As a dog trainer, who has owned a reactive, or leash aggressive, dog, I am very aware of the mixed feelings this problem presents. Before I understood what leash aggression was, I thought that I had contributed to his aggression. I carried with me the baggage of feeling like I was not a good dog owner; after all, everyone else seemed to have dogs who loved other dogs! I was worried about either my pup or another dog getting injured as my dog lunged, barked and growled. Also, if I'm totally honest, I was sure other people were judging me as a dog owner. Now, these dogs are among my favorites to work with! Once I started to understand what leash aggression was and was not, I let the stigma go and did the work with my dog. Now, my dog will sometimes come with me to work, he helps me socialize other dogs with leash aggression. Let me give you some hope on this, most dogs with leash aggression can be helped!
What is Leash Aggression?
Leash aggression and leash reactivity are two terms that are often used interchangeably. While there are some subtle differences, for the purpose of this blog post, we will use them interchangeably as well. The definition of leash aggression, as defined by Victoria Stillwell are "behaviors that are caused by a dog feeling restrained, frustrated and uncomfortable in a social situation while attached to a leash".
When dogs meet off leash, they are able to use body language to convey meaning and intent. They are able to create space, stay loose and both read signals from and convey signals to the other dog. A dog who is fearful, nervous or anxious is able to make space and move to a more comfortable distance. When dogs meet on leash, this cannot happen. If a dog feels threatened, afraid or nervous, they may choose to react in a more defensive manner- which can appear aggressive. These behaviors may include lunging, barking, growling, even pulling towards the other dog- sometimes, it is true aggression, but many times, the behavior stems from fear and the dog feeling like they have no way out.
Think about a time when you felt afraid but could not get away. I often cite the example of a time when my then boyfriend (now husband) put a snake around my shoulders. I am terrified of snakes (like see a snake on tv, and my feet leave the floor, kind of afraid) and mind you, this was not an ordinary snake, but a full grown boa constrictor. He had the owner of the pet store drape it over my shoulders- in an effort to help me overcome my fear- it did not work. Instead, I yelled, I jumped and I made quite the scene in front of the store owner and all the customers! When the snake was removed, I promptly tried to hit my boyfriend and threatened to never speak with him again. I was not angry, but so afraid that I felt like I had no other option but to fight- after all, the snake was already on me and I did not have an escape!
Leash reactivity is often the same thing. We will come back to this example throughout the post, because I think it gives a good example that many people can relate to.
What are some causes of Leash Aggression?
While many owners do not want to hear this, many dogs who have leash reactivity, have owners who may, unknowingly, contribute to the problem. When dogs meet off leash, they will often come together in a curvy pattern, approaching from the side, not head on. How do we introduce two dogs on leash? Very often, we walk them right up to one another face to face, like we people like to be greeted! The problem is that dogs are not people.
Face to face greetings can be very intimidating or threatening to dogs. Canine body language is often subtle, but clear to dogs. When dogs approach head on, they are giving a signal that they are confident, ready to stand their ground- its like when you meet someone and they approach a little too quickly, tower over you and step inside your personal space "bubble". Now imagine that you are a dog who is nervous or fearful, or just shy, and this is how you are expected to greet another dog.
In addition, many dogs are nervous or fearful, and they have learned that by reacting, it creates the space they desire to be comfortable. If a dog lunges, barks and pulls, but this creates distance between him and the thing that scares him, he quickly learns to react aggressively sooner to prevent feeling uncomfortable. In our effort to reduce risk of injury, which we need to do, we make the problem worse.
Some dogs really want to meet other dogs, but have underdeveloped social skills. They can come in like a lion, when maybe the dog they are approaching needs a softer greeting. Or they come bounding over, on a leash, jump up and start to play with a rough and tumble style with a dog who prefers to chase or tug. Given the current situation with a global pandemic, and many communities in lock down, it's easy to see why some dogs have under developed social skills!
It is true that some dogs are truly aggressive, but I have found that this is exceptionally rare in dogs who are leash aggressive. Often, what I hear from clients are things like "They are fine when they meet other dogs at the dog park", "Once he knows a dog, he's totally fine! But it takes so long for him to trust a new dog" or "The only time I see her react this way is when we are on walks. Its embarrassing and I worry about her hurting another dog". For these cases, it is most likely fear, as stated above, or frustration.
The leash can cause frustration. It does not allow dogs to move in a manner that they naturally would. It does not allow them to easily roll onto their backs, move in curvy patterns or retreat easily. Couple this with the fact that many owners, hold the leash tight, causing it bring tension to the dogs neck, chest or back. This tension, tells the dog it's time to get ready to fight- and makes them tense. They react, we pull them away as they react, when we feel we are far enough away, we loosen the leash. The dog is now taught that by reacting aggressively, we will help them create space and the tense collar or harness will loosen.
How do I Improve Leash Aggression?
Understanding how dogs learn is key to this problem. A certified dog trainer can help you in identifying why your dog is leash reactive and the best methods to reduce leash aggression. Below are some ideas and tips to help you as you search for a trainer. When searching for a dog trainer to help with leash aggression, always look for a trainer who will utilize and employ positive or force free methods. Using methods like a prong or shock collar, will actually make the problem worse, not better. These tools introduce pain when the dog pulls, or reacts. The dog quickly learns that seeing another dog will cause them pain, and will potentially react more aggressively sooner to prevent the pain.
