LEASH AGGRESSION: Dogs Anti-Social Behavior

“But, he’s really very nice…….”. Your normally, nice, social, and friendly dog in your home, becomes a barking, aggressive terror while on walks on a leash. What to do?

A frustrating trait in some dogs is leash aggression. Also known as “leash-reactivity”, this behavior can be very frustrating for the owners as well as the dogs. It is one of the most common problems that trainers are asked to correct.

What exactly is leash-reactivity? It is a behavior that turns a normally docile, sweet pet into a snarling, barking, aggressive character. It knows no breed or gender. It seems to occur equally within the purebreds and mixed; dogs from breeders or rescues. It happens when your dog is on leash and confronts another dog either leashed or not. Your dog may be the most social to almost all other dogs in a dog park only to turn one hundred eighty degrees on a leashed walk.

The dog is overreacting to an environmental condition.

How does it happen? When the dog is on a walk and sees another dog that he wants to interact with (often friendly intentions) and rushes over to the dog only to stop short and the end of his leash. The normal excitement of the interaction at a dog park turns to absolute frustration when his leash line runs out. In the dog park rowdy behavior and interaction is encouraged but on the leash a totally different behavior is expected; walking closer to the oncoming dog when he might otherwise choose to keep his distance. When your dog lunges, barks and growls he is sending a message to the other dog to go away. And in his mind it works because the other dog, either on his own or at the behest of his owner pulls him away from your dog.

The genesis of this syndrome can be due to many factors; lack of training, poor early socialization or a past traumatic experience. Some have offered that a lack of exercise is the culprit. This is not true. Even dogs who walk four times a day for a prolonged amount of time have as many instances of leash aggression as do more sedentary pups.

To rid their dogs of aggression many owners try punishment as a cure. This only exacerbates the problem. It only leads to a more negative feeling towards the other dogs. Sometimes a false sense of success due to punishment over the course of a few walks might occur but eventually it will be a case of diminishing returns. Remember that a temporary shutting down of a behavior is not changed behavior.

So what is the right approach? The best method is to desensitize your dog to his aggressive behavior. This is accomplished by methods of desensitization (DS) and counter-conditioning CC). Desensitization is accomplished with another dog at a safe distance where the dog’s focus is on you and not the approaching dog. Little by little you close the gap to the other dog rewarding him for his alternate behavior. (taught separately and not in another dog’s presence) Counter-conditioning is the method of modifying your dog’s behavior in the presence of another dog. This method is having your dog “heel” and looking at you rather than the other dog.

Clearly, behavior modification can be a tedious process. It can take a long time but is well worth it. Dogs are living much longer these days and a few months of hard work will pay dividends. Besides, who wants to take midnight walks just to avoid other dogs and embarrassment?