Leash aggression is an embarrassing problem for dog owners, but one that can be easily modified
In today's urban world, we are seeing more and more cases of leash aggression develop in dogs. Leash aggression used to be more often seen in dogs that were fearful of and/or had very little exposure to other dogs. However, it is now more common to see social dogs that are great off leash, but turn into barking, lunging and snarling dogs when they see dogs while they are on leash. So why is this? Why does it appear like we have Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with our dogs and what are we usually doing that makes it worse?
Being on leash is not natural for a dog. Think about if you weren't allowed to go anywhere without being restrained. Being restricted can create frustration in our dogs and we limit their ability to effectively communicate. Or, if the dog is not confident and has fears about other dogs, being on leash prevents them from being able to remove themselves from the situation, so puts them into fight mode.
Dog owners typically make the problem worse by how we handle our end of the leash. We may begin tightening up on the leash as another dog or person approaches. And if the dog reacts, we tend to jerk on the leash and get mad at the dog, which in turn just makes the situation even more negative so they are likely to continue this reactive behaviour in the future. As the behaviour worsens, so does the nervousness and anxiety of the owner, which goes straight down the leash to the dog who reacts out of concern to this as well.
Or perhaps we react by pulling the dog away and removing them from the situation. Or the other person removes themselves and their dog and leaves. All this does is either increase the frustration in our dogs, or reinforces their reactive response. If your dog is fearful, their reactivity caused the other dog to leave, so they learn this behaviour works. The behaviour then starts to run its course as a vicious circle that does not stop without the proper training.
Don't wait for the behaviour to go away! Follow the Reactive urbanK9 program to learn how to effectively modify leash aggression and teach your dog to pass other dogs on leash while watching you instead of swearing at them
You can tell by the way this dog's weight and ears are back, its tail is tucked and there is tension that it is under stress.
Stress is the body's reaction to a change that requires a physical, mental or emotional adjustment or response. Dogs who are experiencing complex behaviour concerns such as fear, reactivity or anxiety are dogs that tend to be in a high state of stress and arousal. A stressful emotional response will inhibit clear thinking and activate the dog's emergency response system (the flight of fight system). During this state, learning cannot happen. Stress can be caused by a variety of factors including changes in the household, pain, or exposure to a frightening situation. Any biological or psychological demand will result in stress, and the demand does not necessarily have to involve an aversive; meaning not all stress is bad stress.
However, when working with our dogs that suffer with fear and/or reactivity concerns, it is important that we understand the effects of stress and what stress looks like. Chronic stress can have negative impacts on your dog's health and cause them to be in a constant state of arousal. We must work at calming their lives, minimizing their exposure to stressful events and working them through their concerns. Keeping a dog confined in a house, or continually avoiding situations where you dog may react or show signs of fear does not help them and is unfair. We must work to reduce our dog's fears and move them through their reactivity concerns. To do this, we must understand what stress looks like so we know when not to push our dog further, or when the stress is too much and learning cannot happen.
Stress Symptoms in Dogs
Body Language: Stress signs through body language that you will notice will include ears and weight held back, dilated pupils, lips pulled back, tension in face and body and tucked tail. The dog will likely be demonstrating calming signals. A stressed dog will also typically have sweaty paws.
Body Odours: Bad breath is common because dogs pant more and the stress intensifies the secretion of gastrointestinal acids which become more noticeable through unpleasant odours.
Defecation and Urination: This will be an abnormal or excessive response. A dog coming into class may frequently urinate or defecate, or a dog that is fearful of people may urinate when they are being greeted.
Destructive Behaviour: Most dogs tend to indulge in destructive chewing as an outlet from their nervous energy. It may also mean that the dog is trying to signal its discomfort or nervousness regarding a person or another animal.
Excessive Barking or Whining: If you notice that the dog has been barking too much or has been whining unusually, especially in its sleep, there must be something that has been troubling it. The barking may continue for an extended period of time without any particular reason. This can be seen just in certain situations such as during dog play or when new people come into the house.
Excessive Grooming: This can be excessive licking which is normally directed at the tail or genital area and can lead to open wounds or loss of hair. As painful as it may be this behaviour can be self gratifying and compensate for the level of stress that the dog feels.
