Training: Dog Leash Manners

Training or rehabilitating  a leash-aggressive dog is a process that’s easy in summary – you teach your dog that good things happen when he sees other dogs and remains calm – but complex in the details.

My wonderful boxer Sumner was not so wonderful for a long time. He wasn’t socialized during his first year before we brought him home, which manifested in a dog who thought that every being he encountered during a walk was out to get him. He had that typical mix of fear and bluster that leash-aggressive dogs display, hindquarters trembling while he barked like a rabid guard dog.

Leash TrainingIt took time and patience to break through his explosive displays during our leash walks. I used a clicker to efficiently mark when Sumner was behaving appropriately, meaning if he saw a dog at a distance and did anything other than freak out, I’d click him and follow up with a high-value treat. In time, he learned that if he shifted his focus from the passing dog to me, he’d get rewarded. Simple, right?

The challenge was that walks in the real world are unpredictable. You might turn a corner and end up face to face with another dog, thereby negating any chance to click/treat for good behavior. You might think that your dog is making tremendous progress and allow him to sniff a bum, only to have him go into attack mode. Not so simple.

I created a reminder list for my clients dealing with leash aggression in an attempt to address some of the not-so-simple elements of training.

  • Be prepared to work with your dog EVERY time you step out the door, which means have your clicker, treats, and positive attitude.  Your dog is always learning, make sure all of his lessons are positive ones.
  • Relax!  Your dog can sense when you’re stressed, so make sure to remain calm and upbeat when a person or dog comes into view.  Don’t tighten up the leash or holler “No!”
  • Begin “jolly talk” as soon as a person or dog appears on the horizon. It will feel silly, but it’ll help calm both you and your dog.  It’s difficult to feel stressed while singing “look at funny doggie!”  Your dog will sense your ease and in time, will respond to it.
  • Learn to recognize your dog’s “comfort zone” (the distance at which a person or dog isn’t as scary…could be one block, could be one mile).  Every dog has one; once a person passes into that zone and your dog begins to react, it will be difficult to get your dog calm again. Learn to recognize your dog’s comfort zone by observing his body language and reactions. Head, ear, and tail position are the most obvious indicators of emotional states.
  • Don’t be stingy with treats! As SOON as you see something on the horizon, begin giving your dog very high-value treats. It might feel as though you’re rewarding your dog for inappropriate behavior, but that’s not the case.  We’re working to change the association your dog has with “scary” things.  Soon your dog will see a formerly scary passer-by and think “cookie time!”
  • If your dog isn’t responding to your treats, you’re probably too close to the source of stress (or you’re using a very boring treat!)  Your dog must remain “below threshold”, meaning, able to eat treats and focus on you, in order to make progress.
  • Watch for “overload.”  Don’t push your dog too hard – if you see that he’s uncomfortable or he’s refusing treats, wrap up your training. This type of counter-conditioning takes time and patience. Recognize your dog’s limits, have faith in him and celebrate his small victories!