Are you embarrassed by your dog’s displays on leash? Do you find yourself walking your dog during off hours so you can minimize how many other dogs you’ll see? Does he bark and lunge when he sees another dog? When dogs bark and lunge at other dogs on leash, it is called leash reactivity.
Many dog owners feel embarrassed by their dog’s behavior on leash. While it is understandable to feel embarrassed, rest assured that your dog’s behavior is not a reflection of you and your dog is not being a “bad dog.” Understanding where this behavior comes from will help you feel more at ease with your reactive dog.
Most leash reactivity stems from frustration. Picture the way two dogs greet one another when they are off leash. They orient towards each other’s backsides (lots of scent information!) and move in a circle as they each sniff the other dog. This ritualized greeting is very appealing to some dogs. When they see another dog across the street but cannot perform the ritualized greeting, they become frustrated. Just like in people, frustration in dogs can seem frightening at times. We’ve all witnessed someone lashing out at a waiter or cashier because they were frustrated with how long they were made to wait for something they wanted.
Imagine you have an important meeting several towns away. You get stuck in traffic and are going to be at least 30 minutes late. As you sit in traffic, waiting in an endless line of cars you become frustrated. You are close to tearing your hair out because each time you think the traffic is letting up, it stops again. This is similar to how our dogs feel when they are repeatedly thwarted from greeting other dogs.
How’s the play?
If your dog plays well with other dogs off leash or is neutral with other dogs off leash, then you can assume your dog is simply frustrated on leash. He wants to greet other dogs in the ritualized manner but he cannot due to his leash. Over time, each time he sees another dog on a walk he feels more and more frustrated.
Occasionally, dogs are reactive for other reasons. Your dog could be fearful of other dogs, or your dog could be aggressive to other dogs. If your dog is fearful or aggressive to other dogs when off leash, then that is likely the motivator when he is reactive on leash.
What if I’ve never let my dog go off leash with other dogs?
It’s very common for owners of reactive dogs to keep their dogs on leash and not allow off leash play for fear of what may happen. If you’ve seen your dog lose his marbles at the sight of another dog, it’s easy to assume he would race towards the other dog and try to fight him given the chance. The good news is, this rarely happens. Leash reactive dogs who have never been off leash with other dogs are typically frustrated, not fearful or aggressive.
There is no quick fix for leash reactivity. Punishing your dog for feeling scared or frustrated will only make his condition worse in the long run. Imagine being shocked with an electric shock each time you felt frustrated or afraid, over time you would only develop other behavioral problems.
No matter what the cause of your dog’s reactivity, dog training can help! A certified force-free dog trainer will help you change your dog’s underlying emotion through the use of evidence-based training. Frustrated dogs can learn to associate other dogs with toys and treats and fearful or dog-aggressive dogs can learn the same. Let’s get started with training so you and your dog can both start feeling better ASAP.