Anyone who lives with a leash-aggressive dog knows the stress of walking in public places. These are the owners who seek out off-the-beaten tracks and often walk early in the morning or late at night when they are less likely to meet other dogs. Some opt not to walk their dogs at all, because itâs just too stressful.
Why do some leashed dogs act out when they see another dog approaching, while others remain calm? A 2017 study led by the University of Arizonaâs School of Anthropology found that hormones may be partly to blame.
For this study, researchers recruited leash-aggressive family dogs of both sexes and varying ages and breeds. The results found a link between the hormone vasopressin and heightened aggression, while higher levels of the hormone oxytocin suggested a more placid dog.
According to holistic veterinarian Karen Becker, these results may lead to new approaches within the veterinary communityÂ for treating leash aggression in dogs
In training circles, leash aggression is frequently referred to as leash reactivity. Trainers say in most cases a dog who acts out when on a leash but gets along well with other dogs when free is not exhibiting aggression.
Instead, this dog acts out because he or she feels threatened when approaching other dogs head-on during leashed walks.
When off-leash and in their own environment, dogs naturally greet from the side (in an âarcâ) and sniff each otherâs genital area, say trainers at the Animal Humane Society in the Twin Cities Metro area, MN.
They donât approach head-on and make hard eye contact unless a fight is about to start. They also donât typically greet for more than a few seconds.
âDogs have a fight or flight instinct, and when we restrain them on a leash we take away their option to escape if they feel threatened by another dog,â said Jodi Kellar, a positive motivation trainer, and owner of Kellarâs Canine Academy in Saddle Brook, NJ. âWhen this happens a dog feels like he has no option but to defend himself by barking or lunging at the other dogs.â
When an owner reacts to this behavior by tightening up on the leash, the dog feels even more threatened and the reactivity often escalates.
Punishing a dog who is acting out on a leash is also a big mistake, say positive motivation trainers. That includes yelling, jerking the leash, grabbing the dog or even repeatedly saying âNo.â In fact, this type of behavior makes things worse, because the dog will pick up on the ownerâs tension and become even more anxious.
Kellar advises enlisting the help of a positive motivation trainer who can observe what is happening. A reputable trainer can determine if youâre dealing with leash reactivity or if thereâs something else going on that might require a visit to a veterinary specialist.
A trainer can also help you to read your dogâs body language, so you have a better understanding of why he is acting out.
Itâs important to get your ego out of the way when dealing with leash reactivity. Forget about being embarrassed or upset at what other people might think, and focus instead on whatâs going on with your dog and how to make him feel more secure.
Loosening up on the leash even by just a few inches can help maintain control without making your dog feel trapped and vulnerable, according to Lisa Benshoff of Dogs Behaving Better on the Eastern shore of Maryland.
Her training method focuses on behavior modificationâchanging behavior by changing the underlying emotions.
Choose an area without distractions like your living room and work on getting your dogâs attention by calling his name and rewarding him with a favorite treat when he looks at you. Many positive motivation trainers use clickers to mark wanted behavior or actions.
Once you have your dogâs attention indoors, you can move the training into the yard and gradually onto the street. Only move to more challenging areasâfor example, the local parkâwhen you can get your dogâs attention no matter whatâs happening.
Once you advance to the local park, continue your training at a safe distance from other dogs. The moment your dog sees the other dog, get her attention and reward her with a treat.
Itâs important to do this before she has a chance to react. Eventually, your dog will start making a positive associationâfavorite treatsâwith other dogs. The goal of this training is to change her emotional and behavioral response to other dogs.
If your dog barks and lunges at dogs, your training went too far too fast, say Animal Humane Society experts. You need to add more distance and continue working on getting your dogâs undivided attention.
Itâs up to you to make sure other dogs donât invade your dogâs space and make him feel vulnerable.
Remember: every negative experience will set your dogâs progress back. If you live in an area with a lot of dog traffic, consider taking your dog to a quieter area, so you are setting him up for success.
If you do have to approach another dog head-on, simply go around him in an arc and continue working on getting your dogâs attention. If the other dog starts to lunge and bark, keep your dogâs attention by rewarding more often.
You should stop giving treats as soon as the other dog goes away. This will reinforce the idea that wonderful things happen when other dogs are around.
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