Playing Nice Stopping Your Dog’s Aggression toward Other Dogs
by Joan Harris | May 01, 2010
Every spring, Chicago’s lakefront and parks turn into a huge playground and dog owners look forward to spending time with their canine companions taking longer walks and trips to the beach. This however, may not be the case for some owners who have a dog that behaves aggressively towards other dogs or people while walking on a leash or in the park. This behavior can take the fun out of any outing resulting in the owner’s guilt and embarrassment and usually affects the quality of life of their dog.
If you are one of these frustrated dog owners, the good news is that help is available if you’re willing to put in the work. The first step is understanding the problem. ‘Leash aggression’ is the term that trainers use to describe a dog who behaves aggressively at the sight of another dog or passerby and is an extremely common problem. This unsocial display of lunging, barking and growling is usually caused by one of two factors. Sometimes the dog experienced a bad situation with another dog or person that triggers his survival instinct to ward off any approaches that could cause him harm. Most commonly, it is due to the frustration of being restrained from being able to approach or explore other dogs or people. Either way, the owner’s anxiety usually causes a tightening of the leash which increases the frustration and the habit is formed.
Once this habit is formed, the rush of adrenalin the dog experiences is apparently self-rewarding and the dog remains constantly alert for new encounters. If another dog returns the aggression, it is even more exciting. It can spread to a fixation on squirrels, other small animals and even children. Getting control of the problem usually involves going back to the basics of training, exercise and socialization. Remember, if a habit has been going on for a long time, it will take some time to change the behavior.
Enrolling in an obedience class can be a good starting point. A good obedience class will teach your dog to give you attention on command and to take direction from you while walking on a leash. These two skills will be practiced in the class in the presence of other dogs and distractions. Homework involves practicing these disciplines in several locations and settings. If the dog is extremely reactive or the handler is very nervous, it may be a good idea to start with an evaluation or a few private sessions first. Your trainer can instruct you on how to keep a loose lead in order to direct your dog without tension. He may also suggest the use of a tool, such as a head haltie, to help you gain control.
As you gain confidence, your dog will become assured that you are in control and will begin to relax while out in public. It is very helpful to give a reactive dog extra exercise to help relieve his frustrations. Long walks or jogging can be helpful as well as retrieving games that exercise the dog’s drive to chase moving objects. Agility classes provide a physical outlet as well as fostering teamwork between the dog and his handler.
Many dogs exhibit aggressive behavior due to lack of socialization or a bad experience during the socialization process. When this is the case, it is important to proceed slowly and to set your dog up for success. Start by finding a location where dogs frequently pass by and stay a good distance away. Bring a whole bunch of tasty treats that will keep your dog’s attention. When your dog spots another dog, pull out some of these tasty treats and feed them to your dog. You must practice this several times a week at this distance until you see your dog looking up at you for the treats whenever a dog is present. Gradually move closer until you can walk by a dog while feeding your dog. For some dogs, a favorite ball or tug toy can be used to replace the treats.
Most dog owners would love to have a dog that can play happily with all dogs at the park. Unfortunately, some dogs do not have the genetic make-up to do this as they mature into adulthood. Not all dogs are “dog park” dogs and therefore, prefer the company of humans or a dog they are familiar with from puppyhood. If you adopt a dog and have little or no information about the dogs past history, you will want to begin your socialization process one dog at a time. Pick a dog who has been highly socialized and is confident and good natured. You may want to keep all your dog’s play dates to small groups or just one compatible dog until you feel comfortable. In the beginning, keep toys, rawhides and food bowls out of the area. These items can cause dogs to become possessive. If at any time you begin to feel uncomfortable or you see an unhealthy pattern developing, consult a dog behavior specialist before continuing your socialization process.
Remember that changing your dog’s behavior is a slow process that can’t be rushed. Every time you allow your dog to exhibit an aggressive response, you are reinforcing a bad habit. Work at a distance that your dog can handle and provide him with successful experiences. Don’t make excuses for his problems and do seek the help of a professional. Aggression problems don’t go away on their own and do get worse with time if left untreated. Making an investment of time and patience will give you many enjoyable experiences in the future with your dog.