How Dogs Learn to be Leash Aggressive

dog training Portland - leash aggressionMany people teach their dogs to act aggressively toward other dogs while on leash without even knowing it. They start with an energetic dog eager to greet other dogs while out walking the neighborhood and over time end up with a dog that barks and growls at approaching dogs a block or more away. The end results are a dog that gets shorter walks and fewer of them, acts progressively more unmanageable, and an owner who is not only frustrated but riddled with guilt over the state of their relationship with their dog.

How does this happen?

Using hypothetical dog, Rover, let’s break down the process of a dog learning to act aggressively on leash.

Rover is a year old male Lab mix adopted from the Humane Society by a young couple, Dean and Tracy, to join their young family. They have two children, one is two years old and the other four.

One – How It Starts

Tracy, pushing a stroller with her two year old in it, and with her four year old at her side, takes Rover for a walk. Dogs are social creatures. They see others of their kind and naturally want to go say hello. Being a young, exuberant Lab mix, Rover comes on strong when greeting other dogs. His social skills are poorly developed and he crowds the other dogs, causing them to growl or bark at him.

Encountering other dogs is difficult and because of Rover’s exuberant greetings,  dealing with their owners is awkward. Soon Tracy is avoiding encounters with other dogs altogether. With the kids and the dog, it’s just too much to handle.

Two – Avoidance

If Rover wasn’t already pulling on his leash during his walks, he is now when he sees other dogs. Since Tracy avoids other dogs, Rover’s desire to greet them grows and he becomes even more excitable on the leash. Now just walking him, along with the two kids, becomes difficult for Tracy. It’s a lot less stressful, easier and safer to leave him at home while Tracy and the kids go out, and so she starts leaving him at home or in the car.

Three – The Doomed Alpha Approach

Walking Rover becomes Dean’s responsibility and like most males, Dean sees Rover’s behavior on leash as a problem that needs to be fixed and the way to do that is by asserting his will over Rover. Rover just needs to be told properly to behave.

Dean takes Rover for a walk. He’s promised Tracy he’ll sort this out and now his ego is involved. Rover sees another dog down the block and starts pulling and bouncing at the end of the leash.

Dean starts shouting “No,” at him and jerking Rover around on his leash. None of this gets Dean what he wants and leads to more frustration for him and Rover.

Four – Locking in Aggression with the pain of the Pinch Collar

Dean doubles down with asserting his will by purchasing a pinch collar. Now when Rover gets excited at seeing another of his own species, Dean jerks his pinch collar, causing a painful choking sensation around Rover’s neck.

Dean’s jerks on Rover’s pinch collar are a response to Rover’s exuberance, but Rover’s exuberance is a response to seeing other dogs and wanting to greet them. So what Rover learns from this is that the sight of other dogs is a predictor of Dean causing him pain. This lesson is reinforced again and again every time they encounter another dog.

Sometimes at this point a dog like Rover learns to be quiet when approaching another dog and an owner like Dean interprets this as improvement, but Rover is just being quiet to avoid the pain from the pinch and inside he is just as tense as before if not more so because he’s anticipating Dean to at any moment start jerking him around on his pinch collar.

At this stage, Rover is a powder keg about to blow and Dean is carrying lit Zippos in both hands. Dean and Rover approach an oncoming dog on the sidewalk. Dean has cinched up on Rover’s leash, getting ready, but Rover remains quiet though his body language stiffens. When they come to the other dog, some sniffing begins and Dean tells Rover what a good boy he is, but he says it in a tone that sounds more like a threat, and Rover knows that the pain will start any second now. He growls at the other dog to get away, and Dean starts jerking his pinch and shouting, then the other dog joins in the mêlée. Adrenaline surges in all involved and acrimony sets in.

The end results are more futile punishment for Rover and no more encounters with others of his own species, and an owner who is learning to dislike his own dog.

Five – The Process is Complete

Now when Rover sees other dogs, he starts growling and barking at them, hoping to warn them off so Dean won’t choke him. The barking and growling at the other dog starts from a few feet away, but soon Rover is growling and barking at other dogs that are farther and farther away until he’s growling at them on sight.

It’s at this point that taking Rover for a walk is a real challenge and Dean falls back on walking him at odd hours when they’re less likely to encounter other dogs, and even these walks become fewer. Dean feels like he’s failed, feels bad for punishing Rover on their walks, and hates how everything has turned out. The situation is nothing like the happy dog they brought home in the beginning to join their family.

But There Is Hope. Rehabilitation Is Possible.

Oftentimes Rover would find himself back at the Human Society, written off by Dean and Tracy as a dog that was wired wrong, but there are solutions and ways to rehabilitate dogs like Rover. I will go over some of these in my next post, Leash Aggression – Part Two – Rehabilitating the Leash Aggressive Dog.

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11 thoughts on “How Dogs Learn to be Leash Aggressive”

  1. I have 4 dogs: 3 lab-ish and an AmStaff puppy. For the most part they are all good leash walkers (and listeners) with the youngest and the alpha most prone to wanting to visit with other dogs while walking. When I’m walking with my husband and we each have two dogs, it’s a bit easier to control the greeting, but when I have all 4 I am apt to tell them all to keep walking or break into a trot to keep them focused on the walk part. What else can I do?

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  2. We have two Beagles who haven’t got an aggressive bone in their body but they are extremely social and want to say hello to all the dogs they meet. This means that when they are on the leash and get a scent or sight of another dog, they pull and sometimes bark/howl until they get to say hi. Any suggestions?

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  3. Excellent description of a sad scenario which happens all too often. Many leash-aggressive dogs start out as frustrated greeters. Proper socialization during the critical first 13 weeks of a puppy’s life is important, but many people do not realize that the socialization must continue. Dogs are social creatures and most dogs enjoy and would benefit from interacting with other dogs through play dates, dog parks or doggie day camps.

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  4. My Golden Retriever Yogi – 3 1/2 – used to be a good walker and greeter of other dogs. When our other Golden Sazi became ill I would avoid other dogs on our walks as Sazi was weakened and I didnt want her upset. I realized later this sent a message to Yogi I didnt intend and Yogi – became aggressive towards other dogs while walking. My solution to avoid the situation you described above, is to put Yogi in a sit when I see a dog coming, I have trained her to know “watch” which is to look me in the eye and pay attention and wait for instruction. While she is in a “watch” I stroke her neck and head and tell her she is a good girl. So the other dog passes by with no problems, and she is wagging and happy to be a good girl. Every few dogs I don’t do a watch to see if she is calming down about it, and she is. But some dogs sill set her off. Do you think this a a good positive reinforcement that will eventually lead to her being calm passing other dogs?

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    1. As long as she is giving you the behavior you want while you are petting her, tail wagging in a relaxed way and happy face, it sounds good. Some people think that patting their dog and talking to it in a soothing voice while it is growling at another dog is a way of calming their dog down, when I’ve a hunch their dog is interpreting it as praise for their growling and they should do some more of it.

      Keep at it and have patience. You can never have enough of this kind of groundwork. When you do eventually stop to greet another dog, you might want to set it up beforehand with a dog you already know. Ease into the greetings. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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      1. Thanks! Yes she is focused on me and not responding to the dog at all. I don’t let her look around at the dog, but only at me. Good point, I will do that with a pre-
        arranged play date!

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