I have heard many concerned owners over the last few months say that they are reluctant to walk their dogs because they either pull too hard on the leash or lunge and bark at other dogs or people. “I just want to walk in peace” or “I don’t take Fluffy for a walk anymore because it is just too much work” are some of the comments I commonly hear from pet owners. The end result is that the owner and the pet no longer go for walks, which negatively impacts both of them. But can something be done? Is it too late to teach an adult dog walking manners?
There are many things that can be done to teach both the owner and dog how to walk together in harmony. The first thing is to consider the type of leash that you are using. Retractable leashes do not give the owner any control over their dog’s movement and can be very dangerous if the dog decides to quickly run out in front of a car. Headcollar leashes such as the gentle leader allow the owner good control by decreasing the dog’s ability to pull and can also help calm dogs. A harness that allows the leash to attach on the chest instead of the back, such as the easy walk harness, also decreases the dog’s pulling while walking and helps redirect his attention toward you.
The second thing to consider is that when your dog pulls and lunges on the leash when it sees another dog or person and you pull back or tighten the leash it may increase rather than decrease aggressive or anxious behavior. By performing this type of negative leash correction you are telling your dog that they should be on guard and respond aggressively as you are too. Also petting and soothing your dog when it is anxious or showing aggression when walking is telling them it is okay to act that way as you are comforting them.
The third key point to consider is to walk at locations or time of day when dogs or people will not be encountered, such as early in the morning or midday. This might not be feasible due to some pet owner’s schedules but is definitely something to consider, especially during the training period. The training or behavior modification for your pet should focus on three areas: a learned approach for leaving potential aggressive situations, changing the meaning of the approach of other dogs or people to something positive by using treats, and using a desensitization method to the dog or person.
The first thing to consider before you start training is what food rewards will your dog work for best or what treats your dog would do anything for. One of the pitfalls of training is not using the right or highly valued treat for your dog; these treats are then reserved training sessions only. Three basic commands should be taught to your do: “sit,” “watch me” (where your dog looks and focuses on your eyes), and “turn around,” where the dog turns around 180 degrees to go in the opposite direction or cross the street. Using a target fist with the treat inside a closed fist will help guide these commands for your dog to follow, such as pointing the target fist to your eyes for “watch me.” These commands should be first taught and mastered inside the home without any distractions, then outside in the backyard, and then during walks when the dog can perform them reliably and quickly without distractions. Each training session at most should only last 5-10 minutes as with anything longer your dog will begin to loose focus. Noncompliance to commands is not rewarded; do not yell or force your dog into commands. Also try to end each training session on a positive note.
After your dog has mastered these commands, you can start walking in public. When other dogs or people are seen at a distance where your dog only watches but without anxiety or aggression, quickly give the “sit” and “watch me” command and begin to feed your dog the highly valued treat. As the dog or person gets closer and your dog’s focus begins to decrease, use the “turn around” command and leave the situation. With a lot of training and treats, your dog will begin to associate something negative (other dogs/people) with something positive or will be so focused on you that it will not notice the other dog or person. The key to the commands is asking your dog to perform them before it experiences anxiety or aggression as then it’s too late for your dog to focus and obey the commands.
The last thing is the desensitization exercises, which are the most time consuming. This involves exposing your dog to the other dog or person at a distance that no anxious or aggressive behavior is provoked. This nonanxious or nonaggressive behavior is rewarded with the highly valued treat. Then gradually increase the level of the stimulus, which means decreasing the distance between the dogs as long as no negative behaviors are seen. The key to this training is being very gradual so as to stay below the threshold that would result in anxiety or aggression, such as only moving a couple feet closer at a time. Try first using familiar dogs or people then other unfamiliar dogs or people. Also have realistic expectation:, these dogs that have anxiety or aggression on the leash will probably not become the social butterflies of dogs and may not be able to greet other dogs on a leash, but should be able to walk without pulling or lunging.
If you have any further questions or any other behavior concerns, please contact the clinic to schedule a behavior consult with Dr. Laxen.
Reference: Horwitz, Debra F. and Neilson, Jacqueline C., Blackwell’s Five-Minute Veterinary Consult Clinical Companion, Canine and Feline Behavior. Blackwell Publishing 2007