Did you ever wonder why your dog is friendly when he is off-leash, but growls, barks and lunges when he is walking on-leash in the street? Or your dog starts off friendly and then becomes aggressive as soon as you pull him away. In many cases, the difference or change in behavior can be attributed to a condition called, “leash-induced aggression” and falls under the category of barrier frustration. Dogs housed in kennels can also exhibit a similar condition, called “cage aggression.” Some dogs will throw themselves at the cage door, bark, and behave as if they are the most aggressive beasts on the planet until you open the kennel door and remove the barrier. Then, the barking stops and friendly social greeting behavior ensues. Many times, perfectly good shelter dogs scare potential adopters away because of the negative effect a barrier has on a dog’s behavior. Can you relate to frustration, especially when prevented from your object of desire?
Many people believe their dogs are aggressive on the leash because they bark and pull when they see another dog (or a person). In many cases, this behavior is a consequence of excitement and frustration, not aggression. Dogs are naturally sociable and inquisitive, especially when they are young. They desperately want to investigate everything in their environment, and when they are prevented in doing so they become frustrated, so they bark. Unfortunately, this frustration can lead to aggression over time especially when the dog experiences pain when pulling on the leash. Common choke collars are one of the major offenders because as they tighten around the dog’s neck, they actually choke the dog and cause severe discomfort and pain. With sufficient exposure and repetition to this experience the dog learns that the sight of a person or another dog, while on leash, is associated with pain, and in these cases frustration can lead to aggression.
There are several ways to prevent your dog from developing leash-induced aggression, and modify the behavior if he already shows the signs. The first precautionary measure is to allow your dog some leeway, allow him to investigate his surroundings and meet friendly people and dogs during on-leash walks. You want these experiences to be positive, so be cautious about whom he meets. Puppy socialization classes are an excellent way to start this integrative process. Another way is to encourage passersby to TOSS treats (you supply) to your dog, if petting is too close for comfort.
Second, use walking equipment that controls pulling behavior but does not pain your dog. There is an excellent variety of training equipment on the market, such as head halters and no pull chest harnesses. They are designed to fit around the dog’s muzzle or chest rather than the dog’s neck, and offer more control than neck collars with less force and pain. Thirdly, have realistic expectations. It is usually unrealistic to expect your dog to always walk right by your side. A show dog’s performance in the ring is usually associated with the treat the handler has in his hand, pocket, or even in their mouth. If you do not want your dog to pull, make it worth his while to attend to you rather than everything else in the environment. A good way to do this is to carry tasty treats with you, and offer your dog a treat every time he looks at you or comes to your side. Once you establish this behavior you can offer your dog a treat intermittently to maintain the behavior. This helps with recall behavior, and can be used to “call” your dog away instead of pulling him away when engaged in greeting behavior. This type of training will help reduce the chances of him behaving aggressively during dog-dog interaction.
If your dog is already set in his ways, implement the procedure called counter conditioning to change your dog’s current conditioned emotional response while he is on the leash. (Be wary of any trainer that still uses a choke chain and correction only-it is an antiquated training tool). Briefly, the goal of the procedure is to change your dog’s association of passersby from pain or frustration to pleasure and desired. You want your dog to make a new association and to anticipate something good when he sees a dog (or person). People say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, well that holds true for many dogs too. In most cases, it’s best to use a soft long treats that can be nibbled as your dog walks, and offered only during on-leash walks. Carry these treats with you, and each time you see a dog (or person) approaching, grab a treat and stick it in front of your dog’s nose, enticing him to move along while nibbling the food. Keep moving and feeding as the dog (or person) walks by. Remove the food as soon as the dog or person is no longer in sight.
Cage aggression is treated in a similar manner by simply tossing a treat in the cage every time you pass by. Counter conditioning training should encourage your dog to like approaching passersby. If your dog will not take the treat because he is too aroused, increase your distance from the trigger (i.e. passerby), and only with repetition and calm behavior, decrease the distance. That is what is referred to as Desensitization. I treat each dog as an individual, so naturally there is a good deal of variability between dogs, their behavior and their responses to the treatment. However, just as we would probably not go to work if we were not being paid, we need to remember that our dogs also need a good pay-off for changing their ways.