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A Tale of Leash Aggression (AKA Leash Reactivity)
Many people will recognize themselves and their dogs in this tale.
You are walking your Husky down the street. You are hoping and praying that you do not meet another dog on your walk. But unfortunately, before long, you can see another dog and its owner are walking down the street and headed toward you and your dog. Your heart jumps into your throat and you begin to feel the panic rise in your stomach. You begin to gather up the slack in the leash by winding the excess length around your hand and wrist until your dog’s leash is very short and very tight. You remember vividly the many other encounters in the past that your Husky has acted out when another leashed dog has walked by you.
Your dog’s behaviour puzzles you because you know that when he is not on a leash, he is capable of playing and interacting with other dogs without turning into Cujo. You know this because you have seen it with your own eyes. So why then does this behaviour only seem to happen when he is on leash?
Finally, the other dog and owner have now reached your location. You brace yourself against your dog’s pull and lunge by pulling back hard against the leash, pulling your dog backward and trying to get distance between you and the other dog. By now, your Husky is giving his best performance of Psycho Dog; snarling, growling, barking, pulling, lunging, and if his teeth could connect … biting. It is all you can do to keep your Husky from dragging you over to the other dog. You yell out some random cues to your dog in an attempt to get the dog under control but your Husky is in such an over excited state that he cannot hear you and he is not about to comply with your commands.
You tussle and wrestle with your dog, dodging his snapping jaws as he now tries to bite at the hands that are restraining him (those would be YOUR hands). You sheepishly mumble your apologies to the passing owner. The owner tries not to make eye contact with you and he tries to move his dog away from yours as quickly as possible. If you are very lucky and the other dog was not fearful or unstable, then you only had to deal with your dog acting out. If the other dog had his own issues now both owners are trying to regain control of their out of control dogs.
Does this describe the situation and your Husky? What on earth is happening and why does it only seem to happen when your dog is leashed? If this behaviour only happens when the dog is on leash then you are dealing with Leash Reactivity. If the behaviour also happens off leash then you are dealing with Generalized Reactivity most likely caused by fear, lac§k of socialization, or aggression.
Why Is My Dog Leash Aggressive?
- If a dog has had a traumatic experience in the past with another dog and they were never helped by their owners to feel differently about it, now the very sight of another dog (Trigger) may set them off.
- If a dog was not socialized or improperly socialized as a puppy he may not know how to meet another dog. He reverts to fearful aggressive behaviours (lunging, snarling, growling, barking etc.) to drive off the other dog before they have a chance to “attack” him.
- Sometimes dogs have Leash Reactivity because they really like other dogs but never really get an opportunity to get to meet and hang out with them at any other time. Their over-excited pulling behaviours end up whipping them up into a such a frenzy that they just end up becoming one hot mess of over excited barking, pulling and that combines with the frustrated feeling of being restrained. The end result is a dog that looks like he is going to attack someone …. and they just might.
- Leashed dogs are in entirely the wrong position for polite, non threatening, non confrontational dog to dog meetings to take place. When dogs are leashed, both dogs are forced to meet while straining to pull forward, face to face, and nose to nose. In the dog world this is a very threatening and challenging type of dog greeting. If these dogs were meeting in a dog park where neither one of them was leashed, chances are they could approach each other in sweeping arc from the side ( much less confrontational and challenging) and they would probably opt for a nose to butt meeting. These kind of low key meetings do not tend to fan the flames of the tension and aggression. This is why many dogs can act appropriately when they are off leash but turn into a psychotic mess when they are leashed.
- The feeling of the tightening collars strangling the dog as it pulls and strains to go forward only adds more fuel to their heightening tensions.
- And finally, probably the most important contributing factor in Leash Reactivity is the owner giving unconscious and unintentional signals of fear, nervousness, uncertainty, and anxiety about the impending dog meeting. Inevitably the owner’s own body postures (stiff body, rising fear and anxiety, tightening up on the leash) help to create and perpetuate an endless cycle of reaction and growing Leash Reactivity.
An interesting note, in Schutzhund training (police dog, attack dog, and war dog training) the method used to work up the intensity of the dog’s drive before a dog is released for attack is to intentionally pull back against the already straining dog. The handlers intentionally keep the leash very tight and work to keep the dog from being able to access the target. Then when the dog’s intensity is been sufficiently raised, he is then finally released to attack and the dog explodes forward in heightened state of arousal. So when people are trying to hold their dogs back on a short leash causing their dogs to strain and pull forward, they are actually unwittingly creating more aggression and reactivity in their own dog just through this action.
Lowering Leash Reactivity
It took time, repeated occurrences, and unwitting choices for your dog’s Leash Reactivity to develop. As an owner when you know better, you can do better. Now that you understand the many ways that Leash Reactivity could be created and fostered in your dog, it is time to inventory your behaviours and habits to eliminate these contributing factors. Unless you choose different behaviours, your dog’s behaviours can not change.
