Leash reactivity is the most common challenge that urban dog owners face every day. The dog sees another dog, his whole body stiffens and hair stands up in his neck, he starts barking and then comes the lunging on the leash that pulls the owner’s arm out of its socket and in the worst case the human end of the leash loses balance completely. The logical human reaction is to yank the leash as hard as possible and start yelling at the dog. After all, it is infuriating and socially embarrassing to have a misbehaving dog. So from now on every time the dog sees another dog and starts barking, the owner starts shushing and repeating ‘quiet Fido quiet’. Is this the way to change the dog’s behavior? Lets examine this a little bit.
Recently my partner, who has learned an awful lot about dog behavior just listening to me babble, pointed out how he saw a dog who started barking aggressively at another dog when the owner said ‘quiet’. Was the owner aware of having the barking very nicely on cue? Probably not. The dog had learned that ‘quiet’ means barking as the word was always repeated when he was barking at other dogs. In the same way, if there is always pain in the dog’s neck from a tight leash when he sees another dog, the pain becomes associated with seeing dogs, and soon just the tight leash will trigger the aggression behavior. Imagine if you are afraid of spiders, for example, and every time you see a spider, someone strangles you at the same time. The strangling will hardly make you less afraid of the spider, quite the opposite, in fact.
So what to do instead? Break the pattern of human instinctive behavior! Just as we can associate the fear causing stimulus of seeing another dog with yelling and a tight leash, we can associate it with something pleasant. If a spider means I get $50 dollars every time I see one that most likely will change my feelings sooner or later. What is the tastiest food for your dog that makes his eyes roll over? Liver, meat balls, chicken breast, filet mignon? If you pair that heavenly treat with the sight of the neighbor’s big black scary dog, your dog will learn that the other dog means Good Things Happening. Gradually you can start asking your dog to do an alternative behaviors instead.