Ask the Trainer: On-Leash Aggression

Jennifer Boznos CPDT-ka
Call of the Wild School for Dogs

Q: When walking my dog on-leash he barks and lunges when he sees other dogs, acting as if he wants to kill them! Yet at the dog park, off-leash, he plays fine with other dogs. What is going on?

A: Having dogs interact for the first time while on leash is probably the worst way for them to meet. Just like people, not all dogs want to say “hi” or feel like being social all the time.

Many people do not mentally and physically exercise their dogs adequately, and use leash walks as a way to exercise and provide social stimulation for their dogs. In general, leash walks do not provide enough exercise for dogs. In fact, most dogs end up being frustrated while on a leash walk.

If a highly aroused dog spots another dog on a walk, he may drag his human over to the other dog or drop down to the ground (sometimes interpreted as a submissive gesture, when in fact it is very predatory). Either way, Dog A is approaching Dog B with frontally aligned body gestures—coming straight at the other dog with weight balanced forward as he strains on the leash—ears up and head and chest leaning towards the other dog. Dog B either returns the same body language which results in an explosive interaction or Dog B is bracing and tense because he in fact does not like getting pounced on.

When these two dogs make contact, you have two highly aroused animals who are unfamiliar with each other and in close contact while on-leash, with no exit strategy. A couple of these encounters will classically condition your dog to go into an aroused state every time you pick up the leash.

When dogs are off-leash, they can drop their heads and convey “no trouble from me” to the other dog.  They can interact and leave at will. Their emotional state is calmer.

This issue is more complex than the scope of this answer—there are space issues and fear issues to consider, which also cause on-leash “aggression.”

The best practice is to mimic the guide dog model while we take our dogs on a leash walk. When a guide dog’s harness is on, he does not interact with environmental distractions. He understands that while he is working distractions are not available to him. When the harness is off, he can then engage with people and play. A working dog learns this through consistent messaging from his human.

Try this with your dog. When another dog approaches, ask him to “sit” away from the sidewalk, out of the way of the other dog. The sit posture is not threatening to the other dog, and is incompatible with an aroused emotional state.

This signals to the other human-dog pair that we do not want a “puppy party” at this moment. It allows them to pass easily, avoiding the emotionally charged dog-to-dog encounter which occurs on-leash.

AskTheTrainerImageAbout the Trainer: Jennifer Boznos has been teaching behavior modification since she founded Call of the Wild School for Dogs in 1992. In addition to teaching group classes and private lessons, she is the lead trainer of COTW’s program—which includes the Intensive Training Experience (ITE)—and she created its unique daycare program. Boznos holds the title of CPDT-KA (Certified Professional Dog Trainers—Knowledge Assessed) and has been certified as a Master Trainer in Chris Bach’s The Third Way. She is also a professional member of Association of Pet Dog Trainers.

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