First, rest assured, you are not alone. This behavioral issue is so common that there are volumes of books specifically written about the subject. Dog trainers and behaviorists refer to this issue as “on-leash aggression” or “on-leash reactivity”. That being said, this is a serious issue that needs addressing as soon as possible – the longer you wait, and the more it happens, the harder it is to address. A reactive dog can bite other dogs and even bite dog owners nearby.
A dog with on-leash reactivity often gets along marvelously with other dogs when off-leash at the park, or in the yard, or even in home. But the minute you put on a leash and go for a walk, he becomes interested, then agitated at the sight of a dog at a distance. As you get closer, he expresses the frustration by barking, howling, lunging, and even biting. He’s so fired up that calling his name, luring him with food, or even applying leash corrections does nothing.
Photo courtesy of Päivi Reijonen (dog trainer and behaviorist) – view the entire set on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/30096200@N08/sets/72157623555143141/
Every dog is different, and it is difficult to figure out exactly why a specific dog develops this issue. Here are a few common reasons:
The dog never learned to walk loosely on leash, or focus on the handler when called. As a result, the dog is used to pulling around everywhere to investigate everything. The sight of a dog on the sidewalk is a novel distraction at first, so a puller struggles to go meet and sniff that other dog. Naturally, on-leash, and on the sidewalk, your dog doesn’t have the freedom to wander up and sniff every dog. The frustration of being unable to get to that interesting thing, compounded by the physical pain of the collar tension that occurs when pulling towards another dog is highly unpleasant. Soon, the dog associates the sight of another dog with feelings of frustration and pain, and very soon, through simple classical conditioning, the dog sees other dogs on the street as the reason for that feeling and pain. As it happens each and every time they see a dog on leash, the conditioning occurs very quickly.
The dog had learned to be fearful or dislike other dogs. This can occur if a dog has been harassed or attacked by another dog – sometimes it just takes one bad experience to make a dog fearful. This can also occur if a dog was not exposed to a wide variety of other friendly dogs while it was a puppy. In an off-leash setting, the dog has the option to flee. When a dog is on leash, we’ve taken away that option, so all that’s left is freeze, or fight. The on-leash reactive dog is barking and lunging to send the other dog away proactively.
The dog may be ill or injured. Dogs hide injury well, and perfectly well socialized dogs that suddenly start acting aggressively (in any context) may be hurt and vulnerable, and instinctively become more defensive. Make sure your dog is fully vetted to check for illness or injury.
What does not cause it:
Unfortunately, many “experts” are extremely misinformed about this and most other behavioral issues. Here are the most common and incorrect explanations they provide:
If you are advised to do any of the following, run far, far away from that trainer:
Any behaviour issue that puts dogs and people at risk of injury is serious and is not something you should address on your own. This work requires you to have both knowledge of classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and practical work to manage your dog and deliver food rewards all while walking your dog on leash. Get the help of a professional dog trainer or behaviourist that prescribes the following:
The first video has Dr. Sophia Yin (www.askdryin.com) using a combination of operant conditioning and classical conditioning to teach a leash-reactive dog to tolerate and then eventually like other dogs. You know this dog is happy because of his body language.
The second video from a certain TV program shows the use of severe leash corrections as a punishment to suppress behavior. In this case, the aggressive dog looks at another dog – the person kicks the dog (2:56), triggering the dog to bite, and then proceeds to choke the dog till it nearly suffocates. The person is bitten and dogs subjected to this punishment will suffer neck, spinal, tracheal, and ocular damage. If the owners tried this they would likely require hundreds of stitches.
GOOD DOG TRAINING:
BAD DOG TRAINING: