Leash Aggression: What It Is and How to Address It

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You have probably seen dogs who go nuts at the end of the leash when encountering other dogs, lunging and barking. Your own dog may even do this, even though she’s calm and friendly meeting dogs off-leash. What is going on? This is called leash aggression, and it’s fairly common.

First of all, let’s be clear: it’s important to follow leash laws because they keep our dogs safe. Even the best trained dog may chase a squirrel or approach a nervous stranger if you don’t have the additional control of the leash. So don’t be tempted to forgo the leash to reduce aggression issues.

Leash aggression occurs because dogs feel restricted in their movements by the leash. Proper doggy etiquette is to approach from the side with neutral body language, but dogs who express leash aggression believe – rightly or wrongly – that they won’t be able to do this, which makes them nervous, and they then overreact to the other dog. In some cases, a dog may also misinterpret the body language of the other dog as confrontational, if they must approach each other face to face.

Training can help, but it takes some work because leash aggression is somewhat self-rewarding, meaning that the behavior itself provides some reward to the dog. The most effective method is to teach an incompatible behavior, typically sitting.

Begin by practicing sitting on your walks even when there is no other dog about. Periodically call your dog to you and have him sit for a short time, then reward and release him. This way, he won’t be surprised when you start asking him to sit in the presence of other dogs.

As soon as you spot another dog approaching, call your dog to you and have him sit. He’ll be too wired up the first few times to do so – don’t be angry, don’t raise your voice, and don’t punish him. Just keep at it, and when he sits, reward him right away – you might only have a second or two to do so at first, so be sure to capture the behavior with a reward. Eventually, he will catch on and start to sit whenever he sees another dog.

For some dogs, training just isn’t effective. In that case, you will need to depend on management. Walk your dog in areas where you are unlikely to encounter other dogs. If you do see another dog coming, take a detour or turn around and head the other way.

Leash aggression can be embarrassing, especially if your dog is otherwise well-behaved. Now that you know a little more about the causes, you can work with your dog to help her overcome the thought patterns that lead to it. That will make walking a more pleasant experience for both of you.

NR Tomasheski is a dog trainer who spent seven years as co-owner of a canine daycare, boarding, and grooming facility in Sherman Oaks, California. She has competed with her own dogs in agility, obedience, and rally.

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