This week I am hosting an “Ask Me Anything” on Yabbly.com. Ask me anything you want about dog training, dog care, living with dogs, choosing dogs, making things for dog, dog blogging, small business – it’s a wide open Q & A. So far I have had a number of questions on dog training and behavior, so I thought I’d share my answer to one of the great questions here on Training Tips Tuesday.

Ask me anything at Yabbly.com

Ask me anything at Yabbly.com

And I made this dog training video to support the AMA!

The question

I’ve got a 7 year old dog who is very well behaved despite a few nagging issues which she’s had since I adopted her from the shelter:

She’s got leash aggression towards other dogs. She tends to aggravate / try to dominate other dogs when we meet on a leash. She’s fine off leash, it’s just on the leash that she tends to have trouble. Any ideas for correcting this?

She tends to be pretty fearful of new people when they come over, and barks at them for a good 2-5 minutes. She’s a lot worse if they pay attention to her (eye contact, seeking attention from her, etc). She does best if someone just ignores her and let’s her sniff them out. Any ideas for fixing this?

My answer

Note: This response is a brief overview with some ideas at how to approach solutions. Leash frustration and aggression is a complicated issue, and I plan to post a much more thorough answer in an upcoming blog post. To deal with the issue, you first need to understand why your dog is frustrated, fearful, or if you’re dealing with true aggression – and often the best way to do so is to consult with a behaviorist who can work with you and your dog and come up with a plan.

First thing I’d do is sort out whether it’s leash frustration or real aggression. My guess, because she’s OK off-leash, is that it’s leash frustration. Often this starts as a lot of excitement to get at other dogs, and then sort of evolves into a negative response. There are a lot of ways to approach this one, so I’ll give you a few ideas to start off with.

The first thing you want to do is sort out her “threshold”. It’s a trainer-y rating system for how “aroused” your dog is (another common trainer-y term), and you want to make sure you work with her when she’s below-threshold. In a nutshell, below threshold means she still listens to you. That she can listen to you. A dog beyond threshold is operating more on auto-pilot, and making decisions out of fear. In a panic, or when really frustrated, your dog is in survival mode. So figure out what kind of scenario you need to be in for her to still listen to you, guaranteed, and that’s where you’ll start off on the leash work. You might figure out you need to be 10 feet away from another dog, or 100 feet. Then you’ll gradually get closer and closer.

So what to do then! Might depend on the extent of your problem, and also what is available to you.

Mort started off like this out of the shelter – he wanted to get at the other dogs so bad he was almost going over the top into a negative space. If your problem isn’t too bad, see if you can redirect to a treat or toy. You may need to really load that treat or toy on your own before these walks, so they’re a better reward than looking at another dog. And remember, you still need to work under threshold so you’re 20 feet away from the other dog, or crossed the street, or whatever. This ended up working so well for Mort that he can be mounted by a dog 5 times his size and not notice the dog, staring at the disc (is this obsession healthy? That’s another question!) So for this one you’re getting your dog to focus on you, training commands, and the reward at a distance from the other dog (gradually decreasing the distance). Eventually the goal is to be able to walk by the other dog, while your dog is still focused on you/food/reward. When you see someone backing off the sidewalk onto grass, getting their dog to sit with their back to you, this is probably what they’re doing.

Now my panic-y dog, this sort of thing didn’t work. Her triggers were unpredictable, but her panic/threshold was way too extreme for redirection to have a chance of working. Maybe you’re dealing with something more like this. If so, the thing that worked wonders for me was jogging. It’s constant distraction, and even more so if you keep changing directions. It may not work if the act of jogging is really exciting to your dog and amps them up. But if you can hit a rhythm, it can be a great distraction and your dog will focus on the rhythmic activity as opposed to the other elements in the environment. Here’s a post for some more info on that.

What I don’t recommend: prong collars, shock collars. Many folks use prongs for reactive dogs, and it’s risky. One way to look at it is that it simulates a “bite” on the neck when your dog sees another dog. Your dog learns to associate a bite sensation with seeing another dog, which is why it can potentially backfire (not to mention you’re using pain as a tool, which – in my opinion – isn’t ideal.)

For question 2: You’re pretty much describing both of my dogs (although one is dramatic, the other subtle about it!).

For behavior modification with the visitors, I’d try “treat and retreat”. The idea here is to always have the reward happen away from the visitor. Have the dog rewarded from moving away. This could be throwing a treat, or even a toy if that’s rewarding. Then the dog has the choice to return. You always want to empower your dog to make the decision to interact with the humans, not the other way around. So have the visitors throw treats in the other direction. They only ever directly hand them to her if she comes right up to them for a treat. Until then, tossed over her head in the opposite direction.

And tell your visitors to completely ignore her otherwise, and let her initiate any interaction. Don’t stare in her face, don’t touch her, let her make all the decisions, keep her comfortable. I really believe that I’d rather keep humans safe, above all. She needs to have confidence before any handling is involved. And often, if genetics or a very early experience are involved in causing the fear, you have to remember that you could only get to a certain level with her (comfort, but not joy at strangers) – and this is OK too. If you have a lot of visitors, this may be a quick process. If you’re like us and don’t have many… well at our household I figure this will be a lifelong program :)

Come ask me anything! You could win a gift certificate

Don’t forget to stop by the DOGthusiast Ask Me Anything on Yabbly.com. Your question might even be answered more thoroughly in a future Training Tips Tuesday or Thursday Training blog post, if it cannot be answered fully in the Comment box response. Regardless, the question with the most votes on Yabbly.com will win a $20 Gift Certificate to StylishCanine.com.

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About Author

Jen deHaan is graphic designer, small business owner, and dog person living in Bay Area, California. Jen enjoys learning about dog training and behavior, and has taken several courses and seminars since 2010. She also contributes articles to leading websites, such as Victoria Stilwell's Positively . It all started with a great dog called Mikey (aka "dude"), loved and lost but remembered forever. Jen also runs a freelance business focusing on graphic, web, and UI design at FoundPixel, and a small business creating hand crafted dog products at Stylish Canine.