Excessive Hunger or Thirst: A dog under stress may show an increase in hunger or thirst. They can be demanding and seem obsessed with food or water.
Lethargy and Laziness: When a dog is stressed out, it will refuse to indulge in any kind of physical activity like playing, going for walks, etc. It will refuse to move about within the house and will confine itself to a corner in the home or its crate. In extreme cases, it may also refuse to eat or drink.
Mounting: This kind of behaviour is not necessarily sexually motivated but can be stress induced. This does not have to be directed at other dogs but can be directed at people or objects like cushions or cuddly toys. It can also be stress created by overexcitement.
Panting: Stress panting is when a dog should not be panting from exercise or from hot temperatures. The corners of the lips will be pulled back into a v shape and there will be tension in the face.
Physical Changes: The dog may have persistent skin and coat problems. They will often have diarrhea and may be prone to eye and/or ear infections. They will typically have considerable weight loss as well.
Restlessness: Restlessness in dogs could be a heat related stress symptoms in dogs, especially in female dogs. Female dogs in heat tend to get increasingly restless due to the various changes taking place in them during that period. It could also indicate that the dog is suffering from stress and anxiousness.
Trembling or Shivering: This is one of the most obvious of stress symptoms in dogs. If the dog is trembling or shivering, it is obvious that something is causing it to be fearful or that it is feeling threatened by some person or object.
Unusual Behaviour: This is one of the foremost canine stress symptoms that signals that something is amiss with the dog. An unusual change in its mood, inability to follow commands and concentrate on training, no response to pampering, etc. fall under the unusual behaviour category.
Watch your dog and learn what signs of stress are more typical for them. When you see stress, try to resolve your dog's concerns and make them more comfortable. You can do this by delivering food and teaching the dog the situation or person or animal means good things versus scary things. Remember when you are working with your dog, that if they are too stressed, they cannot learn or focus. They will ignore cues that they know and will not look at you. Do not get frustrated, but rather quietly wait until your dog stops reacting and looks at you, or provide more distance to achieve a level your dog is more comfortable with and can focus on learn. Training is supposed to be fun, so if either of you are feeling negative stress, brainstorm how to make the situation more successful for you both!
Guinniss demonstrates a paw lift and a lip lick in response to Domi drinking from his water dish
Turid Rugaas, a dog trainer from Norway spent years observing wolves, wild dogs and domestic canines to better understand how they communicate. She came up with the term calming signals when observing canine body language and determined they are a means of communication used by dogs to calm themselves, each other and even humans, other animals or inanimate objects.
Many behaviour problems develop or worsen due to miscommunication and a large part of this is that humans do not often see what our dogs are trying to tell us and each other. Calming signals allow us to better understand how our dogs are communicating. It is important for us to understand calming signals because we will know when to remove our dogs from situations they are uncomfortable with. They are critical to understand when working with fearful/reactive dogs as we will see warning signs before our dogs growl/bare teeth/snap/bite and can even use them to help calm our dogs in times of stress.
Below are a list of calming signals and when they may be used:
Blinking – This is done to avoid staring/direct eye contact. It can be full, slow blinking or just the lowering of eye lids.
Curving – It's proper canine etiquette for dogs to approach each other by curving to greet. They do not greet each other by approaching straight on unless they know the other dog well. Approaching another dog straight on may cause conflict between the dogs. If your dog tries to curve when meeting another dog, let them do it – they are providing a clear message and proper dog communication. You can help your dog on walks by allowing them to curve away while on leash so that they do not send the wrong message or indicate a challenge to the other dog.
Licking - You may see your dog licking its mouth/nose when it is in a tight situation such as when another dog or person is walking straight towards it or when you are bending over your dog. This is most common in dogs with dark faces as it is harder to see their facial expressions.
Looking Away – This can be from the whole head or by just casting the eyes away. It is considered the most common calming signal that dogs will use. They will look away from anything that needs calming as staring directly at another dog can be considered a challenge or threatening.
Play Bow - A play position is when a dog has its front legs down and its bum in the air. It is used to initiate play as well as a calming signal. If a dog is uncertain with how to deal with a situation, it will often exhibit the play position. This is seen most commonly when a dog encounters a strange animal such as a cow or a cat.
Sitting/Lying Down – Dogs may do this to reassure another that they mean no harm.
