One of the most common behavior problems that dog owners face is on-leash aggression. It’s also one of the most misunderstood. Unfortunately, that lack of understanding can often make the problem even worse.
“If you have a dog lunging, pulling toward, or barking at other dogs on walks, you know how stressful and embarrassing it can be,” the Animal Humane Society says. “You may be offered ‘advice’ from well-meaning friends and relatives (who are not dog professionals) that only seem to make the matter worse.”
Both the American Kennel Club and the Animal Humane Society recommend that you work with a professional dog trainer to address this complicated behavior. It is also recommended that you have your veterinarian check out your dog to make sure there are no underlying health problems.
“While it sounds counterintuitive, the road to fixing this issue is actually off-leash interactions with one dog at a time. But don’t do this without seeking the help of a professional dog trainer, because before you take this step, you must learn how to correctly read the native language of dogs—body language!” Kathy Santo says in an article on leash aggression posted on the AKC’s website. “If you don’t know what your dog or the other dog is saying with their body signals, you may see play when it’s really tension, and tension when it’s really play.
“In addition,” Santo says, “a qualified trainer can help you evaluate your dog to see if this is a typical case of leash aggression, or if there’s something else happening.”
Fort Mill dog trainer Mariah Hinds has 14 years of experience in training dogs who display on-leash and other forms of aggression. Through group dog training and/or in-home dog training she can help you and your dog put the tension and frustration that often are at the root of this problem behind you. Before you know it, you’ll be enjoying long walks with a calm, happy dog who can greet other dogs with confidence.
Understanding some of the underlying issues involved in what the Animal Humane Society calls leash-reactive behavior can be very helpful. Here’s a list of components the AHS lists on its website:
- When off-leash and in their own environment, dogs naturally greet from the side (in an “arc”) and sniff each other’s genital area. They don’t approach head-on and make hard eye contact unless a fight is about to start. They also don’t typically greet for more than a few seconds.
- When our dogs meet on leash, they are typically forced to approach head-on (if on a path, for example) and unable to turn their bodies. Their forced body language — and our own — indicate to the dogs that we want to fight with the other pair. Most dogs don’t want to fight, so they display a number of behaviors designed to prevent this: barking, lunging, growling, anything to make the threat go away. We call these “distance-increasing behaviors.”
- If the two people do decide to visit, or let the dogs “say hi,” the problems may increase. Both dogs are on leash, trapped, and unable to increase distance from each other. Often, the owners have their dogs on tight leashes, “in case anything happens.” Unfortunately, the tight leashes communicate tension to the dogs, further increasing their stress. What often happens is an explosion of barking as both dogs go from flight (which is impossible) to fight. If this doesn’t occur, both owners might assume the dogs are “fine” because neither is barking or growling: they may not recognize signs of stress like pacing, panting, scratching, flattened ears and low tails.
- In addition, many owners do not recognize rude behavior in their “friendly” dogs. They allow their dog to charge up to another dog, get in his face, bump him and jump on him. This is extremelyrude behavior among dogs, and is sometimes the result of insufficient dog-dog socialization past the young puppy stage. Adult dogs, while patient with puppy antics, will discipline the pup once he reaches 5-6 months: he is now sexually mature and must learn how to behave. The discipline is non-violent and usually takes the form of barks and growls. If a puppy never experiences these corrections, he may carry his inappropriate greetings right into adulthood. When an adult dog inappropriately greets another dog, the other dog will react (“What are you doing? Get off me!”) and the owner of the first is likely criticize the other for her dog’s “aggression,” unaware her own dog was the aggressor.
- Many people “correct” their dog for any perceived display of aggression. Some, in addition, force their dog to sit or lie down in the approaching dog’s path (while correcting) to “put him in his place.” Doing so can be very dangerous for several reasons. First, Fido is learning other dogs (and potentially other people) make bad things occur: Fido starts out feeling stressed, cannot escape because of the leash, and is then punished by his owner. Remember any punishment (yelling, jerking the leash, grabbing the dog, saying “no,” etc.) increases Fido’s anxiety level: he perceives his owner’s tension, but not the reason for it. Most likely, he will try even harder to keep other dogs away to avoid such trauma. Second, “correcting” a dog for growling or barking at another may punish the warning out of him: he may go from seeing the dog to biting with no warning (barking, growling, etc.) in between. Third, correcting a dog who is highly aroused may cause him to redirect his aggression onto the handler.
If you have questions, call the dog trainer Rock Hill residents know and trust! From in-home dog training and group dog training to dog training games, Mariah Hinds will help you and your dog using reward based training methods. You may also be interested to know that Mariah offers other services ranging from dog homeschooling to crate puppy training.