Leash lunging, leash reactivity and leash aggression are all behaviors that are caused by a dog feeling restrained, frustrated and uncomfortable in a social situation while attached to a leash. In normal circumstances, an unleashed dog would be able to put sufficient distance between himself and a fear source. But if the same dog is leashed and unable to increase that distance, he will react or behave defensively in the hope that the fear source will go away.
If your dog’s behavior is reinforced by success (meaning distance has been increased), he is likely to react in the same manner again when faced with a similar stimulus.
Walking a dog that lunges and aggresses on leash is not a pleasant experience. The anticipation of a problem tends to cause human tension, which is transmitted down the leash to the dog, effectively making the lunging behavior worse. Dog and owner are then locked in a vicious cycle of tension and leash lunging that becomes hard to change.
How Do I Train My Leash Reactive Dog?
The first step to stopping your dog lunging is first identifying the cause of his discomfort, and then working to desensitize him to the stimulus that makes him uncomfortable. At the same time, you will be conditioning him to see that the stimulus is no longer cause for concern.
If you have a dog that is social, and who lunges on a lead because he is frustrated and just wants to get to the stimulus, you have to teach him that lunging achieves nothing, while calm behavior results in him being able to greet. If you have a social, yet frustrated dog, simply turn and walk him away from the source until he is calm and only allow him to greet when the leash is loose.
Do not punish a dog that lunges on the leash for any reason, especially if the cause of the behavior is insecurity, which is the case for most dogs.
Put the emphasis on giving your dog something else to do in that moment instead of using punishment, which will help him be more comfortable in the situation.
Change How Your Dog Feels About the Threat
By using positive reinforcement techniques you can actually change the way your dog feels about a certain situation for the better and therefore change his emotional and behavioral response.
- For example, when your dog sees another dog in the distance and is curious but not yet uncomfortable, bring out his favorite toy or food and play with him or feed him. The toys or food you use have to be of the highest value and only used when doing this teaching around other dogs.
- Playing or feeding your dog will help him to not only focus on something else when he is in the proximity of another dog, but the pleasure he gets playing or eating will change the way he perceives the outcome of that dog’s presence.
- Now he is associating the sight of another dog with positive things happening to him that make him feel good. This is the key to changing the way your dog feels.
Remember, punishment serves to suppress behavior at that moment, but does not help to change the way a dog feels emotionally, while using these positive techniques will have longer lasting success.
Desensitizing Your Leash Reactive Dog
Desensitizing your dog to a perceived threat, such as an approaching dog, may happen very quickly, or it might take a period of time. Every dog is different and it is important to go at your dog’s pace.
To teach your dog to be comfortable with other dogs passing by, start by having a friend or trainer bring their calm, non-reactive dog to help you.
- Begin the training by having them stand at a distance where your dog is comfortable and can focus on other things.
- Play a game your dog enjoys, give him his favorite toy or feed him some delicious food.
- If your dog shows no signs of discomfort, ask your helper to bring their dog a little closer.
- Continue to play or feed your dog and give plenty of praise.
- If at any time your dog reacts negatively, simply turn around and walk away from the situation until he calms down enough to play again or accept food.
- If your dog is reacting negatively, you have decreased the distance too quickly. Move the helper dog back to a distance where your dog can relax and repeat the process.
How Long Will Training Take?
Training might take time depending on your dog’s level of discomfort, but do not give up, as this training technique has an impressive success rate. Stay calm and relaxed yourself throughout the process and gradually work up to the point where the other dog is able to walk past as your dog focuses on you or stays calmly by your side.
- When you get to the point where you can walk past other dogs with no reaction at all, your dog might be ready to experience his first greeting.
- Do not allow unconfident dogs to greet face to face to begin with as it can be too much pressure, so practice following the other dog or walking parallel with each other until both dogs are comfortable.
- If your dog is relaxed, then you can both walk in an arc towards each other, have your dogs greet for a few seconds face to face and then happily draw them away from each other, rewarding them for making this huge step.
- When it is appropriate, try going for regular walks with your dog’s new friend and begin adding other dogs to the mix until you can get a regular walking group together.
- Simply experiencing the joys of a walk with other dogs will help your dog feel more comfortable around them.
Like most aggressive responses, leash aggression is usually rooted in a dog's fear of a person, place or thing. To manage the behavior, you must first identify what is causing the fear, and then work to desensitize the dog to that fear by utilizing positive training methods. Never punish a leash aggressive dog with leash jerks or physical force, as this will only increase the dog's fear and unconfidence in that situation. Successfully managing leash aggression can take time, but as long as you stay consistent and provide positive alternatives to how the dog experiences things, you can literally change how the dog feels about being on the leash.
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