Imagine the following scenario. You’re happily walking your dog. He’s trotting beside you, sniffing everything he possibly can. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and everything seems perfect! Suddenly, your dog sees Mr. Hairy Pawtter, the front neighbor’s Poodle. His body becomes tense and he immediately starts barking like a maniac. You tell him to be quiet, but it’s useless; he’s now lunging and growling. As you try to walk away, feeling embarrassed and angry, people stare at you, judging your misbehaved, unruly dog. As soon as Mr. Hairy Pawtter is out of sight, your dog returns to his sniffing duties. Why does he have to hate other dogs? Why does he have to act like he wants to kill them all?
Leash reactivity can be a complex behavior. First, we need to make the distinction between aggression and reactivity. Although it may seem like aggressive behavior, it’s simply an expression of frustration (or fear, depending on the cases). Leash reactivity usually starts when the dog sees another dog and has a strong desire to approach him; since he’s unable to do so, he becomes frustrated. As a result, the dog starts whining, pulling on the leash and may even bark at the other dog. The owner feels embarrassed and punishes the dog. After a few repetitions, the dog wishes to avoid other dogs at all costs, since he gets punished every time he sees one! Frustration has evolved into fear. At this point, the dog wants to get away from other dogs, but he feels trapped by the leash; henceforth, he may try to bite. This is the Flight or Fight response in action! Once you remove the leash from the equation, the reactive behavior vanishes, and the dog may even act very friendly and sociable.
Should you throw your dog’s leash away, then? Well, not at all. Leash reactivity is trainable, and you can improve your dog’s behavior by changing his emotional state. If you choose to treat the symptoms only, you’ll probably fail; one must address the root to be successful. First, remember never to punish your dog by barking, lunging or growling; it will only create more fear and frustration. If your dog is reacting because he’s frustrated for not being able to play with the other dogs, teach him self-control skills, by rewarding calm behaviors. If he sees another dog, ask him to sit or to look at you instead. If he does, even if it’s just for a second, reward him with high-value treats or his favorite toy. Increase the behavior’s duration, by rewarding him for longer periods of time. On the other hand, if he’s reacting because he’s scared of the other dog’s presence, you need to work with classical conditioning techniques only. As soon as your dog sees the other, offer him a steady flow of high-value treats. Keep doing so until the other dog leaves your dog’s sight, even if he’s acting hysterically. After enough repetitions, he’ll start to associate other dogs with treats and, as a result, the reactivity will decrease.