How I Stopped My Dog’s Leash Aggression

Penny, left, has come a long way!

Penny (left) has come a long way! Photo by Kevin Lowery | www.kevinlowery.com

If you’ve ever had a leash reactive dog, you have probably experienced the same feeling of dread that I did before going on a walk. My dog, Penny, was attacked on-leash by an off-leash dog on a hiking trail, and as an already anxious and insecure dog, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I now had on my hands an otherwise perfectly human and dog-friendly dog who turned into Cujo when she was attached to a leash.

I quickly grew tired of trying to avoid contact with all living creatures on walks, and I was determined to help Penny enjoy her walks again. Flash forward a few years and I now have a completely different dog on my hands. She’s not completely perfect on walks, and never will be, but she is completely manageable and we can now enjoy our time outside together.

How did I do it? How can you do the same with your leash reactive dog?

Check out my top 5 tips for curbing your dog’s leash reactivity. No two dogs are the same, but you can certainly tailor some of these ideas to your unique situation.

1)   Drop the quick fixes.

Having a leash reactive dog is frustrating. I get it. It's embarrassing to have to apologize to other dog owners when your dog goes over threshold. But your ego should never get in the way of safe, humane training. Remember--this is a fear-based behavior. If you lose your temper, you're only contributing to your dog's fear.

  • I was able to eliminate Penny's leash reactivity without the use of shock collars, prong collars, choke collars, or any other type of punitive device.
  • I never popped or jerked her on the leash, and I never raised my voice at her. I simply tried to understand her fear and worked to change the way she perceived the things that scared her.
  • I highly recommend a no-pull harness that clips both at the chest and on the back. This will help you better manage your dog, and I have found it is much less stressful for a reactive dog than a regular collar or a head halter. Try Victoria's Positively No-Pull Harness. 

2)   Teach the “Look at That” Cue—and find a great trainer to help you!

I’m fortunate to have a wealth of incredible dog trainers in my circle. I have to give a few shoutouts to all the fabulous Atlanta-area trainers that have helped me with Penny along the way—Meredith Minkin, Mara Whitacre, Donna Elliott, and of course, Victoria.

So what techniques do I use to keep Penny’s leash reactivity in check? I use present-tense because any behavior that is rooted in insecurity and fear (as most aggression is) requires ongoing work.

The first technique I use is the “look at that” cue. The moment that Penny learned and understood this cue was the moment that I finally saw light at the end of the tunnel.

When she sees a stimulus (such as an approaching person or dog), her first instinct now is to look at me. This takes pressure off of her, and she doesn’t feel like she needs to control the situation by barking or lunging at them. I then give her the “look at that” cue, and she looks at the trigger, then back at me, where she is rewarded with praise or a high-value treat.

Most leash reactive dogs will not be able to focus entirely on you as the stimulus passes. That’s why the “look at that” cue is so valuable. It gives the dog a chance to keep an eye on the stimulus, but the dog doesn’t feel the need to control the situation using aggressive display.

I taught Penny to "look at that" with the help of a clicker, but you could use a word like "yes!" to mark the behavior you like. Here are the basics of the "look at that" training we did:

  • We started at extreme distances where she could barely see the other dog, and every time she looked in the direction of the dog, I clicked, would wait for her to look at me, and then reward her with a treat. We then walked away from the stimulus--most leash reactive dogs simply want distance put between them and the other dog or person. Timing is crucial here!
  • We gradually decreased the distance between Penny and the other dog, and continued the same exercise. If she reacted, we knew we had moved too quickly, and added distance again.
  • Penny is highly food-motivated, and her desire for a treat overpowered her fear of the stimulus. I highly recommend using high-value treats like hot dogs or veggie burgers, and heating them up before training. Your dog won't be able to resist them!

3)   Know your dog’s triggers and limits.

Penny's leash reactivity improved in phases. First, she stopped reacting to adults passing by. Then, she stopped reacting to children and unusual objects like strollers and bicycles. Then it was small dogs. Then larger dogs. I knew that I had made a breakthrough when she was able to walk past two lunging, leash reactive dogs without reacting herself.

  • Your dog may still have triggers for the rest of his life. Always be aware of your dog's body language when a potential trigger approaches.
  • I know that Penny is much more comfortable on a wide hiking trail than she is on a walk on my neighborhood street. Your dog is going to have limitations and preferences--respect them.
  • There will be problem-solving and tweaking involved. I first tried to use the "look at that" cue with Penny in a "sit," but she was extremely uncomfortable being still as a trigger approached. I was able to figure out that she was much more comfortable if we kept moving forward.

4)   Set your dog up for success.