Sniffing – Dogs will commonly sniff the ground to calm themselves or another dog down.
Turning Away – A dog who is feeling a bit nervous about an object, person or another animal will turn away from it. This can be by just turning the head, or they may completely turn away. You will often see dogs do this to each other if one is playing inappropriately or too forward/pushy.
Walking Slowly – Dogs will move slower to calm another dog or person down, or will do this if another dog is feeling uncertain about a situation. This is a common one to see in dog play and greetings.
Yawning – Your dog may yawn when he's tired but it is also used to release stress and calm others. When the dog is using a calming signal when yawning, the yawn tends to be exaggerated.
Think of your dog's emotional reactions as a traffic light. They are in green light mode when they are relaxed and neutral. This is the ideal time to work on training and modifying behaviour. Calming signals are when your dog is beginning to feel stress and feel unsure in a situation or with another dog, animal or person. This is when your dog is in yellow light mode and is your indication that pushing your dog further will create a reaction. This is also a good time to work a dog with a good foundation and thorough understanding of auto watch when modifying fear/reactivity concerns. A red light dog is a dog that is under too much stress so is reacting by lunging, barking, growling, baring teeth, snapping, etc. We must never train a dog within this state when they are first learning, as learning cannot happen. Remove your dog from the situation or create more distance and brainstorm how to set it up differently for them next time.
Calming signals may seem subtle at first, but as you being to observe them you will understand how strong of a communication tool they are. The best advice when first learning and observing them is to pick one to watch for. Then for a few days, watch all dogs in person or on video/tv and pay attention to just that one signal. Then progress through each of them this way and watch how quickly you see them with every interaction!
There are many concerns about the use of food in training. First off, will it make our dogs fat? Secondly, will our dog only work for us if we have food? There are also many misconceptions about using food in training as well. First off, a dog owner may assume their dog is not food motivated. Or, they may feel like they are rewarding the dog for their reactive behaviour. We can understand all of these concerns and the below addresses each and why using food is so important.
Causing weight gain
Of course if we feed our dogs too much they will gain weight! However, this does not mean we cannot prevent this when using food in training. The most important step is to use a high quality treat as these will not have fillers and will minimize weight gain. Benny Bully's Liver Chops are our favourite as dogs love them and because they are freeze dried, there are no unnecessary ingredients added.
Ensure you also keep your treats broken up into small pieces. Dogs will work for cheap and they don't need large treats to keep them motivated! You want them to swallow the food quickly and avoid filling them up. Working through fears and reactivity is stressful as well, so keeping them small minimizes upsetting their tummies. And by keeping them small, you allow for many, many more positive responses! I may have the opportunity in class to give my dog a reward 100 times but it amounts to only 5 full treats as I have kept them small. If you are still concerned that the extra food may cause weight gain, just decrease the amount of their daily food ration to compensate for the additional treats they are receiving in training.
Will only work for food
A common concern is that your dog will begin to only work for food. We hear this one a lot and everyone seems to know someone who says their dog will only respond to them if they have food. Do you want to know our response to that? Well, we think that dog is a brilliant human trainer and bravo to them for teaching their owner that they only work if they know they have food. We will work closely with you in the class to ensure this does not happen. Best way to avoid it? Follow through the steps of the program to ensure your dog understands what is expected of them vs just responding to the food in your hand.
Will not work for food
This is an extremely common thing to hear when working with reactive and/or fearful dogs. However, all dogs are food motivated. Food is needed to survive. For every non-food dog motivated dog we meet, we meet a dog that will do anything for certain treats when at home with nothing going on. This is because the dog is not feeling stressed, so they are motivated by the food.
Often, when a dog is not taking food, it is an indication that they are too stressed. Stress is not always bad stress, as we may see a dog that gets too excited by everything outside, so chooses not to eat. First, we may try a variety of foods, but if that still does not work, we need to address the stress. We start the dog at home, then just in the backyard, then front yard, then slowly move away from the house and continue to take them to new environments. As the dog's confidence and focus builds, they will begin to take food in a variety of new environments and situations.
