Many dogs behave in a more aggressive fashion towards other dogs when they are on lead than when they are running free. The reason for this is that, when restricted on a lead, a dog cannot escape from a worrying situation and so he feels that he has to face up to it and deal with it. If, for example, a dog has had a bad experience with another dog or lacks social skills for some reason, he will find meeting dogs stressful. Dogs in this situation are usually feeling fearful and insecure. The problem is that it isn’t always safe or advisable to let the dog off lead and really the problem needs to be resolved properly so the poor creature isn’t terrified every time he goes out.
When faced with any worrying situation a dog has three options. It can freeze, which a few do, it can run away, or it can go forward and face the problem. If a dog is unable to get away from a worrying situation because it is on a lead it may feel it has no alternative but to face it and many react by growling or snarling. This usually results in the worrying thing going away and is therefore strongly reinforcing as a strategy. As a consequence, it will always get worse if not addressed, so we need to help our pets to relax around other dogs. Generally, in a relaxed environment your dog will be more likely to relax, so the dog’s owner needs to learn to relax as well to defuse any tension. As well as this, it is vital for dogs to learn to recognise that their owners are in a position to protect them in strange situations so that they recognise that their owners can deal with any problems.
If you are struggling with a dog who is aggressive on lead I would strongly advise that you ask me for professional support and guidance. The principles I have set out below are sound in theory but can be difficult to implement when you are emotionally involved with your dog, anxious about the consequences of his behaviour and struggling to remember what to do.
I will describe here two similar and positive approaches to behaviour modification for dogs which react aggressively to others when on the lead.
As with all problem behaviours, the more your dog carries out the behaviour, the worse it gets, so it is a good idea to keep him away from situations where he becomes over-excited and only re-introduce him to other dogs in a controlled manner once you’ve taught him to concentrate on you when asked to, in any situation. Without getting his attention away from the other dog it is impossible to help him to learn alternative behaviours.
When you do venture out, be sure to have your dog walking beside you on a loose lead rather than dragging you along the street, as you will then be able to take control of any situation by stepping in front of him to protect him both physically and psychologically.
- Desensitisation and counter-conditioning
The principle of this method is to give your dog the merest glimpse of what sets him off and then, as soon as he sees it coming, reward him with a high quality treat. When this is carried out effectively your dog eventually learns that the sight of other dogs reliably predicts that he will get a good treat. Over time he will learn to tolerate or even look forward to seeing other dogs. It is essential that the treat is offered when the dog’s attention has momentarily been distracted from the other dog to you so that you are not rewarding him for the aggressive behaviour.
- The Constructional Aggression Treatment for Reactive Dogs
The second approach is called the Constructional Aggression Treatment, or CAT. The theory behind this method is as follows. It is quite likely that your dog has started his aggressive behaviour on the lead through anxiety, fear or even panic, as he has no means of escape when held on a lead. Over time he has learned that aggression works, as the other dog usually goes away! The second point is that your aggressive dog will be friendly in some situations, so the idea is to teach him to bring those friendly behaviours into the problem situation.
So, we introduce another, calm and trained dog into the situation. When the learning dog behaves in a non-aggressive way the other dog moves further away so the dog will learn that being pleasant is what gets other dogs to leave, not the opposite. This scenario can be built on over time to encourage your dog to relax and behave calmly.
I would strongly recommend that you seek my advice to attempt this method to ensure that the trained dog does not make the situation worse.
If your dog has had plenty of exercise he is less likely to react aggressively when meeting other dogs.
As mentioned above, reinforcing your leadership over your dog will help a lot in this situation, as will remaining calm and confident. It may well be that the behaviour stems from anxiety, so don’t forget that your mood and expectations will be transferred to your dog and he will react accordingly.
Never put yourself or others at risk and, if in doubt, consult me for support.