Advanced Training Tips for Stopping Leash Aggression
Last year, I wrote about how I stopped my dog Penny's leash reactivity. Throughout the process of working through this behavioral issue, I have learned such valuable information about what works, what doesn't, and reaffirmed the power of positive training in difficult behavior cases.
This is a follow-up to my prior article, so if you're in the early stages of understanding your dog's leash reactivity, check that article out first and work on those initial steps before using this more advanced troubleshooting guide.
FYI, I do prefer the term "leash reactivity" to leash aggression, as I feel that the former better explains the behavior than does the latter, but the term "leash aggression" seems to be more widely known by the general public. For the sake of this article, I'll be using the the term leash reactivity, but I'm referring to the general behavior of a dog barking, snarling, or lunging on leash. It's extremely important to work with a knowledgable force-free trainer on this issue because there are several potential causes of these behaviors, all of which require different treatment protocols.
Throughout the last year, Penny's reactivity has improved greatly, but I also had some setbacks along the way. If you've got a good grasp on your dog's leash reactivity but feel you're still struggling sometimes, here are some tips for later stages of training that may help you really step things up.
1) Keep moving.
This is a tip that I wouldn't recommend for every dog, but it's something that worked well for me. I found that Penny's anxiety when approaching other dogs dramatically increased when I asked her to sit or stop. The feeling of helplessness that she feels on a leash is only made worse by feeling that she can't escape the situation by moving forward. So when I ask her to "look at that" (again, read my first post to find step-by-step tips on teaching that cue), we never stop moving forward. It helps relieve the frustration and panic she experiences, and it might help your dog as well.
2) Monitor yourself.
This is the biggest mistake I was making during my training with Penny. I noticed that Penny was only reacting badly in situations that I felt she would react badly in. I eventually realized that I wasn't in fact psychic, but rather that my body language was telling her what she should react to and what she shouldn't.
Many dogs that exhibit leash reactivity are highly sensitive by nature and are especially good at picking up on the subtle cues that we intentionally or unintentionally give off. I found that if I acted the way I would without the presence of a "threat" (loose leash, normal breathing, normal pace, not turning my body towards the person or dog) Penny would typically not react. I recommend mentally telling yourself to relax, to breathe normally, and to react the way you would if you were not passing a possible trigger. We spend so much time getting our dogs to stop practicing unwanted behaviors, we forget that we develop bad habits, too! For many of you, that one tip might truly make all the difference. Again, this is not a starting point -- this is a troubleshooting tip for dogs that have already been working on leash reactivity training with a humane trainer.
3) Don't stop training.
This was another mistake I made along the way: I got complacent. Some dogs will take to the training right away and will quickly learn that they don't need to show aggressive behavior on leash. For Penny, this was a deeply engrained behavior that she learned long before I adopted her, and I may always have to manage her environment to some extent. I do everything I can to prevent her from practicing the unwanted behavior, as that can be the first step towards a major regression.
Don't be ashamed to keep high-value treats or a favorite toy along with you on walks. You aren't "bribing" your dog; you're just using a great teaching motivator. Even as your dog becomes more reliably non-reactive, you still want to be prepared in case you run into a trigger. I wear a treat pouch (aka a fanny pack) on every walk, and have long since accepted that walks are for dog training, not for looking stylish!
4) Remember that your dog may never be perfect, and that's ok!
We all want to have a "normal" dog, but just think -- how many of us would describe ourselves as normal? It's ok to have quirks and to not like everyone you meet, and we should accept the same from our dogs. Keep learning with your dog, keep striving to help your dog feel more confident and secure, and I can promise that you'll see big changes as time goes on.
If you're looking for a great force-free trainer to help you with your dog's leash reactivity, here's a good place to start.
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