It may be the oldest story in dog training: a dog that is an otherwise perfectly-behaved, downright sweet, and beloved member of the family, will growl, bark, lunge, and may even bite another dogs he encounters on leash. Take the leash off and he is a model citizen at the dog park or day care.
What’s up with that?
Well first of all, leash aggression is a very common problem. If you have ever described it to a dog trainer you may have noticed her complete lack of surprise. Many trainers have classes dedicated to this problem. It’s common enough in my area that I already have an ongoing series of blog posts about it over here. (And my dedicated classes are coming soon.)
So relax, you’re not alone.
You can poke around my blog series after you finish this, but here’s a quick rundown on what causes it and how to diminish or maybe even eliminate the problem.
Where does leash aggression come from?
Leash aggression is often caused by fear, frustration, or both. The fear can come from a lack of socialization as a puppy, from a bad past experience, or from feeling restrained with a leash attached. Frustration can come from not being able to get to a dog because of being on leash, which generalizes to “seeing dogs while on leash is always frustrating.”
Of course these factors can combine to feed each other, and other issues may be involved. The good news is finding out the exact causes is not critical to addressing the problem.
What can we do to address leash aggression?
I already gave you the first step: relax. Your tensing up when you see another dog or worse, yelling and yanking the leash when your dog is acting out, doesn’t help. I know it’s not easy, but work on it. It’ll help a lot.
Check your hardware. Despite relatively recent efforts to "rebrand" them, slip (or choker) collars and prong collars are really intended for corrections. The slip collar is for manually delivering a leash correction by "popping" the leash. The prong can also be used for leash corrections and will administer a "pinch" when the dog pulls ahead on leash. (I don’t use either device or corrections, but that’s not the point right now.) What do you suppose happens to a dog that is lunging at the end of a leash when wearing one of these collars? If nothing else it will increase his stress level, worst case he will associate the corrections with what he is looking at: another dog.
I prefer harnesses for dogs with leash aggression. Taking the pressure off of the neck can relieve a great deal of stress, even when compared to a simple flat collar. With a large or strong dog a "front clasp" harness like an Easy Walk or SENSE-ible can also help the person holding the leash maintain control.
Work on attention. A few of the blog posts in my series talk about using attention to keep your dog focused on you and not on the other dogs. If you can get attention on cue with his name or a cue like "look!" it can also serve as way to redirect focus back to you if it slips.
You need to pay attention. Put the phone away. Finish your coffee before you walk. Try to map out your route in advance. If you live in a densely populate area like many of my clients it’s probably impossible to avoid other dogs, but you can at least be prepared!
Work on counter-conditioning and desensitization. This is worth seeing a trainer for, and honestly a session with a trainer is a good idea for this problem anyway. Fear and frustration are emotional responses, and working on changing the association is going to be a key part in any solution.
That’s the short version. There’s a lot more over here. and a few more posts on counter-conditioning and desensitization on the way. Subscribe to my newsletter for updates. The box is up on the right.