Does your dog turn into a growling, snarling, crazy Cujo while on leash? Or maybe a cowering scaredy-cat who hits the deck? This can be a very common problem in crowded areas such as cities. If your leash changes your dog’s behavior, chances are, he is leash reactive.
The first thing to do is define your dog’s triggers, and be as specific as possible. Is it other dogs that set your dog off? If so, which ones? Are they larger? Or maybe black dogs set your dog off? The more specific you can be, the better! Other common triggers include: children, people whose appearance is different, fast moving objects, things on wheels such as skateboards, or strollers. For some dogs it is only a problem if they are on leash while the other dog is not. Many dogs who are leash reactive to other dogs, are perfectly fine with when off leash.
It is helpful to think of your leash as a pair of handcuffs. Of course not in the criminal sense, but more in the sense of how limited you are, or would be, while wearing handcuffs. Imagine you are at a dinner party and you are the only guest wearing handcuffs, you would have to ask for a lot of help with things you could normally do yourself. It could be frustrating, and it would be limiting. The same is true for your dog while he is on leash; he gives up most of his control to you. Dogs have a fight or flight mentality and most adult dogs who have spent any amount of time leash have learned that the leash eliminates their ability for flight, so their only option is fight!
If you have turned to a choke or prong collar because your dog is out of control on leash, and you felt you had no where else to turn, unfortunately those tools can really worsen leash reactivity. Prong collars hurt your dog. This is how they work; through painful punishment to lessen behavior. This means that if you are using a prong, your dog should be pulling less, if he is not, you are just harassing him with a painful tool, but not affectively training any behavior. Now think of it in your dog’s eyes; he gets out of your boring apartment, and right outside is his best friend! Hooray! He is so excited to see him and get to socialize a bit, and he runs to greet, and BAM! He is snapped directly in the throat with hard metal pins of a rpong collar, OUCH! He feels that pain, and right after seeing another dog. This happens three or four more times and your dog will start to believe that it is the other dog that causes this painful pinch. Next thing you know, you bring your dog outside and see his best friend, but instead of bounding toward him happily, your dog snaps, growls and barks aggressively. You can’t blame him, he is saying “stay back, when you get close I get hurt!” I have seen exactly this scenario more times than I can count. The truth is even if your dog is on a flat collar and you jerk it when he sees other dogs, or any of the above triggers, you can cause this same problem, but with any of these painful tools, it happens a lot quicker.
No matter how badly you want to, you cannot punish the fear out of your dog. The other most common cause for a dog to be reactive to something is lack of experience, which usually causes the dog to be weary of these things. Again you cannot punish your dog into being alright with something he doesn’t understand, instead you are teaching him to not like these things, and building a negative association.
The best thing to do to avoid this, is to train your dog! Train your dog outside on leash to listen to you, and heel! Next, if you are lucky enough to have your pup while he is still in his crucial socialization period, then you want to socialize him like crazy. See my blog on socialization: To Socialize, or Not to Socialize: This Is the Question.
If your dog already suffers from leash reactivity, it might be best to contact a certified behavior consultant. I think this is the most common problem I deal with in the city on a daily basis! Every dog seems to have something that causes him to trigger, even if it isn’t as serious as some of the others. You want to work to desensitize and counter condition your dog to his triggers. The key to desensitization is it can never be too easy. This means that you want to expose your dog to his trigger(s) in a way he can accept, so that he notices, but does not react. The easiest way to do this is add space, or less exposure time. Usually you can curb your dog’s reaction if you can get far enough away from his triggers, or can interrupt his eye contact before he fixates. Counter Conditioning is working to change your dog’s mind about his triggers. This is like the idea that if you see someone you don’t like, and you scowl at them, but then you look in your pocket, and wow, there is $100! Then the person walks by again, and you think, hmm… and check your pocket, and again $100, by the third time, you aren’t scowling anymore, you might even look for the person! that is what we are hoping for; that instead of your dog fearing the encounter with his trigger, he will look forward to it!
We want to do this with your dog by playing a game called “where’s the trigger?” If your dog’s trigger is other dogs, then the game is “Where’s the Dog?” Again give your dog enough distance to not trigger, so maybe sit on a bench where you know dogs will pass, near a dog park, pet store, or vet. Let the dogs pass and let your dog see them. Try to beat your dog to triggering, so he only needs to look at the other dog for a moment before you have him look back at you and then get a treat. You can even point at the dog and say “where’s the dog” to your dog, then use the treat to lure his eyes to yours, praise and reward him. Little by little you can move closer, or allow him to look at the trigger longer, but the key is to eliminate his triggering, so you don’t want to push it, it is a lot like gambling, quit while you are ahead!
This is not an easy thing to accomplish and most trainers even have decoy dogs, or fake dogs to help with the training. If you are seeing behaviors like this from your dog, don’t wait, contact a professional, because every time he is allowed to trigger it is making this behavior a more practiced behavior, and even a habit. The sooner you get started on correcting it, the easier it will be!