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Riff Raff: From Reactive to Relaxed

This article is the runner-up entry in the BARKS 2023 Summit Writing Competition!

by Tasha Attwood

Riff Raff is a 7-year-old entire (intact) male Leonberger who lives in a bungalow with his owners, Claire and Paul. They have had him since he was 8 weeks old, and he is the only pet in the household. Claire’s parents live in the house next door and have three Briards, two males named Bruce and Billy, and a female named Annie. The houses are separate but adjoined via a door in Claire and Paul’s study that leads into Claire’s parents’ dining room, and the garden is shared. 

Riff Raff’s breeder selected him for Claire and Paul. They had previously gotten a bitch, Honey, from this breeder. The breeder felt Riff Raff would be on the smaller side, which was perfect for them as they were living in a suburban setting at the time. Riff Raff’s parents, siblings and grandparents all had very good temperaments.

Claire and Paul are experienced with the breed, having had a rescue Leonberger named Gunner in addition to Honey. Claire also grew up with Old English Sheepdogs and Briards. Her parents were breeders. 

Riff Raff’s History 


Riff Raff is raw fed. He is fed a raw meal for breakfast, which he will leave if the weather is hot or he is unwell. He is offered a LickiMat® at lunchtime and then has the choice of a natural treat like dried lung, liver or freshchicken in the afternoon and on walks and during training sessions. He is fed another raw meal at teatime.

Medical Conditions and Medications 

Riff Raff’s vet believes has an allergy to grass and/or pollen. During the summer when pollen counts are high, Riff Raff appears lethargic, sick and depressed. No skin tests were done, but the vet trialed him on Apoquel, and Claire reports he returned back to his normal self since starting it. Riff Raff was still taking the Apoquel when I was called in. He is currently not on any medications, nutraceuticals or supplements for behavior.

Sleeping Areas 

At night, Riff Raff sleeps with Claire on the bed in the bedroom. During the day, he may sleep in the livingroom or he will go to the bedroom independently and sleep on the bed. When Claire works in the study, he tends to sleep in the study’s doorway.

Home Alone 

When Claire and Paul are not home, Riff Raff has access to the whole house. Claire’s parents will come in through the joining door to the study and let him out to toilet.

Exercise Routine 

Claire owns a secure dog-walking field and takes Riff Raff to the field twice daily. He has constant access to the garden. He is walked down the lane several times a week, but not regularly except on Saturdays and Sundays when Claire walks him down the lane or drives him to a nature reserve for a nice sniffy walk for around an hour. Paul has a hydrotherapy center on the land, and Riff Raff does water treadmill exercises twice weekly for roughly 10 minutes for a right rear hip injury he sustained while lunging during a reactive episode. Maintenance: Riff Raff attended chiropractic sessions for three months and then started the twice-weekly water treadmill sessions. 


Paul works from home, and throughout the day, in between clients, he will check on Riff Raff and offer him chews or puzzle toys before going back to work.

Mondays and Fridays, Claire works from home and is more hands on with Riff Raff than Paul is. On these days, Riff Raff stays in the doorway of the study where Claire is when she is working. 

Interactions with Other Dogs 

When Riff Raff first came home, Honey took to him immediately, whereas Gunner only tolerated him. Being a puppy, Riff Raff wanted to snuggle up to Gunner, which eventually won him over after the first couple of months. 

Riff Raff became reactive to other dogs after Gunner and Honey suddenly died very close to one another. Claire’s mother’s dogs, Bruce and Billy, have both attacked Riff Raff. He was playful with other dogs, albeit a little boisterous, until Bruce attacked him. Riff Raff and Billy played nicely together until Billy reached adolescence. The first time Billy attacked Riff Raff was during high arousal in play that escalated. We believe this is due to all three being entire. Riff Raff does not react to bitches or neutered males.

Training History 

Riff Raff attended Good Citizens Kennel Club when he was a puppy until he reached adolescence. At that time, Claire and Paul were taking him more for the socialization opportunities. They stopped as he got older, as they felt he was socialized well with other dogs.

