Leash aggression – pulling, lunging, barking at other dogs - is a common and frequently misunderstood/misinterpreted behavior. It is a rare thing, in my work, that a dog actually wants to cause serious and immediate harm to another dog. In most cases, something else is the root cause of bad on leash reactions.
Understanding what is going on allows you to tailor an effective response that will be helpful rather than making matters worse or setting your dog (and you) up for failure.*
Here we go:
Dogs who are hurting don’t want to be hurt more. Imagine how you would feel if your knee was injured then some young, high energy kid came racing at you.
Clues: Your dog “used to be great” with other dogs and now is grumpy; your dog is good with low-energy, “polite” dogs but snarls and lunges at the exuberant ones; your dog is better at the beginning of a walk than at the end (or vice versa). This is another reason why certain breeds prone to orthopedic problems dislike rambunctious dogs.
Course of action: Talk to your veterinarian or canine PT pro to discover what’s going on; try a course of pain relief and see if the behavior improves; protect your dog from other dogs; skip the dog park; no more hard games of fetch or flying disc until your dog is healed up. If the dog is arthritic, I start joint and fatty acid supplements with the vet’s okay.
Bad experiences on leash can create a “best defense is a strong offense” approach. Major causes of fear on leash are, in no particular order: size differential, previous “training”, previous attack, poor early socialization.
Clues: Your dog is tiny, your dog was less leash aggressive before” training” started, before he was attacked or your dog is a rescue with a history of limited socialization and/or isolation and/or group living conditions like hoarding.
Course of action: Not all dogs “want to say Hi” and I do not expect them to. What I ask of dogs is that they walk on a loose leash next to me. It is my job to reward that and to protect them, as much as I can, from dogs or situations that frighten them.
Over time, as their faith in me increases and they get more experience not being overwhelmed, we can consider whether we want to address those fears more directly but in many cases, a happy dog walking on a slack leash is plenty for everyone.
Some dogs bark, slaver, stand up pulling against the leash from pure excitement. The barking is rapid and high pitched. Teeth are not flashing and often ears back/tail wagging is going on.
Clues: Dog sees other dogs and loses his mind. Leaps up and down, barks, pulls and in every way attempts to get to the other dog. I see this a lot in some daycare dogs.
Course of action: Work your head turns. Develop his self-control “muscles”. Use these distractions to work games such as Catch My Drift and Mother May I. You want to teach your dog that self-control = chances to greet; not that being out-of-control does.
This is a pretty rare cause but I mention it here because I always find it interesting. This is the category for the “what the heck is THAT” moment where a dog who has never seen (or heard) a pug wheezing his way down the street, or who doesn’t recognize a good canine buddy after a grooming or thinks a tiny toy dog might be some sort of squirrel.
Clues: Your dog is social with other dogs but reacts to one who is new to him (or appears new). Major variation in size – a toy breed or a giant one, movement – waddles like a pekingese or hops like a three-legged one, sound – the wheezing of a short-nosed dog, new look – buddy dog acting all chummy but your dog doesn’t recognize him by sight or smell after a grooming can all trigger some dogs to lunge first and ask questions later.
Course of Action: Any time your dog acts radically different on leash, pay attention! To me, most on leash issues boil down to “the dog is not being attentive to the human” and I focus teaching the dog that distraction = attention. When you have control over your dog’s brain, you have control.
5) DOG-TO-DOG AGGRESSION
This reason is last because it is most rare and the most serious. Your dog targets other dogs because he wants to hurt them. He may bark ferociously – standing his ground or leaning forward. This is a deep bark. His teeth flash as he barks. He wants to move forward. His tail is stiff behind him or raised straight up. Or, he may silently stare dropping his head slightly in direct alignment with the other dog (which could be play in some dogs, you have to read the whole picture). He may stalk other dogs. He may rise up getting as tall as he can.
If you think your dog might be one of these dogs or if your dog has harmed another dog, please seek qualified professional assistance immediately – this is not a DIY project.
Straight talk: Your attachment to your dog does not trump my attachment to mine. You cannot walk a dog in public who wants to seriously harm other dogs any more than you can walk down the street pointing loaded weapons at the rest of us. If a momentary mistake on your part means my dog could be injured or killed, then your dog is not a “pet” and you cannot act as if he is.
Clues: Your dog scares you. Your dog scares others. Your dog has broken away from you and hurt attacked another dog.
Course of action: Get help! Teach this dog to mind his own business and focus on you. A dog who is focused on you is not attacking other animals. Use a head halter that both gives you control over your dog’s head and closes his mouth when snugged up. It can also inhibit some dogs which is a useful feature here. Do not attempt to socialize this dog on your own as you can make matters worse for your dog and end up hurting/frightening someone else’s beloved companion.
Now you know.
* Note: Use a regular 4’. Do not use a retractable leash! They are, at best, counterproductive and, at worst, dangerous for you, your dog and others around you!