Management is key:
When you first start to work on leash aggression, management is key. What this means is that you have to set your dog up for success and eliminate the opportunity for the dog to practice the reactive behaviors. Changing the emotional response to seeing other dogs is much easier if the dog is not practicing barking, lunging and growling to get distance. This may mean walking your dog at off peak times, finding a route that does not have many dogs, or learning to turn on a dime and change direction if y0u see a dog coming towards you. A good trainer will also be able to work with you and teach you games to help distract your pup, or how to use a handful of treats to get your dog out of a situation.
Find the right distance:
Dogs learn by association. A leash aggressive dog has learned that certain behaviors work to give the dog the space it needs to feel comfortable. However, a little realized fact is that when dogs eat, it releases a chemical reaction in their brains that makes them happy- they literally cannot be fearful and happy (From eating) at the same time. This is why when your dog is reacting aggressively on leash, you cannot get them to take a treat! They are, what trainers call, over threshold. This means that their threshold to be able to observe another dog without reacting, is long gone!
Let's go back to my snake example; putting the snake on me pushed me right past my threshold to be reasonable. All I could see and focus on was the snake around my shoulders and the fear. If someone had told me to stay calm, or offered me $500 to be calm, I could not have done it. I doubt I would have even heard them!
Our dogs are the same, when they get over threshold, all they can focus on is the other dog. If your dog reacts, you are too close! In order for your dog to develop new associations and start to believe that other dogs are good, you need to give them enough space so that they can learn. For some dogs, that may be 20 ft, for others it may be 2 city blocks! You have to learn what your dogs threshold distance is; again, a good trainer will be able to help you with this.
Find the right treats:
Once you find the distance your dog needs to stay under threshold, then you need to find out what treat will work best. A mentor of mine once used my snake example to clarify this point to me, and I have never forgotten it. She asked me, if she offered me $100 to be in a room with a loose snake, would I do it. I, of course, said no. She then asked me "What if I offer you $1000, and the snake is in a second room, but the walls are glass so you can see it". This gave me pause, I said "maybe". "OK, then that's where we will start!". In her example, all I had to do was go into one room and look at the snake through glass- every time I looked at it, I would be given $1000.
See? the "treat" or reward, needs to be of high enough value to your dog that they will work for it. I often advise my clients to reserve this treat for working on reactivity- and think really high value like chicken, cheese, dried liver, jerky, or hot dogs- no kibble for this work! The treat needs to sufficiently motivate your dog to want to work for it. This takes some practice and exploring. I have one dog that I worked with that did not want hot dogs, cheese or liver treats, instead, he would work for dry treats like Charlie Bear treats (traditionally not a very high value treat, but for this dog, it was like gold).
How do y0u know which treat is a higher value treat to your dog? Well, one thing I do is take two different treats, that are the same size. Hold one in each hand and allow the dog to sniff and lick them one at a time (left hand, right hand, left hand and right hand again), then present both at the same time. Typically, whichever one the dog picks- that is their favorite. Do this a few times and you will learn what your dogs favorites are!
Combine distance and food to change your dogs reaction:
Once you have been managing a few days, you have learned your dogs threshold and you have his high value treat. You can start to work on the leash aggression. A key point here is that it is still important that your dog not practice reactive behaviors while on leash! Management will continue to play a big role as you train your dog.
To begin with, you can use a protocol called "Engage/Disnegage" developed by Alice Tong and was built off of the "Look at that Game" that Leslie McDevitt created. The graphic was created by Alice Tong and is very helpful in explaining the game to clients.
As the graphic above states, you want to reward your dog for looking at and noticing another dog (or other trigger like a car, person, etc) at a safe distance. After allowing the dog to look for a short period, you reward him for staying calm. One note here, I typically teach my clients to use a marker word like "Good" or "Yes" that tells the dog a reward is coming. This just prevents the need to handle a clicker, a dog leash and treats, but either works fine. you gradually teach the dog that when the trigger is present, a treat is coming. Remember, we are using a high value treat, so it's extra yummy for your dog! After the treat, allow your dog to look again- staying mindful of the distance needed to keep them comfortable!
Over time, with the help of a qualified dog trainer, you should be able to see the distance getting shorter and shorter. Eventually, your dog will see another dog and will look to you for a treat- that means it's working and your dog is making the association. As you progress, the dog will be able to get closer before you need to remove him from the situation.
There are a few other options, but truthfully, the engage disengage game is so helpful that I use it for almost all my clients who have leash aggressive dogs! We start there and move on to other options if it is not as effective for their dog.
There are a variety of causes for leash reactivity, but most center on fear or frustration. While it can be embarrassing as a pet owner to have a dog that is leash aggressive, there is hope. We need to implement management first, give the dog space to feel safe and bring in games to help distract them. The use of high value treats and the engage disengage game are wonderful tools to helping your dog overcome their fear and frustration.
If you have a dog in the MIlwaukee area that is experiencing leash aggression or leash reactive behaviors, we can help with that! We have several options for training that is positive and force free and works! With patience, consistency and time, your dog can learn to be more relaxed and calm with other dogs too!