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Taking a walk with your dog should be one of life's little pleasures. But for owners whose dogs exhibit aggression when on-leash, walks can offer little enjoyment for either human or canine. If your dog barks, snarls, or lunges at other dogs or strangers, your outings can be at best embarrassing - and at worst dangerous.
Many dogs who exhibit bad behavior on a leash are well-mannered when off leash, so owners can be stumped when their placid pooches become furry fiends. Some behaviorists theorize it happens because the leash inhibit dogs from doing what they normally do - greet, sniff, an move on, all at their own pace. If a dog feels restricted, it increases his anxiety and frustration. He may then exhibit agitated behavior such as pulling, panting or whining, or outright aggression such as growling, barking or biting.
There are other possible causes as well, says E'Lise Christensen, DVM, a resident in the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University: "Motivations for aggression on leash may be related to fear, territoriality, resource guarding, predatory behavior and increased social confidence," she says.
The Other End of the Leash
One major contributor to on-leash aggression is inappropriate owner behavior. Without realizing it, you can make the problem worse by pulling on the leash, sending the wrong body language, accidentally reinforcing your dog's behavior, or causing him to associate other dogs or strangers with punishment.
Using a properly fitted halter allows for positive and negative reinforcement when the dog pulls
The leash is a powerful conduit of emotion. If you shorten your dog's leash when you see another dog or stranger approaching, your dog may interpret the tauter leash as anxiety on your part. He might then assume that whatever is coming his way is a threat and may respond with aggression.
"The one surefire way to increase aggression is to increase tension on the Ieash," says Suzanne Clothier, a professional dog trainer, lecturer, and author of Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationship with Dogs. "That's exactly how you train attacks dogs: You tighten the leash, you make your body very tense, and both you and the dog get focused on what's coming."
Even if you keep a loose leash, your body language can still transmit stress to your dog. Holding your breath, scanning the horizon and tensing up are all signs in dog language that something is wrong.
Dr. Christensen says that owners can also unwittingly reinforce their dogs' aggression. For example, if you try to soothe your dog ("Good boy, it's okay") when he acts out around other dogs, you are actually rewarding him for his behavior.
Finally, punishing your dog, either physically or by using deterrents like choke collars, prong collars or shock collars, can cause him to associate the approach of another dog with pain and lead to more, rather than less, aggression. He doesn't understand that it's his behavior you don't like; rather, he thinks other dogs or stranger approaching will result in pain, so he redoubles his efforts to drive them away.
Changing the Behavior
On-leash aggression doesn't have to be a fact of life, even with dogs who have been reacting this way for years. An approach that includes both training and management can work wonders.
Step 1: Assess the leash
Get rid of the choke chain, the prong collar, or anything that can cause pain. Dr. Christensen recommends using a properly fitted head halter, such as a Gentle Leader, because it allows for positive and negative reinforcement for pulling and lets you turn your dog's head toward you, so you can redirect him to a more appropriate, relaxed behavior.
Step 2: Conduct Obedience Training
Teaching your dog basic obedience commands is essential. This helps your dog develop self-control and a connection with you; it also gives you opportunities to reinforce and praise good behavior.
Train you dog to always walk on a loose leash, since a taut leash - even lithe dog is causing it himself by pulling creates tension, which in turn contributes to aggressive behavior. Clothier recommends starting by putting your dog on leash and placing a plate of tempting food on the floor across the room. Put some treats in your pocket. Slowly walk toward the plate. When your dog pulls, stop.
"At some point, even if it's out of boredom, your dog will glance back - and then it's a party,"says Clothier. "I give him a treat cheer and move back away from the plate; then we start going forward again."Once he's walking calmly to the food plate and not pulling, repeat the training in different locations, eventually working up to full walks.
Once you start training, don't ever allow your dog to pull when on leash, no matter how long the walk takes as a result. But what if you are running late or need someone less patient to walk your dog? In that case, says Clothier, put your dog in a body harness and let him pull. He'll learn that the rules are relaxed if he's in the harness, but it won't undermine your training.
Step 3: Change Body Position
Dogs read body language, so practice keeping your own body loose and your breathing even, especially when another dog comes into view. To teach clients to stay relaxed, Clothier instructs them to sing or recite a fairy tale to their dogs. "That sounds stupid, but it's a very rare person who can sing the ABC song and not relax and be goofy," she says.
Shift your dog's emotional state by asking him to sit and stroking his ears, mouth, head and hackles into a more relaxed position, says Clothier. Don't pet or verbally reassure him, she says; rather, use firm strokes and insist your dog remain sitting quietly. Remember to keep the leash loose.
Step 4: Desensitize
Your aim is to teach your dog that other dogs and strangers are a good thing, not a threat. Recruit a training partner with a reliable dog, or go somewhere you'll see other dogs without having to get too close (the parking lots outside a veterinary office or a pet-food store are good choices).
Fill your pockets with treats, put your dog on a leash and let the dog or stranger come into view. Make sure they are far enough away that your dog doesn't react aggressively (move back if necessary). As long as your dog stays relaxed, reward him with continual treats, says Dr. Christensen. Keep each session short - less than five minutes. Keep repeating, eventually moving closer to the triggers, until your dog begins to associate strangers or other dogs with treats.
Clothier adds that you should give extra-special treats and attention to your dog whenever he looks back at you, and to remember to send your body-language message that everything's fine. "It thus becomes rewarding for dog to check in with you, and he starts getting a different message that he doesn't need to be concerned about this."
Step 5: Manage While You're Training
While you're training, try to keep uncontrolled interactions with other dogs to a minimum. There's really no reason for two strange dogs on leash to "meet and greet" despite what many owners think; there's little upside and interactions can turn ugly almost instantly.
Your goal is to teach your dog that other dogs and strangers are a good thing, not a threat. Try recruiting a partner with a reliable dog.
Watch your dog for changes in ears, head and neck posture, altered tail carriage, rising hackles and other indications he's seen or heard something that concerns him. If you spot these signs, calmly walk in the other direction with a loose leash. If you can't avoid an approaching dog or stranger and you don't think your dog can pass them quietly, ask your dog to sit step between your dog and the oncoming "threat," and change your body posture as described in Step 3. If your dog is too stressed to sit, call him away (don't pull the leash) and, if it's safe, step off the sidewalk to let the other dog pass. Alternatively, move into a driveway or a building doorway, or cross the street.
Finally, if a scary stranger is approaching too closely, or clueless owner insists that his dog "just want to say hi," the phrase "I'm sorry, my dog is not friendly" can help give you some space. Your goal is to teach your dog that other dogs and strangers are a good thing, not a threat.Try recruiting a partner with a reliable dog.