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Freak on a Leash

By Barbara Smith CPDT-KA, Owner- The Thinking K9, LLC

What is Leash Reactivity?
Leash Reactivity occurs when a dog becomes frustrated on a leash. By definition, frustration is: “the prevention of the progress, success, or fulfillment of something.” When a dog feels restricted from what they desire most, they get frustrated, which turns into in agitation, and is expressed by outbursts. These outbursts often include pulling on the leash, lunging, barking, and growling. Outbursts are most commonly directed towards other dogs, but they can also be directed at people. Behavior resulting from Leash Reactivity is often interpreted as aggression, however, most leash reactive dogs aren’t aggressive at all– or at least they don’t start off that way. Aggression can evolve from Leash Reactivity, if it is left untreated.

What causes Leash Reactivity?
When people see leash reactive dogs, they sometimes assume that something bad happened to them in the past, to make them that way. Sometimes this is the case, but we can usually look even deeper than that– what caused the bad thing to happen in the first place? Our answer often lies in a combination of the things outlined below.

Social Butterflies
A majority of leash reactive dogs are, or started out as, social butterflies. Social Butterflies have spent a lot of time at dog parks, daycares, and other social meeting grounds. They have great social skills– off leash. These dogs have grown accustomed to always being able to play with other dogs whenever they see them. The problem, however, is that they quickly learn that the leash takes away their freedom to play like they always have before, which results in frustration and then escalates to leash reactivity. Moreover, the entire situation causes confusion for the dog, because their owner has always let them play with all or most dogs they have seen before and they don’t understand why they can’t play now. This confusion compounds their frustration, which leads to agitation and more outbursts. If you choose to allow your dog to socialize with other dogs, you must be clear about when it is appropriate, and when it is not. This will require extra training. Alternatively, some people have a “friends and family” socialization policy, which is a good middle ground between highly-social and antisocial. Their dogs are allowed to socialize, but only with dogs from their owner’s close friends and family. When an owner is clear and consistent, these dogs can easily learn which dogs they can socialize with and which they can’t– making it less confusing for them and less frustrating (making training a lot easier too). This has the extra benefit of minimizing the spread of disease (which is prevalent at areas that have dense dog population, like dog parks) and it helps decrease the risk of fights because the dog is only allowed to play with other dogs that the owner knows have good manners. You never know what you’re going to run into at the dog park and what bad habits your dog will pick up.

Canine Body Language
Canine body language plays a large role in leash reactivity issues. To get a better understanding of this, we must first look at how dogs normally greet each other without the leash. When 2 off-leash dogs greet each other, they arc their body, approach the other dog from the side, don’t make eye contact, and perform a “getting to know you” style dance of going in circles while sniffing each other’s genital region. These are appeasement behaviors which may signal to the other dog that they are friendly and mean no harm. A leash, however, makes it nearly impossible for dogs to exchange proper greetings through their body language. Even worse, the leash forces the dog into positions which signal to the other dog that they want to fight, even when that isn’t their intention. When dogs meet on leash, they are usually pulling their owner along, which results in completely different body movement including face-to-face greetings with eye contact, a stiff body, head up high (towering over the other dog), and their chest pushed out. These are all “fighting words” in dog body language. Dogs should never, ever, be allowed to meet on leash due to the fact that the leash itself causes dogs to give off the wrong signals, resulting in a much higher likelihood that a fight to break out.

Leashes are a trap!
Quite literally, leashes trap dogs by impeding their movement. When a dog feels fear (often as a result of miscommunication, such as getting the wrong body signals from a leashed dog), they only have 2 options; Fight or Flight. The leash, however, removes their ability to flee the situation (aka their “flight” response). Even the friendliest dog has no other choice than to fight. At the same time, dogs know that a fight will result in getting hurt themselves, whether they win or lose. They will go to great lengths to avoid the risks of fighting, therefore they will do everything possible to deter dogs from approaching them in the first place (such as growling, barking, lunging, and making themselves look big). Outbursts due to feeling trapped are a scare tactic, done for self-preservation.

Misreading the situation
Even with the best of intentions, owners often misread their dog’s communication signals. We can’t blame them; Humans don’t speak Dog. We’ve all seen it happen; The owner that allows their leashed dog (let’s call him “Social Dog”) to run up on another dog (let’s call him “Surprised Dog”). All the while they are exclaiming “My dog’s friendly!” We’ve already learned how leashes cause miscommunication among dogs and how this exact situation can go bad really fast. However, the owner thinks their dog is being “friendly” and “playing” by rushing up to the other dog face-to-face (with eye contact), bumping into the other dog, towering over them (because the leash is pulling the dog upward), and being overly excited. They have completely missed the fact that this behavior isn’t friendly to the other dog, it’s rude, and sometimes scary, especially to a shy dog!