Details of the Problem Behavior 

Riff Raff became fearful of going outside to toilet after a fight with Claire’s mother’s dog, Bruce, in the shared garden. He waits by the French windows in the living room for Claire’s mother’s dogs to enter the shared garden. When the dogs enter the garden, Riff Raff reacts by barking, lunging and attempting to bite the glass, and his body becomes stiff and tense. Both Claire and Paul are unsuccessful in engaging with him at these times. 

If Riff Raff sees Bruce through the French windows in the living room, he becomes extremely aggressive—barking, throwing himself at the glass and unable to be reassured or calmed. He does not react to seeing Annie.

On walks, Riff Raff barks and lunges at other dogs. When this happens, Claire becomes so scared she drops the lead, which of course is dangerous for Riff Raff, other dogs and their guardians, and Claire herself. Claire feels Paul is too rough when he pulls Riff Raff back when he reacts.

The reactive behavior developed after Claire and Paul’s two senior Leonbergers, Honey and Gunner (Riff Raff’s companions), suddenly died within a month of one another. Prior to Honey and Gunner’s passing, Riff Raff didn’t interact with other intact male dogs. After Honey and Gunner passed, Claire and Paul felt Riff Raff needed to interact with Claire’s parents’ dogs. 

The behavior was occurring twice a day in the home when Riff Raff saw Bruce. He was okay with Billy until Billy became an adolescent. Additionally, on walks, Riff Raff reacted every time another dog barked or lunged at him, which resulted in Claire and Paul only allowing Riff Raff in their secure dog-walking field.

Known triggers for the behavior are entire male dogs and dogs that bark or lunge at Riff Raff on walks. 

The behavior was being reinforced through practice because Claire and Paul were not quick enough to engage with Riff Raff before he saw another dog on walks, and they were also unable to engage with him after he reacted. On walks, Claire would freeze out of fear and drop the lead, and Riff Raff would run up to the other dog barking and snarling, but not escalating to a bite or a fight. If Paul were walking Riff Raff, he would correct him on the collar, which caused Riff Raff to escalate further. In the home, both Claire and Paul would try to engage with Riff Raff using treats when he reacted, but both were a little nervous of getting too close due to his size.

At home after reacting to another dog, Riff Raff would be unable to relax and would pace and pant while constantly looking out the French windows. He would lie down facing the windows and only relax when he was denied access to the living room. When the living room door is closed, he sleeps on the bed for hours. Sometimes, if offered food an hour after reacting, he would be too stressed and refuse to eat. Roughly three hours must pass after reacting before he could eat.

When not stressed, Riff Raff is a happy, relaxed, boisterous dog who enjoys play particularly where the human participates, for example, playing tug. He seeks out play by bringing a tug toy to Claire or Paul to engage with him. He is able to sleep comfortably and enter into deep sleep.

Observations During the Consultation

Riff Raff is a beautiful and happy dog when not on a walk or in the living room where he is very anxious and unable to relax. He appeared confident and comfortable with my presence. 

In the living room, he was unable to relax, pacing and panting. Paul told him to lie down in a stern voice and Riff Raff did lie down for a few seconds facing the window, but then he returned to pacing and looking out of the window. Claire attempted to call him over with a toy, but Riff Raff was not able to engage. When access to the living room was removed, Riff Raff’s stress escalated and he began jumping on and mouthing Claire in the kitchen while she held the toy. The more fearful Claire became, the more aroused Riff Raff became, which resulted in him going over threshold and humping Claire’s side. She attempted to push him away, but he was too strong for her. Paul then grabbed Riff Raff by the collar, which Riff Raff understandably was not comfortable with at all. Paul is very strict and gruff, whereas Claire is emotionally worn and very stressed with the situation. 

Talking about the loss of Gunner and Honey was very raw and caused Claire to become distressed. She is fearful and needs support in building her confidence. Claire was very much on board with force-free training and wanted to learn more to help Riff Raff to feel safe and secure. Paul is rough with Riff Raff and believes that corrections are the only way he will learn. He did not seem to understand that this was causing Riff Raff to escalate. Paul did not seem totally on board with force-free training. 