How a dog takes food is a good assessment for a trainer. For example, if a dog comes into the classroom and takes food from their owner and fellow students, then they are not too stressed. Now let's say the next dog comes in and will take from their owner, but not from the fellow students. This would indicate that they are stressed with the people, so we would need to first work and making them more comfortable. And finally, let's say another dog comes in and will not take food from their owner or any fellow students. This would indicate that the dog is too stressed with the new environment, so we would first work at them taking food from their owner, then the fellow students.
Don't disregard food if your dog doesn't appear motivated by it in certain situations. Instead, you should listen to and determine better ways to set up the situation, build your dog's confidence and focus and address their underlying stress concerns.
Rewarding bad behaviour?
Students often raise this concern when we use food to interrupt a behaviour. For example, let's say in class the dog reacts to noise outside and it causes the other dog to react. We cannot increase the distance and blocking their view doesn't help. We also do not want to remove the dogs so they don't learn reacting works, but we need to stop the reactions as they just continue to worsen.
For this situation, we use the food to interrupt the dog. We may be able to redirect them back to us by putting the food in front of their nose and luring them away. Or we may need to drop the food on the ground so that dog's focus goes to it instead of reacting at the other dog. At this time, we are using the food to interrupt, not reward the behaviour. We progress through steps: interrupt and when dog's focus is off the other dog and they are not reacting, begin to work on offered attention and then the auto watch. That way the food is an interrupter, and then used to reward the correct behaviour.
Or, perhaps you think the auto watch is rewarding poor behaviour because your dog let out a couple of barks before they turned back to you? This is also a valid concern, but we need to understand how the dog is learning to realize what we are actually rewarding. You reward a behaviour by delivering a positive the instant the behaviour is occurring. This means that your dog would bark and immediately receive a food reward. Instead, your dog may bark, but it stops barking, turns away from the dog and offers you attention, and then receives the food reward. This means the dog is being rewarded for looking at you, not for the barking.
We can use anything our dog perceives as positive as a reward and it is important to know a variety of different motivators for your dog. However, when working on the foundations of a training program, food as a reward is our preferred option; not just praise, affection or a toy.
Let's face it – if your dog is reacting, your praise or affection is just not rewarding enough. And if your dog is under a great deal of stress, as well as you, this may actually be demotivating to the dog. Perhaps you sound stressed and influence the dog negatively. Or, your stress causes you to handle the dog roughly or too fast. And even if you are not stressed, the reward is just not powerful enough to create reliable responses and move through the training program at a good speed.
Many dogs also love toys and they can be great motivators in a variety of training programs. However, using them with fear and/reactivity concerns causes too much excitement for the dog. While we work at settling the dog and gaining in their focus, a toy would do the opposite and get them far too excited. Further in the program, they can be a great tool, but while you are working on the foundations, stick with food so as not to excite your dog (or the others in class) too much!
Food creates a powerful emotional response and allows us to progress through training faster. It still takes work and can be a long process. However, food allows long lasting and reliable behaviour at a faster rate because it changes the dog's emotional response. We do not want you to remove your dog from a stressful situation, but rather teach them it is safe and help them to face their fears head on! We believe in building confidence and working your dog through their concerns, and food is an important part of this.
Learn how to better manage your dog and its environment to prevent reactive responses
"I don't think the training is working. My dog still reacts at every dog we see!"
This is actually a common thing for us to hear in our classes and we understand how frustrating it can be for a student. However, it has nothing to do with the actual training and everything with how we are setting our dogs up to fail. Prevention and management is the key to any training program, but it is critical when dealing with fear and/or reactivity concerns. This is because every time you put your dog into a situation where they react, you are continuing their learning that this response works! For example, your dog sees another dog on leash and they react out of fear by lunging and barking. Most owners respond by pulling their dog away or the other dog owner leaves, which in turn teaches our dog that their reactive behaviour works at making scary things go away.
So how do we use prevention and management with reactivity? First off, know how far of a distance your dog needs to be below threshold (can be alert to the trigger but is not reacting). If your dog cannot walk on one side of the street while a dog is on the other side without reacting, you need to start by walking your dog out of your neighbourhood. Some good places to go are large on leash park areas such as Fish Creek Park or Confederation Park. Or to a large green space or parking lot area. The key is that you are in a place where there is enough distance to keep your dog below threshold.
