On almost every walk in my neighborhood I see at least one dog that has trouble leash walking. What I mean by this is the dog barks and lunges at every person and other dog they see. What’s worse is, it’s my dog! Just because I want my dog to walk well on the leash, isn’t going to make it happen. So many times I find myself rearranging my schedule to avoid ” the best time of the day” walks or avoiding a walk altogether because I’m not up to the challenge of managing my dogs behavior. It becomes a vicious cycle-with a lack of both exercise and stimulation leading to my dog who is harder to handle when she is taken on walks. So, the walks tend to go towards walking into more secluded areas and the problem with socialization increases.
Why do some dogs have this problem and others don’t?
I can’t speak for every dog but some probably feel trapped when they’re on a leash and are approached with another dog. They don’t feel free to run away if they need to. Dogs who explode at other dogs for this reason are behaving as though their best defense is a good offense. “I’ll get you before you get me”. I know this is part of Cinnamin’s problem. If we have plenty of space to move over, she does much better.
Another reason why a dog maybe nervous when another dog approaches them is because they may have been traumatized by another dog and are now afraid of approaching dogs. We may never know this with a rescue pup.
Perhaps your dog never had a chance to be properly socialized around unfamiliar dogs, and is only comfortable with familiar dogs. Some dogs may be naturally shy around any unfamiliar dog, even though their owners have provided them opportunities to socialize.
Genetics play an important role in all aspects of canine behavior, and shyness is highly heritable, causing even some well-socialized dogs to be nervous around unfamiliar dogs.
Not all reactive dogs are afraid of other dogs. Some dogs get so excited when they see another dog that they work themselves into a frenzy. A high level of emotional arousal, combined with frustration of being on a leash and not being able to interact, is a common factor that motivates some dogs to bark and lunge. A dog may start out by charging forward to try to play with another dog, but when they leash stops them, over and over, he/she may learn to associate feeling frustrated with the approach of another dog. This is sort of like “road rage” for humans. We get into our car, thinking “today will be the day for a smooth ride to work”. Then we hit the traffic or weather or construction AGAIN and we just lose it. Frustration sets in. Dogs may begin by trying to run over to play with a buddy, but after months and years of being restricted, their enery and frustration can spiral into a mess of emotions….like humans with their “road rage”.
Another explanation for dogs who bark and lunge at others is a learned association between seeing another dog and the aversive feeling associated of getting choked by the collar. It’s easy to imagine a dog thinking, in some canine kind of way, “I always get hurt when I see another dog on leash, so go away!” So let’s look at this successful idea that hopefully will help make walks so much calmer and nicer for both you and your dog.
“Watch” command for a safer, calmer, no road-rage walk
The watch command gives your dog something other to do than bark and lunge. We have to give our dogs another option to the aggressive behavior. All they know isn’t working well for them or us. The watch command has them look to us to see what they want us to do. It has them refocus, on us, their master aka, the alpha of us two. Now our pup is no longer being stimulated by another dog walking by revving up out of control. She/he is now focused on our face, calming down and happily anticipating a wonderful treat (be it food or praise). This maybe very hard to imagine, but what do you have to lose by training your dog and yourself a new behavior strategy to make a seriously stressful walk a more calming one?
Start teacher Watch in a quiet place where they are no distractions. Say “Watch” and wave a moist, smelly piece of food an inch away from your dog’s nose. Bring the hand with the food up to your face to lure your dog’s eyes up to yours. You can encourage this behavior by smooching or clicking your tongue or moving away a step or two. Once your hand is up by your face, encourage eye contact between you and your dog by smiling, cocking your head, wiggling your finger beside your eye and praising with “Good dog, Good dog.” Use a voice that is both calm and happy.
After a second or two, say “okay” to release your dog, then give your dog the treat. Be sure you don’t move the treat away from your face before you have told your dog, “okay”. If you do, your dog will think the movement is the release, and that could cause trouble later. Don’t worry if the dog is watching the treat and not your eyes, eventually we’ll get to that. Have your hand movement consistent. Always go from their nose to your eyes.
After you say “okay”, either hand your dog her treat, or toss it on the ground. Some dogs have a hard time staying still and focusing on your face when they’ve seen another dog, and even the best treat in the world is barely enough for them. These dogs do best if the reinforcement for turning their head toward yours is a quick run in the other direction.
Once you and your dog have mastered Watch in a quiet place with little distractions, start asking for Watch with mild distractions. As soon as Watch is going well at moderate levels of distraction, start asking for it when your dogs sees anther dog. Of course, be in control of the situation. You want it to be a success so only ask for a Watch if another dog is far enough away that your dog will see him, but not go crazy. Try to anticipate the moment your dog is about to turn her head toward the other dog, and say “watch” the microsecond she’s actually looking toward the dog. Your goal at this stage of training is to set up situations where your dog sees another dog at a distance far enough away that she can still concentrate, to say Watch immediately each time she looks at the other dog, and make her very glad she did. If she looks back at the other dog, that just gives you another time to practice!
Right think out the training progression. You need to train your dog from no stimulation to everyday walk situations slowly. You don’t want to blow the training you’ve started! Be very patient. I suggest the following…
-in the house, when no one else is around and you both can focus on each other.
-now go into a room with a window and have the window open. My dog loves to watch out the window, so this could be a distraction.
-In the back or front yard at a quiet time, with no one in sight.
-In the back or front yard when it’s a bit busier with a bird or squirrel.
-In the house when one other person is present but doing their own thing.
-In the house when several other people are present
-In the front yard when someone else is outside
-In the front yard when someone else and their pooch is outside
-On the sidewalk, as your dog walks toward a dog she is friendly with, who is 25 yards away.
-on the sidewalk, as your dog sees a dog who she’s charged at numerous times in the past, who is a block away.
-In the backyard as a squirrel rushes past.
-on the sidewalk, when your dog looks at an unfamiliar dog who is 30 feet away walking toward you both.
-On the sidewalk, when an unfamiliar dog walks by.
This really does work. Your dog is worth it! Keep at it! It seems tedious but it will all be worth it in the end!