There’s nothing more disheartening than when your dog reacts aggressively towards other dogs when out on walks. I should know, I’ve experienced it with one of my dogs and therefore I feel your pain. I know too well how we have to have eyes at the back of your head, as well as missile like homing abilities to be able to spot an oncoming dog more than a kilometre away. Always kept me on my toes!
But why does reactivity on the leash occur? What is the dog thinking and what is he trying to achieve by reacting? And what are the steps we can take to help manage and reduce it?
Firstly lets look at the many reasons why some dogs react on leash:
• Lack of early socialisation as a young puppy (first 16 weeks)
• Frightening experience/s as a young puppy (pup was bullied, rushed, tumbled, bitten or attacked) causing fear aggression
• Genetic predisposition for aggression (dog’s parents were that way)
• Mishandling by owners
• Learned reactivity e.g. copied the other family dog who always barked on walks
• *Over-excitability/arousal on leash causing a frustrated greeter
In the case of fear aggression, the dog wants the other dog to go away. The dog learns that barking and lunging causes one of 2 things to happen: 1. The other dog goes away, OR 2. Your dog is moved away. Either result is exactly what a fearful dog wants…distance! Therefore aggressive reactivity is now a trusted strategy for the dog.
*Reactivity on leash is not always due to fear aggression; in fact fear aggression is probably just as over-diagnosed as separation anxiety is when it comes to dogs. Some dogs can become reactive due to over-arousal and excitement upon seeing another dog. If a dog has always been able to approach another dog when in an excitable state, then this behaviour naturally becomes reinforced. Because of the escalation in behaviour, the owner one day decides to hold the dog back from greeting the other dog. This not only increases the dog’s frustration but also dog’s reactive behaviour. Unfortunately, this can tip over into aggression if the dog is not managed correctly.
Other dogs seem to be fine with dogs when off leash, but not so good when on leash. This is probably due to the fact that when dogs are off leash, they can better control their distance from other dogs by moving away; which unfortunately is something they cannot do when on the leash. Being on leash (barrier) is usually the cause of frustration for a dog that is much more confident when he/she is off leash.
The main elements owners of reactive dogs need to know and practice:
– Avoid and manage: If you are not sure of the outcome, then don’t gamble. U-turning away, crossing the road or moving away before your dog reacts is always the best form of management. This is especially so if you are ill equipped and not sure what to do. Don’t allow your dog to practice the unwanted behaviour!
– Desensitise: Regular, controlled exposure to a small group of calm dogs at a distance will assist in reducing your dog’s reactivity level over time. A dog school/club is excellent for this.
– Change the way your dog feels about other dogs: Give your dog yummy treats, or anything else your dog enjoys, whenever it sees a dog in the distance and does not react. Over time, this helps change the way your dog feels about seeing another dogs.
– Control: Good strategies allow you to gain and keep control in all kinds of situations. Get the help of a professional and qualified dog trainer to assist you with this.
If your dog has only mild reactivity then good management strategies and changing the way your dog feels about other dogs can greatly assist to reduce the behaviour. But don’t leave it to chance! Set up scenarios with a friend and their calm dog to allow you to practice regularly with your dog.
If your dog’s reactivity is medium to severe, then we suggest calling in a professional and qualified trainer with experience in working with reactive dogs and who can assist you with correct and workable strategies as well as guide you with the desensitisation process.
Desensitisation (reducing the fear and reaction) can take any period of time to achieve. It’s not something that simply happens overnight, or even after just 2 weeks of practice. In some severe cases of fear aggression, desensitisation has taken up to 12 months to achieve! After this time, the learning can be generalised with the dog learning to cope being around dogs in many and varied situations.
There is no magic pill or potion that will help speed up the desensitisation process either. However if the dog’s fear is producing high levels of anxiety, then medication may help lessen the dog’s anxiety levels only. This will create a calmer dog and in turn allow for the desensitisation process to start taking place.
Best of luck!!!