Why can the most placid, well socialised and friendliest of dogs decide that an unfamiliar canine just has to be growled at when they’re on the lead? And what can you do to moderate this bewildering dog-meets-dog behaviour?
Posted: 17 August 2017
If you have a usually calm, friendly, well socialised dog, it comes as an almighty shock when they suddenly decide to have a go at an approaching dog when you’re out on a lead walk. When this happens, it can leave you baffled as to why, straight out of the blue, your dog has become so reactive – and wondering how best to tackle this unwanted behaviour. It’s time to call on the expert knowledge of some dog behaviour specialists…
According to David Ryan, Chairman of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, aggression is a normal part of the way all animals behave. He says: “Aggression is the outward expression of an emotion and is part of a range of behaviours that dogs have available to them to deal with life’s everyday challenges. Dogs are aggressive in response to unfolding events. When a dog uses aggression, it is almost invariably because it thinks that it is under some form of threat – to its personal safety, to take away something (or someone) it values highly, or by preventing it from doing something it really wants to do, which causes frustration.”
This instinct in dogs is one that can be heightened when they are on leads. Dog training expert and presenter of TV’s It’s Me or the Dog, Victoria Stilwell, says: “Leash lunging, leash reactivity and leash aggression are all behaviours that are caused by a dog feeling restrained, frustrated and uncomfortable in a social situation while attached to a leash. In normal circumstances, an unleashed dog would be able to put sufficient distance between himself and a fear source. But if the same dog is leashed and unable to increase that distance, he will react or behave defensively in the hope that the fear source will go away.”
What’s more, as dog owners, we often unwittingly contribute to the negative experience of the situation. Victoria adds: “The anticipation of a problem tends to cause human tension, which is transmitted down the leash to the dog, effectively making the lunging behaviour worse. Dog and owner are then locked in a vicious cycle of tension and leash lunging that becomes hard to change.”
The best way to tackle leash aggression is to put yourself in your dog’s position. Dr Eloise Bright, Clinical Lead at Love That Pet, provides a useful insight: “The key to understanding why this behaviour occurs is watching dogs approach each other at the dog park,” she observes. “Usually they approach in a wide arc, circling and sniffing each other, reading each other’s body language. The dog that surges up in a straight line, without obeying this ritual, is often the one that ends up in arguments. When your dog is on a leash on the footpath, the normal social rules are not allowed. The dogs are approaching in a straight line, usually with direct eye contact. Often unconsciously you tense up on that leash, perhaps even yank on the collar and perhaps even mutter ‘be nice’ in a stern voice, therefore sending the signal that this is indeed a threatening situation.”
According to dog behaviour experts, the best way to tackle lead aggression and work towards calm, polite meetings is by using positive reinforcement and giving your dog plenty of time to adjust their emotional response and, therefore, behaviour.
Here are some of Victoria Stilwell’s top tips to try:
DISTRACT: When your dog sees another dog in the distance and is curious but not yet uncomfortable, bring out his favourite toy or food and play with him or feed him some treats. Playing or feeding your dog will help him to not only focus on something else when he is in the proximity of another dog, but the pleasure he gets playing or eating will change the way he perceives the outcome of that dog’s presence. Now he is associating the sight of another dog with positive things happening to him that make him feel good. This is the key to changing the way your dog feels about the perceived threat.
BRING A FRIEND: To teach your dog to be comfortable with other dogs passing by, start by having a friend or trainer bring their calm, non-reactive dog to help you. Begin the training by having them stand at a distance where your dog is comfortable and can focus on other things. Play a game your dog enjoys, give him his favourite toy or feed him some treats. If your dog shows no signs of discomfort, ask your helper to bring their dog a little closer. Continue to play or feed your dog and give plenty of praise. If at any time your dog reacts negatively, simply turn around and walk away from the situation until he calms down enough to play again or accept food.
STAY POSITIVE: Be ready for setbacks and do not punish a dog that lunges on the leash for any reason, especially if the cause of the behaviour is insecurity, which is the case for most dogs. Scolding your dog for reacting to other dogs just further cements that negative association he or she has with seeing dogs and bad things happening. And, while it may serve to suppress behaviour at that moment, it does not help to change the way a dog feels emotionally. Keep all sessions positive, using lots of rewards, as this will have longer lasting success.
TAKE YOUR TIME: Desensitising your dog to a perceived threat, such as an approaching dog, may happen very quickly, or it might take time. Every dog is different and it’s important to go at your dog’s pace.
Here’s some more helpful advice from D for Dog
• When you spot another dog, ask their owner if it’s okay if your dog says hello. Not all canines like to greet dogs that they don’t know.
• Avoid letting the dogs rush towards each other for a head to head greeting. This makes it very hard to read each dog and watch for signs of trouble and, in terms of dog etiquette, is just plain rude.
• Avoid standing just out of reach of the other dog so that your dog lunges and barks. This just builds frustration and the chance of a disastrous meeting is high.
• When you are ready to let your dog say hello, ask them quietly to sit. This calms them down and ensures that you are still in control of the situation. Now give the command ‘Say Hello’ and walk towards the other dog on a loose lead. Remember, tight leads build tension.
• Allow the dogs to sniff each other and circle while making sure you and the other owner don’t get the leashes tangled.
• After several seconds say in a happy voice ‘Let’s Go!’ and confidently walk away, rewarding your dog with a food treat when they come with you. End each greeting session on a good note.
• Don’t let on-lead greetings descend into play – this only teaches your dog that other lead encounters should be equally exciting when what you are aiming for is calm, polite exchanges.
• Stay relaxed, calm and confident. Dogs are experts at reading your body language and will take cues from you if you are nervous.
NEED PROFESSIONAL HELP?
FIND an Association of Pet Dog Trainers qualified dog trainer in your area at www.apdt.co.uk
FIND an Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors member near you at www.apbc.org.uk
Sources: apbc.org.uk, apdt.co.uk, positively.com, lovethatpet.com, dfordog.co.nz, rspca.org.uk