It’s hard to enjoy a walk in the park, when we know our beloved companion can suddenly turn into Cujo at the first sight of a strange dog or a jogger. Not only do we have to face the challenge of holding onto the lunging and barking beast, but we also have to put up with the shame of the event. If that wasn’t enough, owning and taking out such a dog raises legitimate concerns for the safety of those we encounter. Walks can quickly turn into a succession of adrenaline rushes for both our canine and ourselves, making it increasingly more difficult to go out. It’s easy to see how frustrated or desperate owners of such dogs can feel like the only way out of this embarrassing and sometimes dangerous predicament, is to surrender the dog. There are options however. Once we understand some of the underlying factors, with planned management and training sessions, we can help our pooch relax. While we’re quick to label many of the dog’s behaviors as aggressive, most dogs are simply reactive, in other words, they overreact to certain stimuli in the environment. Left untreated however, reactivity can lead to aggression. In this article, we won’t cover all the different categories of canine reactivity, as the subject is vast, but will mainly focus on the dogs’ emotional reactions when on leash, and how to manage and treat them.
Hyper-excitability, barking, whining, lunging, pacing, panting hyper-vigilance, difficulty calming down or responding to their guarding are all different expressions of the dog’s emotional state when in presence of the object of their anxiety or frustration. Many of the signs listed above would not qualify as ‘aggressive’ but will often develop into more problematic behaviors. If left untreated, even the mildest reaction may evolve into a full display of lunging, snarling and barking. Sometimes, the frustration of being on a leash will also lead to such behaviors. While trying to inhibit the unruly display, the guardian might unwillingly teach the dog that ‘bad things happen’, such as yelling or leash popping, when in presence or people or dogs. With repetitions, the frustration can turn to reactivity or aggression. It’s often best to stay calm or even adopt the Jolly Routine coupled with redirection and rewards, to immediately abort the dog’s reaction.
It doesn’t matter how assertive the dog may seem. At the core of the reaction, lies stress, anxiety or fear. Genetics, poor socialization, hormones, neurophysiological makeup as well as experience can all be factors leading to such emotions. Friendly little puppies can evolve into reactive adolescents. Other times, even older well-behaved dogs can develop such behaviors when circumstances join together to create the ‘perfect storm’. In every situation, whether we understand it or not, somehow, the dog has developed the perception that the object of their reaction is a potential threat. In many cases, the reactivity is also related to being on leash. If let loose many reactive dogs would not display such energetic outbursts so we have to be careful when labeling a dog aggressive. Sometimes however, the reactivity can develop into real aggression with intent to harm what is perceived as a threat.
At the first sign of reactivity, many guardians will try to interrupt and inhibit the behavior. Saying ‘no’, yelling at the dog, yanking the leash or even ‘alpha rolling’ are typical ways that guardians often use to ‘tame’ the wild beast at the end of their leash (Herron & al., 2009). It makes sense doesn’t it? Punish the unacceptable behavior so the dog will stop doing it. Unfortunately, as we’ll see, this type of correction might stop the behavior in the moment, but the long-term effects can be devastating and actually increase the problem.
When dealing with reactivity, there is no quick fix. I see advertizing for 24 hour or ‘minute’ fixes all over the Internet. Treating emotional reactions takes time as we’re literally working on creating new neural connections. We might be able to temporarily inhibit a behavior with the use of strong punishers, like a shock collar. So with just a few repetitions, the dog may go from reactive to prostrated, looking calm and passive even in the presence of the trigger. But such treatments are likely to backfire. Treating stress and anxiety with aversives only reinforces the connection between the scary person or dog and the unpleasant experience. For lasting results, we need to help the dog feel safe, not increase the level of danger.
So what can we do?
For any treatment to be successful, it’s important to make changes in the dog’s environment so we can limit and control the dog’s exposure to the trigger (person or dog). It’s important to prevent the dog from experiencing the emotional episodes outside of the treatment protocol.
- Remove any opportunities in the house for the dog to experience the outburst of emotions. Close the blinds, cover glass doors and put visual barriers if necessary to prevent the dog from being able to patrol windows, doors or fence. The dog should be crated or kept indoors and away from the windows when left unattended. If the dog reacts to people, the dog should be crated when visitors first come in the house.
