Actual fear-based aggression, or aggressive reactivity, is a very real problem – but it is also often assumed to be the diagnosis, when the troublesome behavior is actually leash-reactivity, or an overall lack of impulse control. Sometimes when a dog wants very much to go visit a person or other dog, or chase a cat or a squirrel, they strain against the leash, pulling their handler, who pulls back – this can be very challenging for the handler (and frustrating for the dog) all on its own, but it can also cause the dog to be so frustrated they actually lash out at the target of their desire should they get to it, or even their handler, or other nearby targets (like other dogs being walked at the same time). Over time, the frustration of being restrained while trying to move toward something so attractive can actually change the behavior from one of frustrated desire, to frustrated anger. Our most important role in changing our dog’s behavior on leash must be to ensure we don’t make it worse! Because impulse control (or lack of it) is behavior based on history of reinforcement (as opposed to reactive behavior, which is reflexive), it is absolutely essential to not allow the dog to experience these frustrating moments in the first place. Nothing is more important than this.
Begin with feeding and puzzles. Walking on a leash is very important, and exercise is very important, but neither is as important as behaving appropriately while out in the world. Before trying to take the dog out on leash anywhere their impulsive behavior might be triggered, use food puzzles to feed them an initial meal – a good goal for difficulty level would be 60 minutes of work to procure that meal. Usually, this means a frozen KONG. Dog Guy video – Dentler post
After the dog is sated, and has burned off an hour of mental and physical energy, they may be walked. The only device I recommend for this is a harness that clips on the chest, and a standard 6-foot leash. Avoid collars, retractable leashes, long leashes or long-lines. Tags should be worn at all times when outside, and standard non-slip collars with a quick release buckle may be used for tags or as a second point of contact for a second leash. Slip collars of any kind, including vet/kennel leads, choke chains, prong collars and martingales are not recommended. Choke chains and prong collars, in particular, are a great danger, and can lead to actual aggression toward dogs and humans alike. With their repeated use, psychological damage to the animal is not simply likely – it is assured. Eileen and Dogs – Pet Professional Guild – Psychology Today – Psychology Today 2 – American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior – One Green Planet
When being walked, it is important to manage their environment so that the handler may either recognize potential triggers and use them to practice from an appropriate distance, or recognize triggers and avoid them altogether. The difficulty of this essential part of the process is not lost to this writer. Whether in the city, with bicycles, cars, motorcycles, skateboards, dogs, children, etc., or more rural environment with birds and small furry animals, this business of managing often feels over-whelming, or even impossible. The good news is that with regular practice and strict adherence, the range at this these triggers are a problem will be steadily reduced, until walking by a cat in a yard is nearly trivial, and other dogs may only mean putting a reward into one’s hand as we walk by. Because, however, the process of seeing and lunging is a self-rewarding behavior, repeated uncontrolled exposures are likely to make things worse, not better. Because of this, it is actually better to be walked only 5 times a week in an appropriate place, with full attention of the handler, than 10 times/ week in places where triggers are less manageable.
So, we have discussed how not to make it worse; how do we make it better? By practicing rewardable behaviors which will replace the behaviors we don’t like. I use sit/stay, or watch me/with me (look at me and heel), or come away/let’s go (turn around and move away quickly). I recommend practicing all of these, but the sit/stay is the one which will actually change the overall demeanor and resulting behavior of the dog the most completely. Practice first with no distractions. When that is trivial, practice with minor distractions, as in your own yard. Steadily move to locations with increasingly difficult distractions, but be sure to always keep the triggers at a distance which allows and ensures your ability to use skills training to keep the dog under control. If the leash is tight, the dog is probably frustrated, and will became more so with each repetition. This cannot be stressed enough – do not take your dog places in which tight leashes are likely. Instead, practice, practice, practice in lower-stress environments, and increase the difficulty gradually over time. Teaching Stay the Error-Free Way (long video) – Pippa’s Stay – impulse control example – impulse control example 2
When working with dogs in the outside world, choose training rewards and conditioners of high value, but also with variety. I prefer rewards and conditioner which do not crumble. It is also useful sometimes, when it is challenging to get a hand right the the dog’s mouth, to toss a few on the ground in front of them, so I like to pick things which work for that. My reward pouch usually contains at least three things, but often five or more. A few of my favorites (and my dogs’) include: Yummy Chummies grain free salmon, Ziwi Peak Venison & Mussels, dehydrated 100% beef liver, low-fat string cheese, and dried fruit. If the dog won’t take food, that means you are too close! The dog is over-threshold, and it is time to back off! However, for the dog that seems to have very low motivation regarding food in general, tripe or cheese in a food tube will often be attractive enough to get, and keep, their attention.
Leash problems can be very frustrating for human and dog alike. These issues are, however, both manageable and modifiable. Planning ahead, being strict with ourselves in order to get a long-term benefit, and using alternative methods to use up our dogs’ energy are important. Most important of all is regular practice at levels of distraction which allow for steady progress toward the eventual goal of a predictable, and reliable, dog!
For more information, and further guidance, see Care for Reactive Dogs