How to deal with a reactive dog and leash aggression?

How to deal with a reactive dog and leash aggression?

Walking with a dog who is aggressive or reactive on leash – meaning he lunges and barks at dogs who come too close – is difficult at the best of times. 

We first need to find out why our dog does this. There are two very different reasons, but the behaviour looks very similar and often – but not always – the dogs are ok when off leash:

  • Some dogs want the other dog to go away, it is a ‘distance increasing’ behaviour
  • Some dogs want to get to the other dog to interact, it is a ‘distance decreasing’ behaviour.

Let’s start with the ‘distance decreasing’ behaviour. These are dogs who are frustrated on the leash because they cannot interact with the other dog. This is best addressed by firstly giving them enough time off leash to interact with other dogs in safe settings to cater to their social needs. This can be the off-leash area, but it can also be organised playdates. 

Secondly, we need to teach them that the leash means, no interaction, focus on the human and calmly walk past the other dog. We teach them to walk on the leash when there are no dogs around (link to lose leash walking) and then gradually walk them in busier areas, giving them enough distance so they can cope. It is important to stick to the rule ‘no interaction on leash’! Otherwise, you are confusing your dog.

If it is a distance increasing behaviour, it is a bit more complicated as there is probably an element of fear or even anxiety involved. If they are ok with other dogs off leash, then we should provide them with opportunities to play. But we also need to start with what we call a desensitisation and counter conditioning process. 

Desensitisation means we expose our reactive dog to other dogs at a distance they can cope with and then very gradually decrease the distance. At the same time, we are counter-conditioning; this means we change how they feel about other dogs while on leash. We are doing this by pairing the scary stimulus (dog) with something pleasant (food). Every time they see a dog, they get a treat. 

It is important to give the treat once they have seen the other dog. They also get the treat when they bark or lunge because we are not training as such, we try to change their brain. But if you say for example, ‘it is ok’, tighten the leash and give a treat before your dog has seen the other dog, then you will have the opposite effect! It will get worse because your reaction and treat will predict the ‘bad’ stuff. This process takes time, patience and a structured approach. 

It is best to work with a force free professional if you have a dog who is reactive on leash. You can find qualified trainers on the Pet Professional Guild Australia website www.ppgaustralia.net.au

To learn more, please contact Barbara Hodel @ Goodog Positive Dog & Puppy Training

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