You haven't met Brody yet. He is a very sweet 5 1/2 year old Havanese who has an unfortunate habit of reacting (boldly and loudly) to other dogs when he is on a leash. He's a good example of how one or two incidents can dramatically impact a dog - Brody has been attacked by another dog and has now taken on the attitude of "I'm gonna get you before you can get me!"
On leash reactivity is a frustrating problem for many owners. Their dog, who might be fine when meeting other dogs in a different situation, will turn into a little furry lunatic when faced with the scary prospect of seeing something that might hurt them (strange dog) when they are trapped, unable to escape (leash).
Scared is an important part of the equation to remember. To some owners it can be very difficult to imagine that their dog is acting out of fear. The other dog may be posing no real threat, but reality is in the eye of the beholder. When your dog initiates the altercation, barking and carrying on in a "Come on, you want a piece of me?!!? Bark! Bark! Growl. I'll kick your butt!!! Bark! Bark!" fashion, how could he be afraid? The answer, we think, is that the dog is acting in a manner that he believes will scare off the other dog, thus avoiding an actual fight.
In many cases, without realising it, we are allowing this flawed presumption to be reinforced. Any time the other dog leaves when your dog is reacting (even if they were just heading in the other direction any way), your dog gets to think, "Hey, all that carrying on worked! I didn't get attacked and the other dog is leaving. I guess I'll try that next time too."
So what do you do to prevent this very embarrassing and highly stressful situation from reoccurring every time you cross paths with another dog? I do suggest getting professional help, as this can be a potentially dangerous situation, and your dog is showing pretty clearly that all is not right with their world. But here are a few things you can do to keep things under control until a trainer gets you working on a specific behavior modification plan.
- Don't add more negative to an already scary situation. It's likely that your dog is truly afraid and isn't displaying this unruly behavior just to irk you (dogs may poop on your rug or chew up your new shoes, but they are not capable of being vindictive - that charming trait is reserved for homo sapiens). Correcting or punishing your dog only makes things worse, even if it appears to have a positive effect in the beginning. Leash popping, poking, "psst'ing" or "alpha rolling" are unacceptable responses and are more likely to get you bit than they are to solve the problem. Just because it's on TV doesn't make it true.
- Don't reinforce the behavior either. Rewarding your dog, either intentionally or unintentionally gives your dog positive feedback for a reaction we don't want to continue. Stroking him and "reassuring" him with "it's okay puppy, you're alright, you're my good boy" acts as reinforcement. In addition, the more you fuss over the situation the more likely you are to send the message to your dog that something really is wrong - look how worked up Mom is getting!
- Stay below your dog's threshold whenever possible. Threshold is a complex thing, but it's more or less the point at which your dog feels the need to react. Going above your dog's threshold means he'll probably start barking, growling, lunging or exhibiting other "bad" behavior. Threshold is not a static thing - it can be influenced by distance, intensity, size, gender, direction and many other factors. Keeping your dog below threshold may simply be a matter of crossing the street when you see another dog approaching or walking your dog at a time of day that isn't as busy.
- Turn and walk the other way. Remember the part about your dog thinking that his behavior chased the other dog away? While it probably won't solve your dog's issues alone, it doesn't hurt to try to have your dog "leave" rather than letting him feel that all the barking and ugly behavior caused the other dog to go away. If your dog does go over threshold and reacts to a dog he sees, do your best to get him turned around so you are the one that walks away.
Ethan and Brody