Lunging at other dogs on leash

Dog greeting on a walk

It can be difficult for a dog to give a polite greeting when he’s on a leash, which can add to any existing anxiety. Polite greetings normally don’t involve being face-to-face.

While a leash is a smart (and necessary!) tool for the dog’s safety, it can also contribute to some dogs’ anxiety when they see something they are afraid of and we don’t stop their reaction in time.

Some fear skateboarders, other dogs or just the passing squirrel. The tough thing is, as soon as that dog starts lunging at said object, the leash tightens and we send him a message: “Be afraid!”

Oy ve.

This particular issue has raised its ugly head again for me in the last few days so I thought I’d share my experience. Hopefully in a few weeks I’ll be able to share my progress!

My Jack Russell cross Pug, Neo, was involved in a nasty fight the other day in the dog park. Now he associates any strange dog with the notion that they may be trying to kill him (no matter how sweet they look!).

Just taking him out to potty last night, for example, he saw a dog across the street and before I could even think to act, off he went into Nuttyville — that horrible strangling, snarly growl and bark that made my neighbor shake his head at me as if I have been training my dog to attack sweet, innocent puppies.

So what to do?

Desensitizing and conditioning

Desensitizing your dog to the object he fears is very effective, but takes time. Sometimes, like with my dog, you have to do it more than once in his lifetime if something triggers it again. This conditioning method focuses on very gradually exposing a dog to the object or animal he fears and teach him that good things, rather than scary or painful things, always happen around that object or animal.

First things, first

If you can, exercise him before you start the session. I promise you it makes a HUGE difference when your dog is tired.

Keep your sessions brief and meaningful

Each training session should be about 10 minutes.

Gather a highly desirable treat or toy (really anything that your dog loves) and keep the reward on you at all times when you’re out walking. If he’s clicker trained, even better.It’s good to reserve the special treat only for this purpose – so he starts to associates the really exciting treat with the previously feared object.

Take your dog somewhere that you know the feared object will be. If he’s afraid of other dogs, take him somewhere you know other dogs will be walking on leash. Start off at a great distance from the other dog. If you see a dog twenty feet away and your dog’s ears prick up and he stands up stiffly, you know that’s beyond his threshold and it’s important not to let him get any closer than that for  now.

Get your dog’s attention (ideally before that threshold) with the treats and treat him as the dog passes. As soon as the feared thing is out of sight, stop treating.

Baby steps

Start each session at the same level of exposure you ended in your last session. If he’s back to showing signs of alertness it’s OK, just keep repeating the gentle exposure with treats. Stay at that level as long as it takes for your dog to handle it well, which means he’s relaxed and not worried.

Try to end each session on a positive note, like when he is in a relaxed and calm state of mind.

When you think he’s ready and is in a calm state of mind, move a little closer the next time.

Keep calm and neutral

Don’t get upset at your dog if he starts barking. This will probably happen as you work out his threshold and will just be part of the process.  He needs you to be the leader — calm and in control. If you get upset, yell, hit, or drag him, he’ll think you are afraid and he will want to take control of the situation.

Instead, stay completely neutral and try again later when he’s in a better state of mind.

Don’t nurture the fear

A common mistake, especially for small dog owners, is to pick up the dog or to pet or coo at her to calm her down when she’s reacting. This nurtures the fear and tells the dog she’s being a good girl for being afraid. And, you guessed it, it will just make it worse.

Our dog walkers can help

Gusto Dogs dog walking logo Austin, Texas

Gusto Dogs is experienced in working with dogs who have leash-reactivity issues and would be happy to help incorporate this important training into our walks with your dog. Using consistent messages and methods, we can help you and your dog manage and overcome on-leash lunging. Contact us for a free meet-and-greet. Gusto Dogs services Steiner Ranch, Riverplace, Lakeway, Hudson Bend, Apache Shores, downtown Austin. 78732, 78730, 78734, 78701.

Once the fear has subsided

This could take months, by the way, so don’t get discouraged. Once the fear has subsided maintain the sessions a few times a month just to make sure the fear doesn’t return. It will help build your relationship with your dog and reinforce your status as his leader.

Neo’s progress

Right now we are just on day one, so it’s slow-going. I’ve noticed he is much more sensitive to sounds, even at home when I’m watching television (like The Dog Whisperer!). I’ve even started treating while the TV is on if there are dogs barking.

Today we took a long walk and each time we saw another dog, I held out a piece of his breakfast and kept his attention on me until the dog passed. Partway through the walk he chased a tennis ball to blow off any extra steam, and on the way back (when he was good and tired), I let him just a little bit closer to passing dogs while still keeping his attention on me and his breakfast.

So far, so good.

Neo has come through his fear of other dogs in the past with great success, so I know he can do it again this time. It can be an embarrassing, frustrating process so sticking to a training plan gives me confidence, which rubs off on him.

Update: April 4, 2012

Neo has made great progress! We had a couple of hiccups here and there but for the most part he has responded really well.

In addition to treating and refocusing when we saw other dogs, I also set up mock situations with balanced dogs so Neo could practice walking past them and then walking in a pack together. It helped tremendously to reinforce positive associations with other dogs.

I also learned from an Austin Pets Alive dog reactivity training that whenever a dog sees something that makes him uncomfortable and demonstrates calming signals (sniffing, yawning, arching or turning his head, for example), the action deserves praise and you should respect that he needs space from that object for now. This is a healthy response and should never be punished or it could make things worse.

Gusto Dogs can work with your reactive dog in this way while we’re out on our walks, but if you have a very reactive dog and feel you could use an extra hand, contact a professional trainer or behaviorist. We know a few good ones in Austin so give us a call and we’ll put you in touch!

Stop your dog from barking or lunging at other dogs

Neo with his best friend and Gusto Dogs client, Bentley.


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About Kristen West

Kristen started Gusto Dogs in Austin after running a pet sitting and walking business for two years in Sydney, Australia. After discovering that the dogs benefited much more from incorporating enrichment into their daily walks, Kristen decided to make it a part of every Gusto dog walk with the aim to provide a more fulfilling experience for Austin's dogs and their owners.