How I Stopped My Dog’s Leash Aggression
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.
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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