Walking a leash aggressive dog can be a challenge, and because of that many don’t get walked at all. They are allowed out in the backyard where they have little opportunity to release excess energy. That, combined with social isolation and boredom will lead to a host of behavior problems, and often a very sad end for the dog because of it.
Using a process called desensitization, you can teach your dog to become less reactive while out on a walk. The first thing you’ll need is a pouch full of treats your dog loves. Every time you see someone coming you know your dog will react to, you will start feeding him one treat after the other after the other until the “threat” has passed. This is how you start to build a positive association between something he loves and something he fears.
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Why is my dog suddenly leash aggressive?
- Has your dog always been great on a leash, but as he’s getting older he’s becoming aggressive?
- Have you recently adopted a dog with a past that is unknown, and you’ve noticed this aggression when out on a walk?
Consider these possible explanations
♦ Your dog is experiencing vision and/or hearing loss or impairment, and he’s now feeling anxious or insecure when outside, particularly when approaching other dogs or people.
♦ Canine cognitive disorder (doggie dementia) causes confusion, so he’s becoming aggressive from stress or anxiety at not recognizing familiar places.
♦ Pain can definitely cause a dog to act out, and if he has arthritis for example, walks can be painful.
♦ Abuse in your pup’s past can absolutely account for leash aggression, and that’s the situation with my dog Jack. An abused dog can feel insecure, and when a perceived threat in the form of another dog or human is approaching, that discomfort can manifest itself by aggressive behavior. That is compounded by the fact he is tethered and cannot escape the “threat.”
♦ A dog that has not been trained to walk nicely on a leash or been socialized, has no idea what to do or what to expect. The fear he may feel can be expressed as aggression.
Does anything resonate so far?
Whenever you’re dealing with changes in behavior, my usual recommendation applies. Get down to your wonderfully helpful vet for a health check, just to rule out any physical causes for this aggression.
Before you go write down your concerns – what changes you’ve been seeing (be as specific as possible) – when did it/they start – how long it’s been going on – how often – under what circumstances
The results are in…
If your vet has discovered a cause – perhaps your dog has some arthritis or just isn’t feeling well. Once a treatment plan is in place and your pup starts feeling better, the behavior should change.
If the reason is due to something like vision or hearing loss, or another health condition that may be challenging to treat, the desensitization training I will be discussing shortly may not be the best thing to do in that case.
Don’t get me wrong. I adopt senior and special needs dogs, so I don’t believe vision issues, loss of hearing or dementia means they can’t have a great quality of life, with walks and interactions. I am saying that each dog is different, so it may be kinder, in some cases, to take a different approach.
For example, one of my neighbors had a German Shepherd named Sasha. She was mostly blind, deaf and was also dealing with arthritis. Being outside with people and other dogs around made her really nervous, and she would bark constantly.
In that situation nothing would have been gained by the training, or putting her in situations that scared her. The kindest thing was what her dad would do – walk her close to home when the streets were quiet. If he did see someone approaching, he would turn around and carry on. Sasha did much better, and was able to enjoy her outings.
If you have had your dog since he was a puppy
For those who’ve had their dogs from the beginning and whose past is no secret, or your incredibly helpful training has given him a new lease on life, reasons for this aggression can include:
♦ The walker (you, the dog walker or anyone else who takes him out) giving unintentional signals to be aggressive
♦ Bad experiences with other dogs caused fear or dislike
♦ Lack of socialization, so he never learned to be “okay” around other dogs
♦ Loves to play so much he gets frustrated being held back
♦ He doesn’t go for walks nearly as often as he should, so when he finally does he’s pretty much a nightmare
Can a walker create leash aggression?
It can be hard to believe that we’re actually creating the condition we’re desperately trying to correct. Here’s how that can happen –
One day a dog may be a bit “aggressive” on a walk, for any number of reasons. When this happens, the walker will instinctively tighten up on the leash to hold the dog back. Makes sense right?
This creates 2 problems
- the walker becomes on edge each time they’re out, transferring that tension to the dog and teaching him there is something to fear
- tightening up on the leash is what you do in attack training – meaning they’re unintentionally training the dog to attack.
Off leash dogs in a park tend to approach each other in an arc, not head on. They sniff, then decide whether to hang out or move on. That’s in real contrast to dogs out for a walk on a leash who approach each other head on, looking at each other, not being able to turn their bodies, all of which in doggie language is threatening. This is intensified when the walkers stop to chat, keeping the dogs in this state longer and longer. As the dogs strain against their leashes, guardians are tightening their grips to hold them back, adding to the problem by confirming for the dogs there is a reason to feel threatened. We’re tense, they’re tense and the cycle continues.
Helpful tips for handling a leash aggressive dog
♦ Never punish your dog for this behavior. Punishment is not training.
♦ It’s important you teach your dog to pay attention to you, and the training is called “look at me.” You can find details about how to teach “look at me” at the end of the post.
♦ Pay attention to your dog’s body language, noticing what changes occur when he starts to get aggressive. If you intervene at the hint of a first sign, you’ll have better luck preventing full out aggression, and getting him to respond to your commands.
♦ If your dog goes full out aggressive he won’t listen to you, forget it. Keep walking and remove him from the situation as quickly as possible.
♦ Your own state is equally important. Don’t hold your breath or stiffen up – be casual and relaxed.If you find that difficult, put your headphones on and listen to calming music.
♦ Always keep the leash loose, no tension, but keep a firm grip on the handle.