The Plan 

Riff Raff needed one-to-one training for anxiety and reactivity. Our goal was to work on calmness and helping Riff Raff to heal and feel safe in his own home. We would also work with Riff Raff on walks for engagement and safety, and to help him feel more relaxed rather than on alert so he could walk past other dogs without barking or lunging. Claire also needed support for her confidence, as she had a habit of dropping the lead out of fear when Riff Raff reacted. Claire and Paul did not want to explore further medications, especially for anxiety, as they felt Riff Raff’s behavior was not generalized anxiety or depression, but more about being trigger stacked.

Management Plan 

The management plan for Riff Raff consisted of the following:

  • Covering the windows in the living room with window film to help Riff Raff feel safe and remove the pressure and fear of seeing other dogs in the garden.
  • Asking Claire’s mother to notify Claire when she was bringing Bruce out so that Claire could do breathing exercises and look at that (LAT) training with Riff Raff or remove him from the living room if he was too aroused or Claire was busy or preoccupied.

Behavior Modification Plan 

The behavior modification plan for Riff Raff consisted of the following:

  • Using a Y-front harness and double clip lead for walks and stopping any and all corrections, especially on the collar. Paul didn’t believe a Y-front harness would help. He believed the harness would create further pulling. Claire was willing to try it.
  • Rest and recovery for Riff Raff for at least 72 hours following a reactive episode, and engaging him in activities that he enjoys like puzzles, LickiMats® and tug games. When Paul offers him chews or puzzle toys when working from home, we discussed him being present with Riff Raff during enrichment, not only for safety, but also to participate with Riff Raff.
  • Observing Riff Raff’s communication needs and the importance of empowering him, and Paul and Claire being on the same page and agreeing to work together to support Riff Raff. 
  • Using the secure field for decompression and setting up scent trials in the garden to help Riff Raff relax and engage with the environment rather than be on the lookout. 
  • TTouch, especially for Claire and Riff Raff’s relaxation and confidence, and hopefully to reduce their anxiety. I recommended they try Janet Finlay’s free taster course (available on YouTube).

Training at Home 

The at-home training plan for Riff Raff consisted of the following:

Mat training in the garden: 
Mat foundation games build value to the garden.

Mat foundation games rebuild value to the garden.

Paul works with Riff Raff on a fun conditioning exercise of pivoting to help Riff Raff change his emotions toward the French doors and feel positive and safe when his back is facing the doors.

Paul works with Riff Raff on a fun conditioning exercise of pivoting to help Riff Raff change his emotions toward the French doors and feel positive and safe when his back is facing the doors.

Claire plays with Riff Raff by throwing treats with no behavior or cue attached to remove any pressure and make a positive association with the living room and French doors, which are opposite Claire.

Claire plays with Riff Raff by throwing treats with no behavior or cue attached to remove any pressure and make a positive association with the living room and French doors, which are opposite Claire.

Replacing corrections with playing pattern games:

Look at That (LAT): LAT involves gaining a communication base with the dog by building a connection with the clicker and food. Once the handler and dog feel comfortable, when the dog looks at a distraction or trigger and turns back to or makes eye contact with the handler, we then click and treat to reinforce seeking the connection to the guardian instead of focusing on the distraction. 

Claire and Riff Raff work together on Look at That. When Riff Raff looks toward the back doors of Claire’s mother’s house where her dogs typically come out from then reengages with Claire, she immediately gives him a treat. Riff Raff also defaults to a chin rest, his favorite behavior to offer. Claire captures the behavior to help him through a foundational game with nothing really being asked of him, and working with the trigger in a natural way.

Claire and Riff Raff work together on Look at That. When Riff Raff looks toward the back doors of Claire’s mother’s house where her dogs typically come out from then reengages with Claire, she immediately gives him a treat. Riff Raff also defaults to a chin rest, his favorite behavior to offer. Claire captures the behavior to help him through a foundational game with nothing really being asked of him, and working with the trigger in a natural way.

Take a Breath: Take a breath involves capturing the dog’s natural breathing and sigh, which is equivalent to a “shake it off” communication and body release of tension. The guardian observes their dog engaged with waiting for a treat, and when the guardian sees a nostril flare, the guardian is to click and treat. Once the handler feels comfortable with the progress, we can then place this on cue, with an “old cue, new cue” protocol, and ask the dog on cue to “take a breath.” This can help the dog change their emotion toward a trigger or distraction, while helping the dog to heal and become desensitized to the trigger.

Chair Game: The chair game begins with utilizing a chair or a bench, something for the dog to gravitate to. We then count out treats on the item so that the dog makes an enthusiastic relationship to the object. We then build on moving away from the chair and feeding elsewhere near the chair and rewarding for interactions. When the dog looks to the chair or goes to the chair, we immediately join them and reward them. This is so the dog has something to gravitate to around distractions or triggers to communicate to their guardian how they are feeling, which then enables the guardian to support the dog.

Super Bowls: With super bowls we set up a line of bowls and walk with the dog, dropping treats in the bowls so that the dog forms an understanding of what the bowls mean. The distraction or trigger will be located at the end of the bowls when the dog is ready to progress. This could be an object such as a vacuum cleaner. This gives back control to the dog to tell us how they feel about the trigger. When the dog moves toward the bowls, toward the trigger, we drop the treats in the bowls reinforcing them. If the dog retreats, we also drop the treats in the bowls to reinforce them and to show the dog that we are listening to their communications and respecting how they feel toward the object.

We also discussed that both Paul and Claire needed to feel confident with the pattern games in the home before transferring them outside.

Making a list of favorite foods:

Writing a list of Riff Raff’s favorite foods that he deems as high value for engagement on walks.

Progress Report

After 6 months, both Claire and Paul were extremely enthusiastic compared to when we began with the initial consult, history and behavior modification plan. They both apologized for not believing that the Y-front harness would make a lot of difference, and instead of accepting their apology, we laughed it off and changed the subject to Riff Raff’s comfort and Claire’s confidence. 

Claire said she had observed that Paul was not correcting on the harness on walks and that Riff Raff appeared to be less stiff and tense on first exiting the car for a walk compared to before. In a recorded video they shared of Riff Raff exiting the car, I observed that his body was loose and relaxed, as were his mouth and ears. He immediately sniffed the ground around the car and engaged with Claire when she cued him. Claire reported feeling more confident with the harness, but that to build her confidence she needed either me or Paul to accompany her while she worked on exercises. 

Both Claire and Paul expressed that they and Riff Raff enjoyed the pattern games and that Riff Raff was not only able to engage and come away from the French doors, but he was also engaging more in sniffing in the garden and had gone as far as the tree, which was about 20 yards from the door. This was big progress from the initial consult. 

They also said that on a walk on the beachfront, Riff Raff was able to pass other dogs, albeit utilizing the full space of the beach. He was able to trot past while engaging with one of them with treats, and he also took food and ate it rather than spitting it out and re-engaging with the trigger. 

As a result of the increase in communication between Riff Raff, Claire, and Paul, Riff Raff had access to the living room again, and he was more relaxed and able to sleep on his bed and have his back to the French doors, which he was unable to do before. It helped that Claire’s parents agreed to not let their dogs in the shared garden for the time being and instead bring them to the side garden that is hidden from view of Claire and Paul’s bungalow, which means Riff Raff does not see Billy daily anymore. This has greatly reduced Riff Raff’s trigger stacking and prevented rehearsal of the reactive behavior. This way, they also did not have to use window film (Paul was uncomfortable with not seeing the view). 

