A reader wrote in with some concerns about his pup’s behavior while she’s leashed:

Stella is a sweet-natured, smart mixed breed who weighs 35 lbs. She does fine with people, including strangers, and seems to do ok around other dogs when they're in a fenced area. But if she's being walked on a leash and sees a dog (fenced or otherwise) she gets very aggressive, bristles stand up on her back and she lunges and pulls on her leash. I'm trying to break her of that habit, but not having much luck. Any suggestions?

Leash reactivity in dogs

Many dog owners struggle with leash reactivity in their dogs. Your pooch has dog friends at the park. Maybe she goes to daycare. Perhaps she even lives with another dog. Then why does she freak out every time she sees a dog on leash?

As a former member of the Midnight Dog Walker’s Club (a subset of people who strategically walk their dog at unmentionable hours specifically to avoid encounters with other dogs), I can tell you that while it may be stressful to have a leash reactive dog, there are things you can do about it!

Why is my dog being reactive to other dogs while leashed?

There are a few reasons your dog may react to other dogs while on leash, but the most common is frustration. This is especially true if you have a dog who has appropriate reactions to dogs while in an off-leash environment, but reacts aggressively to dogs while on leash.

Think about it, your dog-friendly dog sees another dog and immediately thinks “Hey, I would like to be friends with that dog! Let’s go meet ‘em!” But you are on a walk, and you aren’t sure that the other dog or owner wants a friend right now.

So you pull your dog past them and it causes. . . you guessed it. . . frustration. In fact, any time you inhibit a dog’s natural response utilizing force or restraint, you take away the dog’s natural body language and coping mechanisms causing frustration.

Commonly, we restrain our dogs by having them on a leash, holding them by the collar, picking them up or putting them behind a physical barrier like a fence or in a car. All of these actions are common triggers for (say it with me) FRUSTRATION!

And much to the chagrin of their owners, dogs tend to express frustration with flamboyant displays of lunging, barking or charging. If the situation has been allowed to continue, it may even cause your dog to formulate a negative response with other dogs, thereby increasing aggressive reactions.

So what can you do about it?

A lot, actually!

If your dog is friendly with other dogs, enrolling him in a structured, positive reinforcement based obedience class may work wonders. A group obedience class will teach your dog to focus, even when there are distractions (like other dogs) in the same space. Some training companies even offer special classes specifically for dogs who react to other dogs while out on walks.

If your dog cannot handle being in a room with other dog-owner teams, a private lesson with a certified professional dog trainer or behavior consultant to teach some impulse control may be in order. Just make sure that the trainer specializes in positive reinforcement methodology and avoids aversive tools like shock collars or heavy-handed corrections. Aversive training will only inhibit your dog’s behavior, thus causing him to become more frustrated and react in an even bigger way.

For more specific training tips, head over to the CCPDT’s website and find a Certified Dog Trainer or Behavior Consultant who can give you some tips based on your individual situation. 

Apr 10, 2015

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