How To Manage Leash Reactivity
1. Obedience train your dog. Practice, practice, practice those skills. And remember to practice those skills WITH distractions because the addition of a Trigger (another dog) is a very BIG distraction. The outcome that you are aiming for is for your dog to be trained so well that when issued the cues of LEAVE IT and WATCH ME, he will ignore the oncoming dog and instead will focus on you to get that yummy High Value treat.
It can be accomplished. Kaya was an extremely reactive young Husky. We practiced this drill EVERY DAY for over a year and a half before she became proficient at it. If you think that practicing that drill daily is too much work, I would ask you to consider how much work it is to try and contain a Leash Reactive dog during every walk you take. Obedience training takes a lot of work and dedication but it at least affords you an eventual solution to your problem. Opting to just manage Leash Reactivity means that the behaviours just continue without ever getting better and only worsen over time. So which activity, training or just trying to manage your dog’s behaviours, makes for the wiser investment of your time and energy?
2. Learn how to read your dog’s body language so that you can redirect your dog’s behaviours at the low arousal stage. By the time the dog is over the Reactivity Threshold (by being too close to the Trigger) you have already lost the battle. Your dog is so over aroused and hyper focussed on the oncoming dog that he cannot hear you much less think and act rationally. At this heightened state of arousal there is no way that you can redirect your dog using verbal cues. So watch your dog’s body language (lowering of the head, ears erect, hackles rising, tail erect, eyes fixed on the target, crouched into a stalking pose etc.) and redirect these behaviours the moment that you see any of tell tale signals that your dog is on his way to becoming over aroused.
3. Redirect the dog away from the approaching dog. As soon as you see the other dog approaching, look for someplace to remove your dog to that is well away from the path of the other dog. Make a 90 degree turn and remove your dog from the area to put as much distance between him and the other dog as you can. This distance allows you to remove your dog from being OVER the Reactivity Threshold to being UNDER the Reactivity Threshold. Redirection of behaviours cannot happen when your dog is OVER the Threshold. Once you remove your dog to a safer distance, redirect his behaviour using the LEAVE IT and WATCH ME cue. Work on holding your dog’s gaze and focus until the other dog has passed by.
4. Use the Desensitization and Counterconditioning techniques outlined in the article, How To Fix Reactive Behaviours In Huskies, to help you with lessening the reaction of your dog to the Trigger and to countercondition your dog’s behaviour.
5. Change the kind of collar that your dog wears on walks. If your leash is attached to a flat buckle collar, you have the least amount of physical control over your dog’s behaviours. Consider switching to a head halter or a Gentle leader so that you have more control over averting your dog’s gaze from the target. A no-pull harness would also give you more control over your pulling Husky than a flat buckle collar.
6. You may want to consider using a Basket muzzle on your dog to take away his option of biting while he is learning how to be non-reactive.
Lastly, and most importantly, be aware of your own body language and emotional state of mind. Remember to breathe, not tense up, and for heaven sakes loosen up the tension on the leash. Once you have moved the dog out of the path of the other dog, have your dog SIT and then immediately let up on the tension on the leash or you will be the contributing to the creation of your dog’s Reactivity.
I know that it can be hard to relax after the many bad experiences you had but dogs are very skilled at reading your body language and your emotions. But if you project fear and anxiety, your dog will pick up on that and will mirror that state of being back to you. You are helping to create an endless cycle between your reactivity and your dog’s reactivity. If you want your dog to feel differently about the approaching dog then you also have to learn to feel differently about the approaching dog.
Short Term and Long Term Plans
Change involves a process and processes take time. While your dog is in the process of changing, you will need to develop and implement both short term and long term strategies to handle your dog encounters.
In the short term, your objective is to avoid stressful encounters when ever possible and to remove your dog from the Trigger so he can remain Under the Reactivity Threshold. You may wish to keep a muzzle on your dog to take away his option to bite. In the short term you just want to keep you and your dog safe and the other owner and his dog safe during the encounter. These options only manage your dog’s behaviour but really do nothing to change them. For your dog’s behaviours to really change you have to train your dog to behave another way.
In the long term, you want to employ methods that not only address your dog’s immediate reactivity issues but to permanently remove the reasons for his ongoing Leash Reactivity. Training helps your dog think and behave differently when faced with stress. Training allows a dog to confidently confront whatever his causing him to be uncomfortable and to know how he is expected to react to the experience. There really is no short cut or substitute for Obedience training and solid dog handling skills.
As always we welcome your questions, comments and stories regarding this topic. When we share our stories we may well be helping someone who is currently struggling with their Snow Dog.
Helping ALL Snow Dogs …. one owner at a time.