Dogs have their own social order. Adult dogs will tolerate the poor social skills of puppies, which is why fewer puppies get bit for poor communication skills. However, once puppies reach 5-6 months old (give or take depending on the breed), dogs begin “disciplining” other dogs with poor communications skills. This is where Surprised Dog “disciplines” Social Dog with a growl or, sometimes, a bite. In many cases, the owner of Social Dog thinks that Surprised Dog is the one that started the fight because he bit first, when that’s not the case at all! While Social Dog didn’t have bad intent he WAS being rude in dog language, the humans simply missed the warning signs, therefore Surprised Dog had no other choice that to take matters into his own hands (or teeth). It really wasn’t Surprised Dog’s fault at all.

Unfortunately, now Social Dog has learned that some dogs bite, which is scary and leads us to a vicious circle of “Once bitten, twice shy.”

Once bitten, twice shy
Up until now we’ve explored a variety of ways that leash reactivity has evolved from good intentions. Unfortunately at this point, things have gotten serious. Our previously social dog is frightened of other dogs because he was “disciplined” by the other dog for his poor, though perhaps unintentional, social behavior. Now the previous social butterfly has turned into Cujo on a leash by barking, growling, pulling, and lunging at other dogs. Cujo is still frustrated that his leash is holding him back, but he no longer wants to go toward other dogs to play, he wants to put on the best show he can in an effort to keep the other dogs away so that he doesn’t get bit again! Now we are back to Fight or Flight.

The circle continues when another “Social Butterfly” comes running up to Cujo (previously a social butterfly himself), because his owner thinks “He’s friendly and wants to play!” just like Cujo’s owner did. The new “friendly” dog has the same poor body language that Cujo had when he was disciplined by Surprised Dog– but now this interaction ends in Cujo doing the discipline.

Preventing Leash Aggression

    • 1) Never allow your dog to greet other dogs on leash. No exceptions!
    • 2) Don’t use the leash to hold your dog back (causing frustration). Instead, use other positive training techniques to help keep your dogs engaged and by your side without using the leash to restrict movement. The leash should be there for safety, not manipulation. Positive training techniques can be learned at a good obedience class.
    • 3) Teach a solid Focus command, such as “Watch-me.” It is physically impossible for a dog to lunge and bark at other dogs when they are focused only on you.
    • 4) Be your dog’s advocate! Do not allow another dog run up on your dog. If someone asks if their dog can play with yours, it’s okay to say no. You can even tell them that your dog is in training.
    • 5) If you choose to socialize your dog with other dogs (off leash), you must be extra diligent when teaching your dog proper leash skills.
    • 6) Never “correct” your dog for growling when they are uncomfortable. Punishing a dog when they are upset will increase their anxiety and make matters worse. Growling is a dog’s cry for help. If they are punished for “asking” for help, they will skip right over growling and directly to biting without warning. Punishment may suppress the growl, but it will not eliminate the bite! On the contrary, dogs that are punished for growling are quicker to bite! If your dog growls, see #7.
    • 7) If your dog shows any signs of discomfort (hesitation, stiffness, ears back, tail between the legs, growling, etc.), be their advocate. Distract your dog and redirect their attention while leaving the situation so your dog doesn’t think their only option is to fight. Never force a dog to be in an uncomfortable situation to “deal with it.” Forced interaction only increases fear.

Dealing with Leash Aggression after it’s started

    • 1) It goes without saying that Leash Greetings should never happen with Leash Reactive dogs, but that’s the first step.
    • 2) While it can be difficult when you have a reactive dog, don’t panic. If an owner panics, the dog is likely to as well.
    • 3) Manage your environment really well, so that your dog doesn’t get a chance to blow up at other dogs. One blowup will set you back. If a dog unexpectedly shows up, distract your dog (use a happy voice “Fido, what’s over there?!”) and briskly walk in the other direction.
    • 4) You don’t have the ability to manage the environment outside of your home, therefore you must be prepared if you need to take your dog somewhere. ALWAYS carry extremely high value treats such as cooked chicken, hotdog, or other high value human food (dog treats will not work in a highly distractible environment!). If you find yourself in a situation where you can’t avoid another dog, get those high value treats out and give your dog treats in quick succession while you hightail it out of there!
    • 5) Teach a solid Focus command. Start in your living room, then slowly move to environments with more distractions. If your dog blows up, it just tells you that you went too far too fast. Go back a step in the process.
    • 6) While this outline can point you in the right direction, it is not all-inclusive. A qualified private trainer with positive training techniques is an asset when rehabilitating leash reactive dogs. A good trainer can help you learn to read your dog even better than you already do, as well as give you a systematic approach that is catered specifically for your dog’s needs.