With the home situation comfortable at this time, the main focus was to help Claire with her confidence, so we took Riff Raff out for a walk and I taught them the 1,2,3 pattern game. Riff Raff thought this game was great fun and was excited and aroused. Each time Claire began to count, Riff Raff not only engaged, but was also pushy with Claire’s hand, ready for the treat delivery. Claire expressed that she was worried we wouldn’t see other dogs, and I explained that we didn’t actually want Riff Raff to go over threshold and his trigger bucket begin to refill—we wanted him to engage with the environment and with Claire and keep a happy, relaxed and loose body. I used the example that if we went to town where there was a high concentration of dogs, this would set them both up to fail, with Claire’s anxiety and, of course, Riff Raff’s reactivity. Claire said she understood this and it made sense. She said this made her feel at ease, as in past experiences observing training classes at her Leonberger club, people with reactive dogs were encouraged to go into a hall with all of the other dogs to “get over” their reactivity. I explained that this (flooding) is not how force-free/holistic training works, that this training is designed to meet the dog’s needs as an individual as well as considering the guardian’s needs. 

We touched on medication again, and Claire and Paul were absolutely against it, as they had known dogs who “behaved like zombies” on antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication, and they didn’t want Riff Raff to lose his spirit, which is why they were selective in choosing a professional. 

We set out another plan for rehearsing the 1,2,3 pattern game, for scatter feeding in grass verges, and for Claire to stick to walking the lanes instead of attempting the town or the beach for both her confidence and Riff Raff’s, but to absolutely have Paul accompany her whenever she needed him to. I explained that this doesn’t mean she failed or wasn’t making progress, but that this is how habituation and generalization work. 

Claire and Paul wanted Riff Raff to feel more comfortable in the garden, so Paul said he would be happy to engage in games such as tug with Riff Raff there, if he is willing, and Claire expressed she would like to setup a simple scent search for him. Both said they would provide feedback on how this plan went.

Twelve months after the progress report, Claire was away for work and her mother was responsible for Riff Raff. Not realizing she had left her own door open, Billy came out and attacked Riff Raff in the garden. Neither dog could be called away. Riff Raff got punctures to his ear and lip. Billy did not have any visible wounds. So, we started working on decompression and helping Riff Raff to feel safe again, as he had been lethargic since the fight. 

Conclusion of the Case

Claire and Paul maintain their one-to-one sessions as well as classes so that they can explore any fears or concerns and work on healing Riff Raff’s emotions, specifically his fear of the garden. Claire also rehearses games from the classes for homework roughly three times a week and submits these homework video sessions to our group online classes.

They want to feel more comfortable walking Riff Raff past other entire dogs. We discussed the risks and benefits of neutering, and they both felt they would rather that Riff Raff remain entire. They also want to try a parallel walk with Claire’s mother’s bitch, Annie, to give Riff Raff the opportunity to socialize with another dog, especially following the loss of Gunner and Honey.

Future Possibilities 

Depending on the situation going forward, neutering isn’t completely off the table, and Claire and Paul would also consider a holistic vet, if they can find one in the area, to explore possible supplements to be added to Riff Raff’s meals instead of pharmaceutical drugs if it becomes absolutely necessary for his welfare and quality of life. 

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About the Author
Person and two dogs.
Tasha with assistance dog, Koda (on the right, in lilac and pink vest) and assistance dog in training, Django (on the left, in the green vest).

Tasha Attwood is a holistic dog behavior consultant and trainer whose focus is on education for guardians and their dogs and collaboration for the care of dogs as individuals, healing trauma, and building relationships for bonding, care and understanding. 

Tasha also focuses on helping people with disabilities with their relationships with their dogs, from education to assistance dog training and ensuring that people’s needs are met individually and inclusively. 

Tasha shares their life with their four dogs, Diesel, Koda, Django and Zombie, and takes the opportunity to publicly share their lives by creating tutorials for guardians on a variety of topic ranging from collaborative care for better welfare to games-based learning to enjoying bonding and understanding their dogs, subtly removing “obedience” from the conversation. 

Tasha is the co-chair of the Pet Professional Guild’s Assistance Animal Division, a member of the S.I.T. INTODogs social inclusion team, and a Do No Harm Dog Training group moderator. 

Learn more about Tasha at

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