♦ Play with him for a few minutes before your walk, maybe a game of fetch in the backyard. A tired dog may be less reactive.
♦ If you have a small dog that can easily be picked up, cover his face so he doesn’t see approaching dogs. Don’t do this as a matter of course, just if you don’t feel in control of the situation, and don’t do it if he’s already seen the dog and reacted. You could get bitten.
♦ Cross the road, or change direction.
♦ If a dog is approaching head on, making a large arc around him may be enough to prevent an episode. If he did well and didn’t react, be sure to reward him right away.
♦ Change your dog walking times and areas, to when there’s likely to be fewer dogs and/or people.
Is this really the solution to leash aggression?
These avoidance techniques can decrease the chances of your dog getting into a situation which will cause him to be leash aggressive. However, avoidance will not help him learn to deal with it. You will also be denying a social creature the opportunity to interact with people and others of his kind, which really isn’t fair.
There is a time and place for avoidance
The training I mention below will help, but it takes practice to get the “timing” right. When we first adopted Jack, I was guilty of using avoidance on occasion when I didn’t feel confident or ready. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you do it only sometimes.
There is a difference between avoidance, and choosing to minimize the chance of too many interactions at once. Finding a time where there are fewer people and dogs about can help with the training, because he will be able to enjoy his walks without always having to be on high alert.
How do you stop a dog from being aggressive on the lead?
The best way is by teaching your dog great things happen when he meets other dogs and people. It’s about creating positive associations – he sees something he’s been afraid of, and now he gets something delicious. That is called desensitization.
The desensitization technique
Think about your own personal space. There is a distance at which you’re fine, but as a person gets closer and closer and invades that space you may start to feel uncomfortable, anxious, or just plain annoyed. The same can hold true for your dog.
He has a range within which he is fine with people and other dogs, but closer and you start to see or hear a change. Does he become more alert? Seem to stand taller? Stop? Can you hear a low growl starting?
For practice, recruit someone you know with a very calm dog. Face each other with your dogs from quite a distance both in front and to your side, then slowly walk towards each other. When you’ve gotten closer to each other with your dog is still in his “safe” zone, ask him to sit, look at you, and start giving him treats one after the other. You want him focused on you the entire time. Once your friend and dog have passed, stop the treats and keep walking.
That’s it!! You’ll keep doing this until your dog is comfortable at closer and closer distances, and you’ll do the same thing when you’re out on your walks.
I don’t have a friend to help
Don’t worry, I didn’t either!!
Walk your dog in as quiet an area as you can, or a quiet time of day. Having one or two dogs and/or people pass is easier to manage than being bombarded all at once.
As a change of pace you can, at times, sit on a bench in a quiet area with your dog and when someone approaches start feeding him the treats until they’ve passed.
You’ll want to invest in a treat pouch for quick and easy access!!
You can’t control every scenario
It would be nice if we could control what happens on our walks wouldn’t it? Set up a perfect training environment every time we step out of the house! Believe me, I wished the very same thing!
We’d like –
- Enough warning when a dog approaches
- No influx of dogs and humans when the park is “supposed” to be empty
- Every time you give your dog a treat he will ignore a passing dog, and calmly sit until he passes
- When you kindly ask a person to ignore your dog and not approach him because he’s nervous…they actually respect what you’re saying and listen!!
You will not be perfect
This is all new to you and there’s a learning curve for everyone, so please do not be hard on yourself. You’re going to do great!!
You may not always get the timing of the treats right
- You may panic because your dog starts going nuts before you have a chance to get the treats out
- There will be times your dog will be so riled up he’ll ignore the treats
- You’ll freeze and forget what you’re supposed to do
- If you’re feeling unsure, or someone comes up suddenly, stay calm, change directions and keep going. It takes practice to get the timing right, so don’t panic.
What happens if it’s not working?
The thing is, it’s impossible to put a deadline on how long it will take. Every dog has a different story, and each learns at their own pace. In my case it took a good few weeks to see progress, and I carried a treat pouch for months.
If you’re having trouble with the technique, or you’re not seeing any improvement, a trainer will help.
Does this mean he’ll be perfectly behaved on our walks now?
It is possible your dog will always have some leash issues, but don’t be discouraged. Jack is 1000 times better than he was, but I’m still always alert on our walks. There are cues I use to help calm him, and with time and practice you’ll find the words that work best for your dog.
For me a big problem is always people who insist on trying to bend down and pet him, because he’s so darn cute!! I ask them nicely to ignore him as he’s nervous due to being mistreated. Most respect my word, but you’ll always have some that don’t, so just keep on walking.
Products that could help
While they won’t help with your part in the training, what these items are designed to do is give a “heads up” to others so they know what your dog is like.
They are definitely not the only answer, but as far as I’m concerned, anything we can do to help is worth doing.
How to teach the “look” command
Lean over and position yourself quite close to your dog’s face, as long as it’s safe to do so.
Hold a treat in your hand close to your forehead, when your dog looks at you say “look at me” and give the treat. Practice this a lot!
The next step would be to phase out the treat and phase in the hand signal.
While still leaning quite close to your dog, take your index finger, hold it up to your forehead, and say “look at me.” When he looks say “yes” in a very enthusiastic manner and give him a treat with your other hand.
Once he’s mastered “look at me” in a quiet environment, start training in more and more distracting locations
For information about my virtual training and dog care consultancy service, and to book an appointment, please visit my services page.