- Find walking areas where you won’t be encountering other people or dogs. Here again, we want to provide the dog with exposure and physical exercise while avoiding exposing the dog to the trigger, outside of planned training times.
- Look for ways to provide your dog with mental stimulation. Rotating toys, feeding from food-dispensing devices, like Kongs products, the Tug-a-Jug or the Pet Tutor®, provide the dog with puzzles, like the Buster Cube. Spend a few minutes every day training your dog, even if it’s just simple tricks.
- Look for equipment that will provide you with better control. Since dogs are very sensitive to our emotions, staying calm when out on a walk will be a critical part of the process. It’s therefore important to make sure that you feel in control even if the worst of situations was to present itself. A head halter like the Halti or Gentle Leader or a no-pull harness like the Easy Walk can make a significant difference in our ability to maintain our composure. Choke chains, prong collars, extension leashes and pull harnesses should be avoided as pain and discomfort will again, increase the dog’s aversion to the situation.
- Away from distractions and chances of unfortunate encounters with a person or dog, practice teaching the dog to look at you (eye contact), ‘sit’, ‘down’ and walking without pulling on a leash. Working with a local trainer or find a tutorial DVD (clicker training) that will cover those behaviors can make a big difference in our chance of success.
Once you feel that you can effectively keep your dog on a loose leash, have taught to dog to pay better attention to you and feel in control, it’s time to work on the treatment protocol. During the entire process, for best results, it’s important to stay as calm as possible so the dog can also stay calm. Many times the problem has been exacerbated by our own reaction of pulling on the leash and yelling in an attempt to regain control of the situation. Our own reactions need to be closely monitored so we can help our dog associate those stress-generating situations with more positive experiences.
- Find a park with plenty of dogs and people and determine at what distance your dog starts showing a reaction. You’ll want to find a place where you stay sub-threshold, in other words, where the dog can see the people or dogs, but can still respond to the simple cues you have taught him/her and stay relatively calm. Anytime the dog looks at the trigger (person and/or dog), click then give him/her a treat (for more details see the ‘Look at That’ game (LAT) by Leslie McDevitt).
- After a few repetitions, you should notice that your dog looks at the trigger, then looks at you expecting a treat. At that point, you can start clicking and treating your dog for looking away from the trigger and paying attention to you.
- Once the pattern: looking at the trigger – looking at you, is consistent, it’s time to move to the next step. You can move a little closer to the trigger while still staying right under threshold. When the dog looks back at you, click, treat and walk away a few steps (Behavior Adjustment Treatment (BAT) by Griesha Stewart). You can also wait for any sign of relaxation, like a sit, a down, a head turn or a sniff to the ground and walk away with a lose leash and a happy but calm demeanor. After a few seconds you’ll go back in position and wait for the next dog or person to walk by and repeat the sequence.
- Change will occur through repetition. You should gradually be able to decrease the distance to the trigger(s). The pace at which you’ll be able to make progress is dictated by the dog’s ability to relax at every step.
With careful and deliberate exposure to the trigger(s), most cases of reactivity or even aggression can be greatly reduced and often treated completely. Again, just like therapy in humans, there is no quick fix when dealing with an animal’s emotions. Depending on the level of severity, it can take from a few days, to a few weeks or even several months to see any significant change. There are also times where the best we could do is manage the situation the best we can, limiting the dog’s exposure to whatever may trigger a reaction. With cases of severe aggression, any success will depend on how committed the guardian is to follow through with the treatment and how much risk they are willing to take given that any accident is ultimately their responsibility. Even small changes can make a world of difference.
We’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg here as it would take a book to really get a full picture of our canine reactivity and/or aggressive behaviors. For more tips and guidelines, you can also read the following posts:
- Dominance and pack leadership in dogs – Controversial and still misunderstood
- Social referencing: we influence how our dog sees the world
- New study sheds light on serious to fatal dog bites
- 10 effective ways to help our dogs feel safe
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.