Many owners get impatient during this type of training. It took years to get Penny to this point. There were days when I was close to tears because I was so frustrated with her setbacks. But if you set your dog up for success, these moments will happen much more infrequently.

  • Don't push your dog farther than he's ready to go. Start with short walks and enlist the help of a friend to practice your "look at that" cue from a distance.
  • Be cognizant of the people and dogs around you. Your dog will let you know if he's uncomfortable.
  • Avoid your dog going over threshold when at all possible. This means being highly aware of your surroundings and your dog's body language. It's much better to turn around and avoid a trigger your dog isn't ready for than it is to test the waters too soon.
  • If you do have a setback (and I promise that you will), don't take your frustration out on your dog.

5)   Simplify.

One of the best pieces of advice that Meredith, one of the trainers I worked with, gave me was this--"trust your dog." Trust your training and trust your dog. If you have dealt with leash aggression for a long time, your first instinct is likely going to be to tighten up the leash and brace for an explosion every time a stimulus passes. One of the hardest lessons for me was learning to pass potential triggers with a loose leash. Once I saw how much calmer Penny was when she saw that I was not phased, I was able to trust her and trust the training so much more. Your dog will never succeed if you don't give him the chance to--I think it's time give him that chance!

Find a great positive trainer to work with your leash reactive dog--your dog will thank you for it!

 


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Positively Expert: Alex Andes

Alex Andes is the owner and head trainer of Peach on a Leash Dog Training & Behavior Services in Atlanta, GA.


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15 thoughts on “How I Stopped My Dog’s Leash Aggression

  1. Jane

    Hi my lab is a beautiful boy ,but my Dad died just over a year ago and since then Ben growls at other dogs but if I talk to people he'so ok and makes no attempt to bark or growl .
    I find this strange because he used to play with a staffie a lovely boy ,now on the lead he growls can you tell me what to do I do carry treats with me .
    Kind Regards Jane

  2. michelle howard

    I have 3 dogs and 2 are reactive (one rescue, one foster). I agree with everything you've written because I employ the same tactics!! Thanks for the validation. Made my day!

  3. Margaret Parsons

    Hi,

    I have turned round several lead aggression dogs and another has just found me, I always teach "Watch Me" first and I have found that some dogs can't cope with looking at another dog at first. I stand in front of my dog so that they cane look round or through my legs, my legs are a barrier for them to hide behind. Once they feel safe like this they can move on to "Look at That" and build on what their feeling of safety so that the lead aggression disappears.

  4. Bears Mom

    Thanks for your article. My dog (74 lbs.) developed a fear reaction on leash after being attacked by an off leash dog as well. I have been working on a similar technique, but I have been trying to get her to "look at me" rather than the trigger (and approaching dog.) I have not had as mush success as I would like, although we are doing MUCH better and we are now able to walk during daylight hours, instead of after dark and pre-dawn! However, our success depends on letting the other dog pass us. We haven't managed to be able to walk by the approaching dog. After reading your article, I see that she is instinctively doing exactly what you have trained your dog to do. She looks at me, but then away at the trigger, then back at me. I have only marked and rewarded when she looks at me. And I have also said "no" when she looks at the dog and then said "look at me", which she does and is rewarded. Not sure how to get out of this muddle to try your technique but it seems to be her natural inclination and would work.

    I also am interested that you have given up on the sit during training. Staying in the sit is very challenging for my dog too, but if she stands, she does not seem able to relax with the trigger in view and will start to lunge, which often sets off the other dog and...whew, you know the drill! However, I am unsure how I will get her from non aggression with the sit (which she has become pretty good) and into walking past the other dog. And ideas would be great.

    One thing I have learned that might benefit others. I don't speak to the approaching owner and dog in any way, if my dog is beginning to get tense. I find that if I speak to them, even in the quietest nicest way, it triggers a reaction from my dog (and sometimes vice versa with their own dog.) So basically on the walk, I'm telling my dog: We are going to ignore this couple. It can be hard because I don't like to appear rude. But knowledgable and responsible dog owners know exactly why I am doing it, so that's all that matters!

    Thanks again for your article!

  5. Liza

    I really enjoyed this article! I have a 5 year old dog who has been aggressive with other dogs since he was bit in the face by another dog (his father actually) as a puppy. Once he KNOWS a dog he is okay with them but is triggered if they growl and he feels threatened. This article gave me a new insight of what he may be going through, thank you for publishing! Oh, and if you have any other advice for me Id greatly appreciate it!!

  6. Jessica Aliff

    The techniques sound great but just curious how this could be adapted for a dog that is deaf? Any suggestions would be great!