If you are putting your dog into situations where they are continually reacting they are constantly stressed and learning their behaviour works, they will continue to become more reactive despite how much work you are putting into the training. Your dog cannot learn when they are reacting and both of you will be feeing far too frustrated. We get frustrated as we keep putting our dogs into a reactive state and try to get their attention back on us. We need to instead prevent the behaviour from happening (get to more space) and manage the environment to minimize surprise situations that cause your dog to react (open spaces where you can easily see what is coming into the environment).
Prevention and management is about setting both you and your dog up for success. Taking a reactive dog out is stressful, so if you are finding the walks stressful and dread going out, then you need to go to an environment where neither of you feel frustration and stress and you can get working as a team again. Get out and remember how much fun time spent walking with your dog can be. And if you find that your dog is reacting to more things than not, remind yourself that is not the training and you cannot be frustrated at your dog. Instead, ask your dog to forgive you for putting them into such a hard situation and promise them you will begin to set it up better for the both of you!
We have already discussed fear and reactivity in our dogs, how it develops and how they may demonstrate it. Now we want to look at what we can do to modify this behaviour. Desensitization and counter conditioning are the most commonly used techniques when treating reactivity and fears in our dogs. Within our Reactive urbanK9 program, we also combine this with counter commanding to work at truly changing the dog's behaviour vs just stopping it.
This is the gradual exposure to whatever may trigger a reactive or fearful response. Within a treatment plan, we present this trigger to a dog below threshold, which is at a level that does not cause the dog to react or try to flee. They may still show signs of stress, but they can focus on you and will still take the food.
For example, let's say we are working with a dog that reacts by barking and lunging when he sees people while he is on leash. We would set this up by having a dog on leash and having a person come within sight at a distance that the dogs is not reacting. Using desensitization, we would gradually decrease the distance to this person as long as the dog is comfortable.
It is important to create a list of steps of the easiest to the most difficult interactions with the trigger for your dog. In this example it may be the distance to the people then if they are standing or moving. And you may work first with known people, then female strangers, then males and then children.
Dogs learn through association; one event predicts another event and the dog develops a response to the first event. This may be that your dog begins to wag his tail and wiggle with excitement when he sees you get out his leash. Or like our example above, he barks and lunges when he sees another person while on leash. Counter conditioning is the process in which we change a dog's association to a specific trigger.
For our dog in the above example, he currently associates the presence of a person with a negative and responds by barking and lunging. He does this to scare the person and learns that this often works as he can make the scary person go away. Counter conditioning changes the emotional response which is a powerful tool. Through using desensitization and counterconditioning, we will work at teaching the dog that new people mean good things to him.
We do this by keeping the person at a distance that the dog is not reacting or trying to flee. When the dog sees the other person, we provide the dog with a food reward. This is going to be repeated until your dog is eagerly anticipating the food reward whenever a new person comes into sight. The distance to the person will slowly be decreased, and then you will work through men and then children. During the foundation training, if your dog reacts, it means we have moved ahead too quickly, so need to increase the distance. No good comes of rehearsing your dog's reactivity or fear and it can even make it worse.
A critical part of modifying a dog's behaviour concerns is to show them what to do instead. In our example, a dog responds to the sight of a person by barking and lunging. We want them to instead look to us (auto watch) and eventually enjoy interactions with people. We must always be working the dog below threshold so that they can still think and perform the auto watch. In our example, we would have a person come into sight, our dog would look to us, and receive a food reward. This involves desensitization (gradual exposure), counter conditioning (the dog receives a food reward which creates a happy emotional response) and counter commanding (the dog looks to us instead of reacting).
Changing the Behaviour vs Just Stopping It
Punishment will stop a behaviour from happening if it is aversive enough to the dog. Not only is there a risk at worsening a behaviour from punishment, it does not modify the behaviour. In our example, if our dog received a collar correction or was pinned every time he reacted at a person, he may stop reacting. However, we have likely made his negative association to people even worse and we are not showing him what to do instead. By following the steps outlined in our urbanK9 program and using the above techniques, you will teach your dog what to do instead, all while ensuring you change their emotional response. This is what is needed to truly change behaviour and create long lasting, reliable responses from our dogs.
Do you want to help your dog work through their fear and/or reactivity concerns? Check out our Reactive urbank9 program page to find out how to get started!