Thursday, November 1, 2018

Leash Aggression Prevention

A Proactive Approach to Preventing & Reversing Leash Aggression in Dogs

Leash aggression is something every dog owner should be aware of. Many dogs are prone to developing leash aggression, oftentimes arising innocently enough but then quickly developing into a full-blown problem.
Leash aggression occurs when your otherwise friendly dog becomes reactive when he or she is placed on a leash. Leash aggression is a symptom, so it's important to treat it at the root rather than trying to correct the behaviors themselves. Common behaviors include lunging, growling and barking, and sometimes even biting.

Treating the problem starts with you, the owner. Ignoring leash aggression or punishing it will only make this problem much worse. Your best plan of action is to arm yourself with the proper knowledge and execute good training tactics from the beginning.
To start, let's discuss why leash aggression develops; why do otherwise perfectly good dogs sometimes become a nightmare on walks and other outings?


Puppies normally don't start out leash reactive, and that's because aggression develops out of repeated exposure to negative and intimidating experiences that cause fear and anxiety. While dogs who are naturally more anxious or territorial tend to be more prone to being reactive, puppies who aren't socialized or trained properly frequently also develop leash aggression later in life.
What starts out as innocent puppy play such as nudging or licking ultimately stops being tolerated by older dogs. Just as we'll forgive a noisy newborn but will scowl at a screaming toddler in public, older dogs eventually expect good behaviors from dogs.
When young puppies grow up with older dogs, they learn good manners naturally. However, in households where puppies aren't consistently taught acceptable behaviors, such as not lunging at dogs they don't know, they neglect to grow out of those bad habits and ultimately are met with annoyed aggression from other dogs.

While the owner of the friendly dog who "just wants to play" might instinctively blame a reacting dog for his or her aggression, it's important to realize that it's the friendly dog without control over his behavior who initiated trouble.
This important realization won't only help you to avoid aggression from other dogs, it will also ensure your friendly and playful pup doesn't himself become leash aggressive.

By saving your otherwise friendly dog from repeated exposure to stressful situations in which other dogs react negatively, you'll be able to avoid turning the leash into a source of anxiety. The more your friendly (and unknowingly "bad") dog meets an aggressor while out on walks, the more likely he will be to begin to associate his walks with fear and negativity.
Letting this continue will eventually create a negative feedback loop that will evolve and become more severe if it's allowed to continue.

If you have a puppy, off-leash play with other dogs will teach your puppy his manners, letting him know what is acceptable behavior and what is not.


When dogs meet naturally in their own environment, they will greet one another by approaching at a slight arc. Dogs will sniff one another for a few seconds and then generally move on to something else; they'll walk away or perhaps try and initiate play. But as you walk your dog around the neighborhood, that natural meeting pattern is replaced with a head-on confrontation instead. Since this approach can be associated with aggression, simply meeting a dog in the street can become a great source of anxiety for some dogs. This is particularly true for dogs who are naturally more insecure or anxious.
In some cases, walking your dog can result in a head-on approach that lasts for minutes, depending on how long the street is and the speed at which both dogs are walking. Such a prolonged unnatural way of meeting can make even a calm dog reactive.

Because most owners tend to tense up, jerk the leash or change the tone of their voice at the first sign
of aggression, a small problem can quickly snowball into something severe. An anxious dog exhibiting distance-increasing behaviors may start out simply changing his body language, but soon he's growling, barking or lunging because that first sign of inappropriate behavior was never properly addressed.
But don't give up; even if you're dealing with a dog you've come to dread walking, there's still plenty of hope. With the right amount of dedication and persistence, you can undo even deeply ingrained habits.

To change your dog's behavior, it helps to think of his actions as a feedback loop. Your dog's reaction to other dogs, people or cars, strollers etc begins with a cue: seeing the thing that causes anxiety. Once the cue has occurred, your dog is ready to spring into action. He'll perform a behavior that he's learned will get him a reward. In this case, the behavior refers to his barking or lunging, and his reward is that the other dog eventually goes away.