  7. Shari Markowitz

    We have a Coonhound rescue, female, about 5 1/2 yrs old, we have no idea of her background, we've had her for two years. She gets very excited when she sees CERTAIN dogs 🙂 she pulls, will bark a little lunging, pulling whatever. She is barely motivated by treats, and I would have to carry a sirloin around with me to distract her. This is the same (worse) with squirrels, cats and these small and large "ibis" type birds in our community. She is a hunter by nature, so this doesn't help. We've learned to accept her behavior, and we walk her with a gentle leader so she can't get too crazy. It does control her without hurting her. We don't yank her (I don't want to) we just keep walking and she pretty much has to follow. I don't want to "correct" her because I think she is actually "enjoying" the squirrel / bird part, its the dog part we just can't break her from. Tried all the stopping / turning / treat exercises etc..I think its just the way she is from however it is that she was "raised" with whomever she used to live with. I have no idea. 🙂 but otherwise, she is a great dog. Loves people, good in the house, no other complaints. Good thing Im not furry with a long bushy tail LOL 🙂

  8. [email protected]

    "Look at That" is indeed a lifesaver. Coupled with your advice about always keeping the lead loose and trusting your dog, can transform many dogs' view of the world in a matter of weeks. The bond you build with a fearful dog is unlike any other.

  9. Jim Brown

    Alex, I enjoyed your views on curbing you dog's leash aggression and the way you were part of the fix. I myself am an off leash supporter. I live in the country with my shelter rescued pooch. My dog is off leash 98% of the time. Only when required or in high traffic situations do I leash him. He is a mid to large breed dog, and yes, he does approach other dogs on leash to say hello, but never out of aggression and always with tail wagging. I find it is typically the dogs on leash that are protecting their space and master that lash out. Having read many forums and threads, I found yours enlightening and not just the one sided, "leash your dog or else" article.

  10. Ali

    I see this is a bit of an old post, but hope someone can respond! I'm looking for ideas to help my 8 year old lab, who only developed lead aggression in the last few years. We've done various things to try to help her and currently taking her to group classes but not impacting our walks. We recently tried the body harness instead of the head halter but she has so much strength and can still pull on that - any tips on using them effectively? Also, I understand the need to try to walk past dogs with a loose leash but this seems impossible when my dog is barking and lunging across me towards other dogs - even if they're across the road! Do you suggest avoiding passing all dogs initially and always turning away, and building up to it? Many thanks, Ali

  11. Laura

    I am no expert, but I also have a reactive dog that I am working with right now. What our trainer has told us is that you need to find the threshold in which you can safely be away from the stimulus where you are able to work on the training techniques where the dog can be successful. So if your dog reacts at other dogs across the street then move away so that both you and the dog are comfortable. Remember that the dog will feed off our emotions so if you are anxious, they will be anxious. I hope that helps!

  12. Cassyashton Porter

    Back in the 80's when I was growing up, we didn't have places or people to help train our GSD, Duke, and he never got over his leash aggressive behavior. When I walked him I would have to use a strong, tightly-woven sisal rope, and wear a work glove. Whenever we saw another dog, even from across the street, I would have to straddle Duke and tuck my gloved hand under his collar to keep him restrained until the other dog and owner passed. Other dogs thought Duke was a wimp being on his leash, and this was further from the truth. Duke and I would walk around the block and far on the other side of the street from other houses we knew had dogs. One particular neighbor on the other street where we walked, owned a yappy mini poodle, who wasn't even close to being anywhere near as big as my Duke was. This poodle was a nuisance and his owners were clueless. They would let that dog run around off leash and unrestrained, and when I told them that it was pestering my dog, they ignored me and didn't care. They said I should walk my dog somewhere else, but I had no other place to walk him. Plus, we had every right to walk where we were walking, and I made sure we stay far away from their house. But every time we walked around the block, on the other side of the street, that poodle would zip down his driveway, zip across the street and nip at Duke's heels. I was able to talk to Duke and tell him to never mind the dog, and told Duke he was a good boy; he listened to me and obeyed and we kept walking. This went on for about six months, until one day Duke had had enough. Once again that little shit dog zipped down his driveway and across the street and started nipping at Duke's heels. In a split second, before I could say anything or react, Duke whipped around, picked the dog up by the back and shook him like a rag. All I could do was shout at Duke to put him down and after a few good shakes, Duke dropped the poodle, who cried and yelped his way back across the street and up his driveway. Duke and I kept walking. We weren't in the wrong and didn't provoke the poodle; ever. Duke didn't hurt him; didn't break the skin; there was no blood or torn flesh, but Duke did teach that little pest a lesson it wouldn't soon forget. And believe me, that poodle didn't forget it. Duke and I kept walking our daily route and if that poodle started down the driveway and saw it was Duke, you could almost hear him slamming on the brakes as he zipped around and headed back up his driveway.

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