A leash aggressive dog can be rehabilitated so that walks are manageable and enjoyable. In my previous post, How Dogs Learn to be Leash Aggressive, I described the dynamics between Dean and his dog, Rover, as Rover learns to be leash aggressive. To rehabilitate Rover, the associations he has with the sight of other dogs needs to change. Right now other dogs mean pain because Rover starts barking at the other dogs to get them to stay away so that Dean won’t jerk him around on his pinch collar. But it’s Catch-22 for Rover because that barking is what gets Dean started with the jerking.
Avoiding the Adrenaline Surge
If you’ve ever been in a near accident while driving you know what your dog is going through. Let’s say you almost get in an accident at a stop sign you pass every morning on your way to work. Your adrenaline surges and you may even start shaking. The following day when you stop at the sign, you remember your near accident and are extra cautious, but remembering also makes your adrenaline surge again.
That high level of adrenaline stays in your system for about a week. Only time and exercise decrease it. The same goes for Rover. If you were having near accidents every other day, your adrenaline level would be high all the time and it would take very little to make them surge. You’d be on a hair trigger and driving would be an emotional nightmare for you. Welcome to the world of a leash aggressive dog.
Let’s Break Down what Dean Does to Change This
1 – Changes Equipment
He hangs up the pinch collar (or choke collar) and leaves it there to collect dust.
He switches to a regular flat buckle collar, or a harness. Putting the pinch collar on Rover was the first in a series of actions for Rover that predicted pain at the sight of other dogs, so it is important to make a break from this past pattern and for Dean to help Rover be aware of it. Switching to a harness or a brightly colored flat buckle collar is a good way to do this.
2 – Changes His Behavior
Dean has a happy voice he talks to Rover with when he’s relaxed and in a good mood, like in the evenings when the house is quiet and he’s snacking on cheese after dinner. It’s him and Rover in the kitchen, eating cheese and being boys. It is this voice that Dean now uses with Rover on their walks together, not the stern and threatening tone that accompanied the pinch collar.
In the past when Dean would see another dog, he’d cinch up on Rover’s leash, getting it tight and ready to jerk Rover’s pinch collar. He’d get tense and his body would stiffen up. These were cues to Rover that pain was coming and it was time to start barking.
Now when Dean sees other dogs, he keeps the leash slack, keeps his body language relaxed, and uses his happy voice when speaking to Rover. He leads by example and behaves in the way that he wants Rover to behave, calm and easy going.
3 – Practices Groundwork
At home in the yard, without a leash, Dean and Rover practice sit-stays and walking together. Dean gets Rover to walk next to him by talking to him, then stops and asks for a short sit-stay, rewards with a treat, then releases him and they move on. They repeat this several times frequently throughout the week.
This teaches Rover the behaviors Dean wants from him out on walks. They’re simply practicing without distractions so the behavior patterns get imprinted on Rover.
4 – Practices in Controlled Situations – Open Bar/Closed Bar
Dean’s goal during practice is to help Rover learn to associate the sight of another dog with getting a treat. One way he does this is by having a friend with a dog stand around the corner of a building out of sight while he and Rover stand far enough away that Rover won’t react negatively to the sight of the other dog when it appears. He wants to be just beyond the distance that sets Rover off.
Next, Dean’s friend and his dog walk out from behind the corner of the building a few feet, do a 180 turn and walk back out of sight. While this happens, Dean points out the other dog to Rover using his happy voice and feeds him treats for as long as Rover can see the other dog. When the other dog moves out of sight, the treats stop. This is sometimes referred to as Open Bar/Closed Bar.
The treats Dean uses are some of Rover’s favorites, not boring dry biscuits that he could pave his driveway with.
These sessions don’t last long, maybe ten minutes. It’s best to err on the safe side when it comes to distance and be too far away than too close. It also takes a good number of these sessions to have a lasting impression on the dog. Rover didn’t learn over night to be leash aggressive, so it is like changing a moving average. It takes time and patience.
After a number of sessions with one dog, Rover becomes acclimated to it and a different dog needs to be used.
5 – What He Does During Neighborhood Walks
When starting rehabilitation, Dean avoids encountering other dogs on walks, but if he does, he moves up a driveway to get some distance from the other dog and then repeats what he’s been practicing with his friend and his dog coming around the corner of the building. Using his happy voice, he points out the other dog to Rover and feeds him treats for as long as it takes the other dog to pass by. When the other dog is gone, they continue on their walk.
If Rover does start barking, Dean touches a treat to Rover’s nose and tries to get his focus back on the food. Dean may get stressed, but he doesn’t show it by cinching up on the leash and using a threatening tone of voice. He keeps the leash loose, uses his happy voice and continues to offer the treats.
Don’t Be Embarrassed to Get Help
I hate to say it, but reactive dogs are pretty common. If you have one you’re not alone. There are plenty of positive method trainers out there who can help you. Here in Portland, Oregon, the local Oregon Humane Society offers a Reactive Rover class that walks people through the methods for rehabilitating Rover. I have also found that plenty of other dog owners are willing to help when asked.
Take your time and learn the physical signs your dog shows when beginning to get stressed so that you can head things off before a full blown outburst. There are several good books on canine body language and how to interpret it. That’s also a good topic for a later post.