When reprogramming your dog's behavior loop, you'll almost certainly not be able to remove the cue. Even if you completely isolate your dog at home, he'll invariably be exposed to something that makes him anxious. What you can change is your dog's behavior. To do this, you'll first need to become aware of the cue, immediately as it happens.
This can be a difficult step for many dog owners, because it requires you to pay close attention for the duration of your walk. Distractions such as glancing at your phone or even just daydreaming can cause you to miss important cues, taking away your training opportunities.

If you have a dog who's progressed to a point where you feel out of control while walking him, we strongly recommend you begin your training at home, away from other dogs or anxiety-inducing objects or noises. As you progress, you can begin to introduce short walks and extend them over a period of time to help your dog advance. If at any point you feel like your dog is not advancing or taking steps backward, you've probably introduced too much too soon. It takes time to undo learned behaviors, so don't rush this process.

In order to create a new habit for how your dog responds to cues that normally make him anxious on a leash, we'll be using high-value treats. Treats work for almost any dog, but if you happen to notice your dog responds more positively to a toy rather than a treat, use a toy instead.
High-value treats are anything that will motivate your dog to perform an action to claim his reward. Training treats are a great option, but bits of a hamburger patty or a hot dog are generally a favorite as well.

We'll be using our high-value treats to redirect your dog's attention to you once a cue occurs. For some dogs, the cue is seeing the dog a block away. For others, the cue occurs when the dog is 10 feet away. This process it time sensitive, however, we promise that once you really begin to focus on the walk and your surroundings, it'll become second nature for you to recognize even your dog's smallest shifts in body language.
The goal is to get the treat to him after the cue but before he has the time to react.

We recommend using a harness that gives you easy control of your dog. Try a no-pull harness that clips in the front as well as the back. Avoid collars, particularly those that add other stressors to the mix, such as choking or pinching.

Once your dog notices a cue, such as a dog or a stranger, it's time to create the redirection. Using only your voice (no jerking or pulling), see if you can get your dog to look at you. The second he does, treat him. This method not only redirects your dog's focus, it also teaches him that the things he fears actually have a positive correlation.
If your dog can't be redirected, the value of your treat may just not be high enough. However, it's also possible that too much is simply happening too soon; avoid heavily trafficked areas and streets that are narrow or closed to keep your dog from feeling trapped. If your dog doesn't respond to you even in calm environments, practice redirection at home when he is already relaxed.

Using a verbal cue such as "look at me" is a great way to train your dog to focus in your direction even when you are not carrying treats with you. Practice "look at me" at home the way you'd practice "sit". Start in a quiet room where there are no distractions. Keep training sessions short, as they are mentally taxing.

When teaching your dog new behaviors, trust is key. Many people have a difficult time breaking the negative feedback loop because they themselves are anxious and take preventative measures such as tightening the leash or forcing the dog to sit or lie down as the "threat" passes. While this is understandable, it's important to realize that just as your dog has formed bad habits based on specific triggers, so have you.
In order for the process of retraining your dog to truly work, you also have to change your own habits. Tensing the leash, aggressive talking or forcing your dog to submit to what he perceives as a threat might make you feel more in control, but these things actually only reinforce your dog's anxiety. Most likely, he will try even harder to keep other dogs away to avoid such trauma.
Trusting yourself and your dog will help you to create a calm environment in which positive training is possible.
Again, if you cannot relax while walking your dog on your regular route, simply choose a more quiet place and continually reinforce "look at me" in the comfort of your own home.

Dog training takes time, but the results are hugely rewarding. Remember that your dog's aggression is the result of fear and insecurity, and these are feelings you can change by giving him the tools to be more calm and confident.
Start small and don't push your dog farther than he's ready to go. Under no circumstances should you punish your dog for failing and becoming reactive; rather, be proactive in your training and take responsibility for each step in the process.

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