By Lisa Benshoff, CPDT-KA, Talbot TTouch LLC, Easton
It’s very common for barking and lunging at other dogs (or certain people, noisy trucks, etc.) to be called aggression. But reactivity (the proper term) is almost always due to fear. Everyone can recognize fear in dogs who retreat, hide, shiver, and cower. “Aww,” we say, “he’s scared!” But the dog who reacts offensively is usually labeled aggressive even though he’s “really sweet at home!” or maybe even “fine” with other dogs off leash.
Many dogs have learned that the best defense is a good offense: a display that’s designed to drive the scary thing, the trigger, away. Because they have learned that this works, the behavior becomes a habit. And if the dog is truly panicked about the approaching dog (or kid on skateboard, or UPS truck, or . . . ), that barking, growling, and lunging behavior is completely normal.
An animal’s instinctive response to extreme fear is to freeze, flee, or fight.
When the handler tightens up on the leash, the dog’s option to flee is taken away. So that makes a fearful dog much more likely to respond defensively or offensively. Feeling trapped by the leash, this dog feels he has no choice but to fight—or look as if he will!
Worse, when the leash is clipped to the collar instead of a harness, strong pressure on the neck just adds to the dog’s stress, especially if he’s choking! This discomfort becomes associated with the dog’s triggers, which can only worsen the dog’s fear. Anticipation of that pressure—sometimes caused by the owner popping the leash—when he sees his trigger coming closer and closer, elevates the fear, which causes the behavior.
What should you do to help your dog in these situations?
Recognize that he is not actually aggressive, i.e., intending to do harm, but frightened into feeling he has no choice but to react that way. What he really wants is not to fight, but rather to put distance between himself and the trigger. (Many people like to think the dog is protecting them, but I believe in most cases, the dog is trying to protect himself.)
Put your dog in a well-designed harness that fits well, not tightly. My favorites are the Freedom No-Pull Harness and the Harness-Lead. Being comfortable can really help a dog relax, mentally and physically. And taking the pressure off the neck also helps to discourage pulling. Pulling throws the dog off balance, which makes a dog feel unsafe. And as we all know, pulling can quickly turn into lunging. Now the dog is extremely off balance, even off the ground, and this often prompts the handler to pull back. Both parties need to be in balance, with all feet on the ground, without pressure, in order to feel calmer, to be able to think and respond rationally.
Put some slack in the leash. Even a couple of inches is enough to maintain control of your dog without making him feel trapped and vulnerable. When your dog starts to pull, stop. Let him rebalance, so he can stand without leaning against the leash, then let out some leash before you proceed. Walking with a tight leash is like driving with the brakes on.
Teach your dog how to walk on a loose leash. This works much better when you reward him for NOT pulling, instead of punishing him for pulling.
Avoid your dog’s triggers by changing your route or changing direction. And then work on changing his emotional response to each thing that sets him off by associating them with anything he loves, such as super-special food. This effort must begin at a distance where your dog can look at his trigger without reacting, which varies a lot and depends on the individual. Behavior modification can be very successful when done correctly
Lisa serves on our Board and is instrumental in helping keep our animals happy!