For many loving pet owners, it’s a frustrating, and often heartbreaking, regular occurrence: you latch up your normally sweet, loving pup on a leash and she suddenly transforms into a snarling, vicious, attack machine. Leash aggression, or leash reactivity, is a very common, and often very misunderstood, dog behavioral issue. Rarely coming from a place of true aggression, curing a leash reactive dog is possible, but it will take time, commitment, and lots of patience.
Understanding The Behavior
Please understand the root cause this “aggressive” behavior stems from anxiety and insecurity, not anger. First off, your dog likely isn’t actually a ferocious beast deep down, only to emerge when the leash comes out. Chances are she’s just scared. This act of aggression almost always stems from fear. Your dog feels restrained and out-of-control. The natural response is to react quickly, loudly and harshly. Whereas humans may say “Excuse me, but you’re invading my personal space,” or simply walk away from a less than appealing situation, a leashed dog is trapped with few, usually very vocal ways, to express themselves.
Identify the Triggers
Try to narrow down exactly what is triggering discomfort and aggression. Most likely, this will be another dog, but it could be other things too. Do they tense up around loud trucks? Will your pup be perfectly cordial to small dogs but be Cujo to big ones? Perhaps she’s great around male dogs but has a serious problem with other ladies? It can be hard to say exactly why these sources stir up such a reaction, but it’s essential to know what they are so you can keep an eye out for them. Spend several walks carefully trying to pinpoint these triggers.
How to React to Reaction
Your first reaction to leash aggression is probably to yank on the leash and to yell “No!”. In reality, this is counterproductive and only serves to further increase anxiety. Resist the natural urge to punish your dog. Punishment reinforces negative feelings about their triggers. The ultimate goal is to take those fears and bad feelings away and change the way your dog feels about these triggers entirely. This will provide a lasting, positive difference in your dog.
You can accomplish this by using positive reinforcement to get your dog’s mind off of the negative stimulus. Use treats or a favorite toy to get your dog to focus attention on you or something they love, anything but their perceived threat. It may be easiest, especially if training alone, to start from a stationary position, or even a bench.
Begin this drill before your dog has any chance to react to the negative stimulus. It’s your job to see the trigger well before she does. Also, be sure to stay incredibly calm. Your dog will pick up on any signs or signals of anxiety and can’t differentiate whether that anxiety is coming from your fear of her lashing out, or the trigger itself. A calm owner vastly increases the chances of success.
- As soon as you see the trigger, call your dog’s name, in a pleasant and calm manner. Refrain from yelling or instinctively tightening the leash.
- Pull her aside so she’s just far enough away to create an unavoidable clash.
- Have her sit, make eye contact with you, and feed her treats or distract her with a favorite toy until the threat passes. Be prepared to give out treats for the entire duration that the trigger is in proximity.
- When the trigger passes, shower her with lots of love and praise!
Continue running this drill as long as needed to disassociate the negative feelings from the triggers and be patient! It can take a long time to undo years of built-up anxiety. Once successful, we also recommend doing regular “tune-up” sessions to help reinforce their new, positive behavior.
Leash aggression and reactivity doesn’t have to mean a life of nervous walks or avoiding walks altogether. With some behavior modification, some understanding and patience, your dog can be back in action with no fear.
Things to Remember
Your first goal is to get your dog to look at you when a stimulus is approaching. After you and your dog have gotten used to the routine, start doing it while you are actually walking the dog and not just sitting. In time, you will have to give your dog less and less treats in order to get and keep his attention. Ultimately, you want to get to a point where your kind words of encouragement and a scratch behind the ears will suffice.
This will undoubtedly be a learning experience on your part as well as your dog’s. It’s important that you remember to stay calm and have treats ready for quick dispersal so you aren't fumbling for the treats. You don’t want to give your dog any time to react negatively. Remember to speak in a gentle and happy tone. Your dog will sense any anxiety or other negative feelings from you and be influenced by them.
When you’re beginning, you will be giving your dog quite a few treats to get his attention. Keep track of how many treats you’re giving and incorporate them into your dog’s daily diet so he doesn’t gain weight. You will want to use a nutritious, high-quality dog treat that your dog will love. Naturegood has a selection of delicious and nutritious treats that will help get your dog’s attention and not provide empty calories. You will also appreciate the fact that because our treats have no filler products and are so nutrient dense they are smaller in size and you can carry a lot more.
Words of Encouragement
Don’t be discouraged if it takes longer than you thought it would. This is not a quick fix. Changing your dog’s natural behavior won’t happen overnight. It’s going to take time.
It’s also going to take commitment. You have to be prepared to do this every time you go out for your walk. You can’t be lazy. If you are, you’ll see all of your hard work disappear.
If you find you’ve run out of treats, avoid walks where you’ll run into other dogs.
If you can exercise your dog in a stress-free environment before going out for your walk, your dog will have less pent-up energy and more focus.