-top and reactive in this situation? Are the daycare attendants lying? Is your dog aggressive? So why are they reactive on leash? Believe it or not, your dog is likely not aggressive AND your daycare is probably telling you the truth. Here’s what you need to know to understand the dog that acts so negatively on leash, yet is somehow an angel in a group setting.


Reactive dogs on leash

The Duality of a Leash

The first thing you, as an owner, needs to understand is what does your leash DO? A leash on your dog is there to give you some semblance of control over any situation in a world full of free radicals. The leash protects you and your dogs from potentially very dangerous situations; traffic, strangers, strange dogs, etc. However, if we do not communicate that to our dogs, the leash which was meant to protect them - now restrains them, leading to reactivity on leash. The tool meant to keep them close, now keeps them from creating space. A dog who feels fear for any reason commonly responds in one of three ways: fight, flight, and freeze. Most dogs, given the chance, will choose to flee, creating distance to separate them from the stressful situation so they can assess and make a decision. When on leash, flee is removed. A dog who cannot flee when they feel they want or need to - and doesn’t know how else to cope - must now choose one of their other two options. If they cannot flee, they may choose fight. Now reacting and showing uncharacteristic behaviors, simply because they feel in whatever situation they need to protect themselves.


Why is this not shown in Daycare?

Most daycares, especially well formed and structured ones, will sort your dog into various group styles. They base this choice on a plethora of reasons; size, age, and general temperament being the most common three. Likewise, any restraints are typically removed - if your dog feels the need to move away and assess a situation, they have the freedom to do so. This opens up lines of communication from dog to dog so that ideally nothing ever escalates beyond what either dog wants. Alongside all of this, daycare staff are trained to watch each dog’s behavior and responses to help them work through what is appropriate and inappropriate. This creates a balance where an unsure or nervous dog can fall back on the attendant for guidance. Creating a realm of trust between everyone.


why is my dog reactive?

Am I supposed to just keep my dog off leash all the time then to avoid this?

No! Obviously, in an ideal world, all dogs would have the healthy upbringing, genetics, and natural born ability to safely communicate with each other and would always respond when we needed them to with a perfect recall. Leash laws are a factor in almost any outdoor space, and should always be adhered to. This is not an ideal world, where kind souls rescue dogs who have a hard past. Those dogs did not get the strong foundation we would like, and that poses problems when expected to behave a certain way in what they may consider a stressful situation. We, as dog owners, need to create a new line of communication between ourselves and our dogs and build their confidence in us. We need them to know that we will protect them. If your dog is on leash, they need to understand that this means they can relinquish control. YOU will handle any situation that comes their way, YOU will step in and protect them from the “Don’t worry they’re friendly!” dogs of the world.


Building this confidence and communication between you and your dog is exactly what we at K9 Role Models aim to do for you. Giving your dog the confidence to give you more control of any situation will allow you to step into that leadership role and confidently handle the “Don’t worry! They’re friendly!” high-stress situations in the world with ease.

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